By Andrew Benjamin, "My Testimony"
Growing in Chicago, Illinois, if there was anything I was familiar with, it was the church and Jesus. With my father who is a Pastor and my mother who is a Christian, there was no getting out of church. I remember living in an apartment that was located inside of the church I went to. I loved my family and appreciated every moment we spent together as a kid. Unfortunately, I was the youngest of 5 siblings, so I got picked on the most, but it was all love even then.
As I got older, in school I was teased about my speech impediment and skin color, but I was always good at sports and the fastest runner among my peers. I loved the physical contact because I would get a chance to prove myself so I would fit in with the crowd. Everyone respected the "in crowd" and I strived to acquire the same acknowledgement and respect. Soon, I began fighting and developed a tough guy mentality. People would talk about my fights and I felt good that I was gaining recognition. It ignited a fire in me that kept me going day by day, knowing that people were acknowledging and respecting me.
Though I started treading down the wrong road, I always said I wasn't going to waste my life joining a gang, smoke, drink and sell drugs. At least, that's what I thought. I felt the way I was living was justified as long as I didn't do any of those specific things. But, I eventually joined a small "crew" that just hung out and smoked. They smoked both marijuana and cigarettes. I wanted acceptance, not cancer, so I always resisted when offered to smoke. But at home, my dad had just gotten married to his current wife and I fellt she was trying to take over, which wasn't the case, but it led to fights and arguments in the house between my dad, his wife and I. I didn't like her at the time and took it out on my dad because I felt he loved her more than his kids. Then one day after an argument between us, I went outside to hang out with the people in my "crew", and after trying weed a few times with no effects, I quickly said yes when they offered me some to smoke. They asked if my parents cared if I smoked, and lied because I was mad at my dad. But since then, I never denied requests to smoke and eventually started buying weed for myself. That was the first promise to myself I broke, but not the last.
I was introduced by my friends to a few gang members in my neighborhood. I had also been listening to their music that was on MySpace and YouTube. It seemed like most of my friends talked about the gang and their music all the time. I saw the respect they had for
people in the gang, and I saw the communion they had whenever they hung out around the school. They were feared for all the wrong reasons and I wanted what they had. I was on the fence as someone in the gang kept urging me to join, promising money, weed and females. But that didn't drive me. But, one day when I was with him and a few members, we went to the park across the street from a high school which was borderline between their rival gang. Then the guys I was with started yelling gang chants as school ended and people were leaving. The rival gang members started yelling back. I was scared out of my mind because I didn't know what was about to happen, as my heart was beating out of my chest. But fortunately the other gang never crossed the street and we went back to our neighborhood. When we did come back, the guy who had been trying to get me in the gang was telling the story to another gang member who wasn't there, but lied to him; telling him I was making gang chants also, when I was as quiet as a mouse. But he looked at me and said, "yea", like he was impressed with what I did. I felt respected by someone who many people respected. And even though I hadn't earned it, it felt good to me and I felt accepted. That alone motivated me and right afterwards, I joined the gang.
