One of my most prized possessions is a weather-stained, gray cloth cap. If my residence ever burns down, this cap is one of the first things I will try to rescue from the flames. I call it my gangster cap, not because it fits the so-called gangster style, but because a gangster—or rather, an ex-gangster—gave it to me.
I was touched when my ex-gangster friend, whom I’ll call Miguel, gave me his cap, because it has great sentimental value for him. He had once lost it while plunging into a gully to escape from a rival gang. It lay at the bottom of the ravine for four months until he sneaked back to retrieve it.
Miguel was a car thief and a gang leader in Quito, the capital of Ecuador and the city of my birth. Besides his other crimes, Miguel occasionally worked for Mama Lucha, a notorious criminal kingpin. (I guess she should actually be called a queenpin since she was a woman.)
On one occasion, Miguel and his comrades tried to steal a long sheet metal sign welded to a pedestrian bridge. Unfortunately for them, they weren’t able to divide the sign into pieces as they’d planned. In the end they had to carry it whole through the streets of Quito, weaving furtively through city streets like some sort of monstrous metal centipede.
Miguel is currently happily married, working at a government job in Quito and ministering as a lay leader in his church.
It is a source of amazement, amusement and wonder to me how many of the church leaders I knew in Ecuador are former gangsters, thieves or occultists.
I’m not using real names in this post in order to protect the privacy of the leaders whose stories I’m sharing. I assure you, however, that to the best of my knowledge all of these stories are accurate, factual and true.
Paco is a kind, gentle and fiercely amiable pastor from the coast of Ecuador. Like King Saul in the Old Testament, Paco is about a head taller than everyone around him. His skin is black, his frame is muscular and his cheek is scarred by a gash from a knife. He used to be a thief on the streets.
Armed with a knife, Paco once accosted a girl at night with the intention of taking her money. The girl, who was a Christian, began talking with him about God. Although it was a long time before Paco would know Christ, he eventually put away the knife and escorted the girl to her home because—as he explained—it was a dangerous neighborhood and he didn’t want her to get robbed.
Paco eventually wound up in prison. Some of his fellow prisoners were personal enemies who wanted to kill him. However, before they had the opportunity, Paco was released. He didn’t know how or why—the only hint he received was a vague explanation that “some lawyer” had made all the necessary arrangements. What those arrangements were, and who the lawyer was, he doesn’t know to this day. It has been suggested to him that the lawyer might have been an angel. He doesn’t deny the possibility.
Then there’s Luís, another ex-criminal from the Ecuadorian coast. His skin is black, which makes his dazzling white smile all the more striking. Luís is a fantastic storyteller, and my dad has been privileged to hear accounts of several of his escapades.
Luís, while stoned on drugs, once tried to murder another man, also stoned. Having crept up on him from behind, Luís put a pistol to the man’s head and pulled the trigger. The gun misfired. Luís examined the pistol, peering blearily into its barrel, while his victim sat peacefully unaware of the attempt being made on his life. Luís tried again to murder his victim. The gun didn’t go off, but this time the man realized what was happening and fled shrieking while Luís resumed his bewildered examination of the gun.
On another occasion, Luís entered a church and sat down—only for a huge army knife to fall out of his shirt and hit the concrete floor with a thunk. Nearly every head turned to look at him, and a little old lady sitting nearby picked up the knife and sweetly gave it back to him.
A turning point came when a taxi crashed into a light pole as Luís leaned against it. The pole absorbed most of the impact, but Luís flew a considerable distance and landed hard. Just a few minutes later he met a Christian lady from his neighborhood. “Did something just happen to you?” she asked. “God told me to pray for you five minutes ago, so I did.”
After Luís became a Christian, two attempts were made on his life, once with a pistol and once with a sawed-off shotgun. The guns misfired both times—two more miraculous interventions.
All three of these church leaders have told my dad that they’re grateful to God for never letting them kill anybody. They all came frighteningly close to it. Looking back, they can see the hand of God at work in their lives, even when they didn’t care for him.
I believe, if we look hard enough, most of us can see the hand of God at work in our own lives.
I know I can.