Esto Juarez says he was on a path that usually leads to one of two outcomes prison or death. He says what changed the trajectory of his life was that someone took time to share the gospel, and cared and took time to talk.
Juarez started the Washington Street Boys in Kalamazoo’s Edison neighborhood. The story of how he emerged from a street gang and addiction to preach the gospel and help others is the subject of Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s latest story for the On the Ground Edison project. Juarez and writer Mark Wedel, who wrote the story, joined WMUK’S Gordon Evans.
Wedel has lived in the Edison neighborhood since 2004 when he and his wife and bought a house there. He describes it as a very diverse place, that seems to have everything except wealthy people. Wedel says while riding his bike through the Washington Street area, he wondered if he should be worried. Juarez laughs and says maybe there was something to worry about. Wedel said when the first meetings were held for the On the Ground project, he met Esto and decided “I want that story.”
Juarez says he was a product of his environment, involved in gang activity and addicted to crack cocaine for years. Juarez says a friend’s encouragement to pray helped start his transformation. He says he quit drugs cold turkey.
Juarez is Director of Outreach for Urban Alliance. He says it allows him to put his faith into action, and help people with their everyday lives. Juarez says the goal is to get people the skills needed for good jobs. He is also working on the Group Violence Initiative with Kalamazoo Public Safety and Goodwill Industries.
Wedel says Juarez he can do things that Kalamazoo Public Safety officers can’t. Wedel says Esto has the authority with people on the streets. The community police officer for the Edison neighborhood refers to "Pastor Esto" as a "phenomenal dude" in the story.
The killing of 13 year old Michael Day in 2014 shocked Kalamazoo and the Edison neighborhood. Juarez says officiating Day’s funeral was one of the toughest days of his life. He knew Michael from when he was a baby, and knows his parents. Wedel says Day’s killing spurred greater action to reduce gun violence in Kalamazoo.
Juarez now lives near the place where the Washington Street Boys started. Three years ago his son was hit by a bullet in a drive by shooting. His son was three years old at the time, and is OK. But Juraez had to decide if he could live in the Edison neighborhood. Juarez says God gave him direction to forgive the man who hurt his son. Juarez says God was calling him and his family into the neighborhood for a purpose.
Wedel says people in Edison are doing their best to make the neighborhood work. He says we don’t have to live in a world where everyone is separated.