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Changing hearts and minds with music on Lodi’s Eastside

Hispanic church-goers form bands in hopes of reaching gang members

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Posted: Monday, April 16, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 6:50 am, Mon Apr 16, 2012.

Lodi's Eastside is known for its violent gang activity, thanks to the competing gangs who live east of the Union Pacific Railroad tracks.

However, several Spanish-speaking musicians are turning to God and music to improve the Eastside's image.

"We try to show there's another face on that side of Lodi," said Juan Lima, 30, who attends Iglesia Biblica El Calvario on Hilborn Street.

Lima is a member of a seven-member Christian band called the IBC Band. His band is one of two Spanish-speaking bands trying to reach out to gang members and other Hispanics, exposing them to Christ through music.

"What gang members are looking for is recognition of what they're doing," said Adam Cortes, who is active with Iglesia Bautista de Lodi, a branch of First Baptist Church on North Mills Avenue. "Through music, it's a way to reach out to the kids."

Iglesia Bautista is sponsoring two Lodi Spanish-speaking Christian bands — IBC and Liber7os — in their effort to qualify for a Sacramento Christian music festival in June. The audition will be on Friday at a Sacramento church.

Liber7os consists of a quartet from Lodi Spanish Church of God on Eden Street, also in the Eastside. The group blends Latin rock, fusion, reggae, samba and ska music styles, but they want to appear cool enough to attract non-churchgoeers.

"We look like a heavy metal band," said Manuel Leyva Jr., 28, who performs with Liber7os. "We don't look like Christians out there." They wear black pants and shirts with the group's logo.

The other group, IBC, from Iglesia Biblica El Calvario, plays more what Lima describes as pop rock. The group consists of Hugo Gonzalez, 21, Juan Lima, 30, and Reginaldo Lagarda, 27, of Lodi, plus four Stockton residents — brothers Gustavo, Victor and Luis Hernandez, 25, 31 and 34, respectively, and Isai Telles, 29.

Liber7os consists of brothers Mike Leyva, 20, Oscar Leyva, 16, Manuel Leyva Jr. and Samuel Hernandez, 28, all of Lodi. Oscar Leyva is a junior at Tokay High School, and Mike Leyva is a Tokay graduate.

"With music, we get the attention of gang members," Manuel Leyva Jr. said.

"They're respectful; they come from a Catholic background," Oscar Leyva said of the Eastside gang members who listen to his group's music. "Some of them just leave."

But the goal is to bring the gang members into church.

"A relationship with God is the only way to get them out of gang activity," said Manuel Leyva Jr., whose father is pastor of Lodi Spanish Church of God. "They must know that if they come to God, they will be free."

Both bands hope to qualify for the Luis Palau Festival, to be held June 16 and 17 at Cal Expo in Sacramento. Even if they don't make the cut, band members hope to attract Hispanics from Lodi to the festival to experience Christian music and lead them to God. Lagarda, an IBC band member, said he used to hang out with gang members while attending Lodi Middle School. He transferred to Henderson Community Day School in Lodi and got out of gang activity.

Cortes has his own story. He left his native Mexico in 1988 and moved in with his grandparents in Lodi. He was 17 at the time and didn't speak a word of English.

Today, he is fluent in English, is married with three children and has been an American citizen for five years.

Cortes attended Lodi High School, but he enrolled there too late to graduate. He said he later got his GED and attended San Joaquin Delta College briefly, until his grandparents forced him to live in his own home and get a job.

Cortes said he didn't attend church while growing up in Mexico, but a friend talked to him about God and took him to a service at First Baptist.

"We have two communities in Lodi — the Eastside and the west side, and I want to change that," Cortes said.

Contact reporter Ross Farrow at rossf@lodinews.com.

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