Former Fresno gang member finds hope through ministry
Police officer Dave Standley no longer patrols the streets of Fresno on Friday nights – he leads church.
The founder of Gangland Redemption Ministries preaches in a gymnasium at Valley Dream Center in east-central Fresno. Worship includes rap and hip-hop music, church volunteers wear sports jerseys and churchgoers call Standley coach, not pastor.
Last Friday, Coach Dave talked about the Crucifixion in an equally unorthodox way.
“With this mob looking upon Jesus with rage and ridicule, Jesus goes out like a ‘G’ – full of grace – and he drops the mike and he gives up his spirit.”
Many in the crowd smile, laugh and cheer. After the service ends, the gym stays open so children can play basketball.
I dream that the thieves, the legalists, and the warriors alike can come into this church.
Coach Dave Standley
These Friday night services, which started in May, are the latest step in reaching out to a community that Standley and others found when searching for a “ground zero” to plant the headquarters of Valley Dream Center. The center has 14 partners – including Standley’s Gangland Redemption Ministries – working toward this mission: “Rescue those with immediate physical needs. Restore individuals and families to health. Equip and release people into the workplace.”
Standley only does Friday night services. He sees himself as a life coach, not a pastor. He wants the services to be another option to help those struggling on Friday nights. He’s been leading an adopt-a-block program in neighborhoods around Valley Dream Center since 2014 through Gangland Redemption Ministries that provides free bicycle repairs, community cleanups, prayer walks, block parties and a “Laundry of Love” program.
Former gang member Martin Gomez is among the volunteers at Standley’s new Friday-night church. Born and raised in southwest Fresno, he joined a gang at age 10 to combat bullying.
Show them that they are cared about, that they are loved, that they are somebody. … They feel like they are nobody.
Former gang member Martin Gomez
“It was just society, in that area of west Fresno,” Gomez says. “We either stuck together and fought back, or they were just going to keep picking on us.”
He decided he’d had enough of the gang lifestyle after committing a violent crime.
“I literally cried out by myself, not knowing I was crying out to God, I said, ‘I want change, I need change, I’ve got to have change,’ ” Gomez recalls. “No more than five minutes after that, I got arrested.”
This isn’t Hollywood. This is real.
Coach Dave Standley
Gomez considered provoking an officer to shoot him, but says he heard a “still voice within me that said, ‘a new beginning.’ ” When he was released from jail in 2014, he was scared to come out. He checked himself into a drug rehabilitation facility and then became a volunteer at Valley Dream Center.
“Gang members, drug dealers, pimps – every one of them, as a child, had a dream, just like I did,” Gomez says. “They dreamt to be a fireman, they dreamt to be a doctor. They wanted to make something out of themselves. I just want to go back and let them know there’s still hope. It’s still possible. That’s my passion now.”
A common thread with a lot of kids from neighborhoods like this is the lack of hope.
Worship leader Evan Simmons
Standley is inspired by former gang members like Gomez who have found God.
“That hardwiring – all in, all heart, all passion – goes up to God, and I see warriors for Christ,” Standley says, “guys who put in 8-12 hours a day at work and they’ll still come out and serve 3-4 hours. It’s amazing to see the level of effort.”
Standley has worked as a police officer for nearly 20 years. He now serves as a school resource officer at an at-risk school and is a crisis negotiator for the Fresno Police Department.
The catalyst for Gangland Redemption came while Standley was working as a gang investigator and interviewing a 14-year-old Fresno boy. During the interview, the child’s 7-year-old brother walked up and stood beside them.
“I can see him looking at his brother and looking at me and looking at his brother, and then I realized this kid is processing right now, at 7 years old, ‘Am I going to be on that side of it, or am I going to be on the other?’ ”
A light bulb came on that nobody is really doing a whole lot to reach these kids.
Coach Dave Standley
That led Standley to start mentoring youth and to write a fictional novel based on real events about struggles facing three teens growing up in and around gangs. He and his wife, Tish Valdez-Standley, created a book-study lesson to go with the novel which led them to found their nonprofit in 2012.
“If we can get to the kids young,” Tish says, “then we can make a difference.”
The higher-ups also approve of their ministry and new church.
Tammy Dunahoo, general supervisor of The Foursquare Church, shared her blessing at Friday’s kickoff event for the new Friday-night services, attended by more than 80 people. Coach Dave is a pastor through Valley Christian Center Ericson, a Foursquare church.
“We’re kind of a creative group,” Dunahoo says. “We do some out-of-the-box stuff. I love it.”
Pointing outside the gym, Rene Charest, president and executive director of Valley Dream Center, says the Friday night services are “a great way to keep the crime off that street out there.”
Among those in attendance were Renee Roque and her two young daughters. Roque says she found her faith in God a number of years ago, and that helped her beat a methamphetamine addiction and rebuild her life in a positive way after serving two years in prison.
Her 12-year-old daughter, April, came to Friday’s service dressed as a police officer for Halloween. She says because of Coach Dave, she wants to be a police officer when she grows up.
He mother is proud of her – and proud that their family now counts a police officer as a friend.
“It’s so nice for me to break that whole cycle,” Roque says, “and this is huge in doing that.”