Bible courses in prison lead a former inmate to Salvation Army

By Jackeline Luna – 

Juvenal Nuñez has lost count of how many times he’s been incarcerated.

He estimates it’s over 10 times but after his fiancée Rosemary Esparza glances over, he ups his total.

Among the lengthy list of charges are possession of narcotics, carrying a concealed weapon and terrorizing the community. His last stint in prison was for grand theft auto—sentenced to six years at Ironwood State Prison.

His daughter’s name is tattooed across his neck right below his gang nickname, “Phantom.” He points to a bullet wound scar on his elbow, one of six on his body. He explains his newest scar, which he got in a prison fight that left him with a broken jaw.

Before reaching his teen years, Nuñez was initiated into the Colonial Watts Gang, where he belonged for 20 years. He was 10 years old when he was first sent to a juvenile detention center. His parents hoped that by moving away from the area he would abandon the gang life, but Nuñez always found a way to return. He started selling drugs and stealing cars, all in the name of his gang, and the offenses began to pile on.

After spending the majority of his adult life in prison, Nuñez felt he couldn’t go on living that way.

In August 2012, he hit rock bottom. “I cried out to God and prayed,” he said. “I needed guidance. I had already repented. I spoke to God. ‘What am I supposed to do?’”

His answer came a couple of days later. Nuñez saw an image of a father carrying a newborn baby on the cover of The War Cry, a Salvation Army magazine. When Nuñez went to prison, Esparza was seven months pregnant and his first child with her was only 1 year old.

“His support wasn’t there,” said Esparza, who has “Juvenal” tattooed on her right shoulder. “It was hard taking care of the two little kids.”

When Nuñez opened the The War Cry, he saw a Salvation Army Bible Correspondence Course in the pages of the magazine and immediately wrote to the address. Within weeks, he received his first packet. Lesson by lesson, his test scores improved. Volunteer graders wrote encouraging notes on his tests that made him strive for the perfect score.

“For me to study, it’s like, ‘no. I don’t like studying,’” he said. “There was something in those courses that sparked my interest.”

Nuñez was released early from prison in March, under AB 109, a piece of legislation aimed at reducing the number of inmates in the state’s 33 prisons. Instead of serving the remaining three years of his sentence behind bars, he is required to report to a probation officer for the next six to 12 months.

Starting over means leaving old friends and habits behind.

“It’s a new feeling,” he said. “I don’t have the same friends I used to. It’s like I’m in a foreign country. I need to make new friends that have the same goals.”

Soon after his release, Nuñez was introduced to Major Gwendolyn Jones, then-Compton corps officer. She offered him and Esparza relationship counseling, which they accepted and completed. The two married at the Compton Corps this year.

Jones has taken notice of Nuñez’s effort.

 “He’s really dedicated to making things better for his family,” she said. “I do know he’s been faithful in his attendance and that he’s been studying the Bible. He has a real strong desire to study. He wants to get his education, his high school diploma and go to college.”

After all, he has to provide for eight children, two of whom live with him. Throughout the interview, his children and stepchildren are sitting in the living room and appear to be preoccupied with their electronics, but they are actually listening to everything he says, whispering “uh huh” or “yeah, right” as their father speaks about being a changed man.

He admits they have reason to be skeptical. “There’s a big question mark here because they don’t know if I will continue this way or disappear again,” Nuñez said.

But it’s been more than three months and he’s stuck around, and for that, he credits The Salvation Army.

“If it weren’t for The Salvation Army, I would be incarcerated because I wouldn’t have any guidance or [any]where to congregate,” he said.

“Nuñez has yet to secure employment, but he’s making use of his time by volunteering at the Compton Corps’ Love Kitchen. He wants to move up in the ranks of The Salvation Army and knows he’s going to have to hit the books in order to earn the first star on his uniform.

“Recently, he was recruited to talk to the young kids in the neighborhood about the dangers of gangs.

Once I’m able to talk to kids and tell them my life experience they’ll see—this is what happens to you,” he said. “Being in a gang, you spend your life incarcerated.”

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