I knew that there were risks to joining the gang, but I didn't expect what I actually experienced. I was subject to carrying guns. I was disciplined physically if I messed up. Everywhere I went I always had to look over my shoulder and watch my back from rival gang members. I've seen people get shot and beat up. But I still loved just hanging out with the people who were respected. After I joined the gang, I began to drink and smoke cigarettes because of peer pressure. But soon I got used to it. I was smoking weed more an ever and went to a lot of parties that brushed my "popularity" up. But then again, that wasn't enough for me. I began a "stealing my dad's car spree". I loved the adrenaline of being behind the wheel, but my dad was getting tired of it, along with my disrespectful attitude and coming home late at night. So my parents agreed to send me away to Hawaii, where my older sister was stationed in the army branch of the military.I definitely enjoyed myself there, but I renounced my gang affiliation while I was there. I learned responsibility there and finished 8th grade. Then after school was over, I had the choice to either stay or go back to Chicago. Thinking of all e friends I had, I put them first and decided to go back to Illinois. My dad had moved to a suburb, but my mom still stayed in chicago, bnnot in my former neighborhood. I was still smoking weed and cigarettes and stayed out of trouble for about a month or so. I didn't know anyone in my mom's neighborhood and I was tired of sitting in a one bedroom apartment all day playing video games. So decided to call one of the member's of the gang to check and see if I was clear to come back. Sure enough, I was. So I hopped on the bus and took a two hour ride, all the way from the north side to the southwest side of Chicago. I was greed by the person I called, and when I came to the block I represented, I was welcomed with open arms. It felt good to be back at home for that moment. I had figured I had made the right decision then and there by coming back. Then in was told about some rival gang member and how his car was parked on our side of a borderline across the street from a barbershop. He told me I didn't have to go, but I was eager to prove myself so I agreed. When we got a block away, we met up with an older member of the gang and around the corner from where the guy's car was parked, the older member told me to pick up a brick as he did the same thing. And, when we saw his car, we smashed two of his windows as we met up with other members of the gang. Then the guy came out of the barbershop and started walking the four lane street towards us. There was someone else with him, but he was to scared to cross the street. When he got to our side, he started swinging at the four or five members of the gang and they never swung back and I wondered why? He then came to me, about a foot taller and five years older than me. I stepped back like I was about to sway away, but I grew some confidence as everybody was watching me, and stepped toward him and hit him twice. And at e same time I hit him, he threw a windmill at me and connected at e left side of my jaw, right below my ear. He then jubstoodnthere staring at me and after I felt a throbbing sensation that really didn't hurt much. Someone told me I was "leaking", and felt blood as I touched my jaw. Someone told me to leave as they took care of my situation. I found out he had a pair of scissors from the barbershop. And, i realized that he had stabbed me one inch away from my carotid artery, which if he hit, it could've killed me. I went to the hospital several hours later while I enjoyed the moment back in the neighborhood. Even thou I got stabbed, I kept coming back almost every time I was in Chicago. I loved that everybody knew who I was. But one weekend, after I got through smoking weed, I committed the crime which I'm currently incarcerated for now. I have been locked up since September 2009. And the same day I got locked up, two members of our gang got shot a half a block away from where I was at. Then right after I got locked up, one of my friends from grammar who supposedly joined the gang got shot in the head and died. That's when I realized that God had mercy on me and spared my life, because I could've been one of the ones who got shot and killed. I tried changing while was going to court, but the influence of the gang kept pulling me back. So I made a vow to God that as soon as I got my time and left the detention center I was in, that I would become a man and a servant of God. And sure enough, that's what I did. I truly committed my life to God around late august of 2010 and have been on the strait and narrow since. He truly changed me from the inside out. I would've never thought I would be who I am today, especially being that I'm in prison, one of, if not the toughest place to be a christian. After my change, the relationship that me and my family(especially my dad) was restored 100 fold. Besides Jesus, I love my family more than anything else in the world. God truly is awesome. During my incarceration, God has given me favor to have many different jobs, in juvenile and adult. But he has given me his grace to endure through some very tough times. He is faithful to His promises and his children. Many more people I know have been shot, murdered and are locked up, including one of my best friends who had been shot and killed Fernando Mondragon(Rest in Peace). Unfortunately these people didn't get a second chance. But if you're able to read this, your life is very precious to God. He loves you so much, he gave up his Sin to die for our sins, so we can know him and be with him forever. But you have to turn away from your ways(sin) and commit your life to Jesus and be obedient to his word. He wants you to follow him and he longs to reveal himself to you. Committing my life to follow Jesus has been the best decision I have ever made. I assure you, God is not dead, He is surely alive and ready to forgive and forget your sins so you can move toward him in a relationship. God loves you. His love is not limited to circumstances. If he can reach out to me in a place like this, he can do the same for you. I trust you will make the right decision. I love you, God bless.