By Michael Ashcraft —
Born into a family beset by drugs and gangs in Pacoima, California, his future prospects seemed dim. Junior Cervantes displayed athletic promise on the soccer field, but depression dragged him down. His uncles were shot in front of the house. There were family arrests, fighting, and chaos.
Junior decided to run away from home and drop out of his beloved soccer. He opted for hanging out with friends, robbing houses, smoking marijuana and tagging.
“I was a stealer. I was a liar. I was angry. I was depressed. I was lonely. I was an outcast,” Junior recalls.
His uncle, Edgar Cervantes, kept insisting that Junior move in with him in Santa Monica – about 25 miles away — and straighten up his life. In and out of jail for most of his life, Edgar had two “strikes” under California penal law and was scared of getting the third, so he turned to Jesus to clean up his life. He worked a restaurant job in Santa Monica and preached on the Third Street Promenade every week.
It was through Edgar’s influence that Junior prayed to receive Christ as his Lord and Savior. But because of Junior’s background and some of the influences swirling around him, he faced a rocky road to maturity in Christ.
One night Junior went out with his old friends and they got involved in tagging – spray-painting graffiti in an area to mark their turf. When police unexpectedly showed up, Junior and his friends ran, and in their haste, Junior left his backpack and I.D. behind. Now his I.D. was in possession of the cops and it would only be a matter of time before they came calling.
With police investigators searching for him, Junior figured the best escape from Pacoima would be to move in with his uncle in Santa Monica.
“I wanted to leave the city,” Junior said. “My uncle Edgar comes through and says, ‘Junior, do you want to move in with me in Santa Monica?’ I was like, ‘Yes! This is the perfect getaway.’”
Immediately, his uncle enrolled Junior in the 10th grade at the Lighthouse Christian Academy. When Junior showed up for classes, he fell into his normal routine of clowning around and acting up, wanting to prove his toughness to other students. Behind his hard-shelled exterior, however, was an inner pain as he compared his life to other students’ lives.
“I was lonely. I was hurting for something,” he said. “I would see the students at school, I would see people happy. I was really insecure.”
Then his day of reckoning with the police came. It took them about six months to track Junior down using his schools transfer information.
Junior was pulled out of class, but then something surprising happened before he was taken away. His new principal got into the squad car with him and asked the cops for a moment to pray with Junior before they drove him to the station.
“I thought that was radical because he prayed for me out in front of everybody, in front of the cops, in front of the students. I’d never seen that before,” Junior said. “I’ve never been the same after that prayer. I’ll probably never forget that prayer. It’s what I needed.”
He was released to his parents and given a court date. Police wanted to charge him with a felony but the deputy DA lowered it to a misdemeanor after reviewing a letter from Pastor Rob Scribner, head of Lighthouse Church ministries, vouching for the fact that Junior was doing much better at the school. Ultimately Junior was given 100 hours of community service.
During summer school in 2010, Junior began to chafe at his studious new lifestyle. His old friends called several times, cajoling him to return to his old haunts, and eventually Junior buckled. He went back to hang out with them in Pacoima.
That’s when Pastor Rob Scribner stepped in once more and delivered a stern warning to Junior: If you go back to your old lifestyle you’re going to die.
Through a pastor’s influence and God working on his heart, Junior recognized the folly of his ways. “After time, God finally opened my eyes and showed me that Lighthouse is my true family and that I needed to give up my past, my friends, my addictions, my habits.”
“Overcoming who I was is the most amazing thing,” Junior said. “I got saved and became joyful, loving, and kind. I have a burden to want to help people that are in the same position I was in.”
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