Ernie Garcia was twelve years old when he linked up with a gang in Los Angeles. He joined up after his mom, struggling with undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenia, tried to feed him and his siblings rat poison. While his younger siblings went to live with other relatives, Ernie stayed with his parents. But “home” was a terrifying place.“No situation I would face out there, running with the gang, was as bad as the situation I faced at home,” he says.
But when he was seventeen, Ernie was involved in a gang-related triple murder and sentenced to seventy-five years. By 1989, five years later, he had been moved to solitary confinement at the Pelican Bay “SHU” yard—Security Housing Unit—a maximum-security prison yard that houses some of California’s most violent prisoners and gang members.
Hard to Hire. At Pelican Bay, Ernie learned how to read for the first time and started watching the news to educate himself. For nearly eighteen years, he woke up at 3 a.m. to exercise. In 2011, Ernie requested to be moved to a new prison yard so that he could leave his gang ties behind. He was tired of the life.
Ernie recalls, “There’s a Scripture verse in Matthew that says, ‘Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest’ (11:28). That’s how I felt spiritually. I felt worn out.” More than twenty years earlier, Ernie’s sister had sent him a Bible that he kept “because it was a gift,” but he had never opened it. Stripped of everything, Ernie began to read that Bible and decided to put his faith in Jesus. “I never looked back,” he says. It took years of prison classes, twelve-step groups, and other rehabilitation programs before his parole board deemed him ready to reenter society in 2017.
Reentry was challenging though. Ernie’s face and neck tattoos concerned hiring managers. Never having learned about workplace conduct, Ernie butted heads with supervisors. Managing money and planning ahead were foreign concepts. What made for survival inside prison did not make for success in the outside world. As a result, Ernie says he was headed for more trouble if something didn’t change.
A New Nonprofit on the Scene. If you follow the California coastline from Pelican Bay down to its southernmost point, you’ll arrive in the city of San Diego. In 2012, around the time that Ernie was cutting his gang ties up north, a retired colonel from the Army Corps of Engineers called up the San Diego Police Department’s Gang Unit.
Joe Gilbreath was researching nonprofits in his city that served former gang members and prisoners reentering society. There were quite a few: sixty, to be exact. But they generally offered one-off services like counseling, free clothing, housing, or a job skills workshop. With twelve thousand prisoners released annually in San Diego, there was still a great need.
Joe had gotten to know some inmates at Donovan State Prison through retreats put on by Kairos Prison Ministry International. “These guys are going through significant issues,” he says. “To turn them around in a couple of weeks or a couple of months, it’s not going to work.” Joe envisioned creating a longer, more comprehensive program to help. He found a model in Homeboy Industries, created by Fr. Gregory Boyle in Los Angeles.
Like Fr. Boyle, Joe wanted to offer participants many months of interim employment, job training, nonjudgmental mentorship, and a supportive family environment. The only similar program in San Diego had a waiting list of three hundred people.
His new effort finally debuted in 2016 as Rise Up Industries. The program included a business: a machine shop for training and employing parolees. Members of the program would spend forty hours a week at Rise Up to learn, work, and receive counseling and other services. But most importantly, Rise Up would offer unconditional love and spiritual support in the form of patience, prayer, and personal relationships with staff and volunteers.
From Mafiosos to Men of God. One of those men, a 2018 graduate of the program, is Angel Ramirez. Like Ernie, Angel was abused as a child. He was made to help his stepdad with burglaries from the age of five by climbing in windows or honking the car horn if cops came. It wasn’t much of a leap for him to steal cars and seek acceptance within the Mexican mafia.
Angel served more than forty years in prison, and the world was different when he was paroled in 2017. The technological shifts were dizzying. Superstores like Walmart felt overwhelming. Even using his debit card at the gas station took months of practice. In all of these areas, Angel’s supervisors and mentors at Rise Up helped him adjust.
While learning the machine trade, Angel had a chance to receive custody of two grandchildren to prevent them from becoming wards of the state. It was a big undertaking, but Dustin Greeves, Rise Up’s first employee, donated clothes and shoes. He and his wife let Angel borrow their car. Other people from Rise Up provided food and Christmas presents.
“To this day,” says Angel, “I share all of my successes and difficulties with the guys at Rise Up. I strive to be a man of God, like them.”
Ernie, the parolee from Pelican Bay and now a Rise Up graduate, shares a similar sentiment. “All of them have modeled things for me. They have patience. They stick it out with us because they believe in us. It’s character. They taught me just by the way they live. I think it softened me. I learned that there are people who care.”
Laughter and Hope. Many of Joe Gilbreath’s Rise Up cofounders and program mentors are Catholic and have participated in retreat ministries like Cursillo and Kairos. The same core values of friendship in Christ, service, and forming a “community of kinship” translate to the work of Rise Up, which serves people from all faiths and walks of life. “It’s about ‘less of me and more of God,’” says Rise Up’s first employee, Dustin.
The humility and love of Catholic prison volunteers is exactly what caused Josue Felix, another ex-gang member and current participant at Rise Up, to turn his life around. The fact that people outside of prison were willing to come inside and show so much love made him think, “I want what they have. Even if it wasn’t my freedom, I wanted peace.”
Josue’s experience at Rise Up has been very positive. “We like to help each other, be around each other. You’ll see us laughing. You’ll see the love we have for one another by the way we talk about one another. In prison we talked negatively about each other. Now someone will come in to tour and one of the other guys will say, ‘He’s really good at this.’ You’ll see guys offer rides to people who don’t have cars.”
Not All Roses but Rising Up. Mentors and staff at Rise Up say that it’s a long, tough road for any parolee to get where Josue, Ernie, and Angel are. There are moments of conflict, frustration, and countless opportunities to break or to build trust. But the vast majority of Rise Up participants finish the program with the life skills and job training they need in order to build a future full of hope.
Angel Ramirez, for example—who spent forty-plus years in prison—now has a job at a government shipyard. Every day, when he looks out at the cove, the water, and the kids biking past, he gives the glory to God. “I’m not waking up and seeing cement and steel around me. Now I get to wake up and hear my grandkids laughing. Aw, man, even just doing the laundry and folding their little tiny pants and shirts—it feels good.”
That sense of gratitude, self-worth, and desire to give back is the outgrowth of the love and support of a new “family”—his family in Christ at Rise Up Industries. Joe Gilbreath, founder, says it reminds him of Christ’s prayer: “That they all may be one” (John 17:21). Rise Up graduates say their lives are “a miracle” and “a new creation”—not free from suffering, but given new wings by the love of the body of Christ.
Kathryn Elliott, founder of E-pulpit.com, is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Word Among Us. She writes from Indianapolis. For more information about Rise Up, visit riseupindustries.org.