By the time David Valdez had reached his early teenage years, he was sporting gang tattoos, including a teardrop beneath his left eye.
He and his fellow gang members sometimes robbed Fresno migrant workers to make a quick buck.
By age 16, he had become a parent.
And then one day, rival gang members drove by his home and opened fire. One round went through his daughter's crib. She wasn't in it at the time, but that was Valdez's wake-up call.
His family moved to Stockton, and there Valdez met a pastor who changed his life. Valdez ultimately left the gang lifestyle and eventually became a licensed minister.
Now the 46-year-old Valdez is in Lodi, trying to reach out to gang members before bullets find them.
"My kids haven't experienced what it's like to be chased with a knife and shot at," he said. "They can go to the grocery store and buy a loaf of bread without looking over their shoulder."
Tonight's event at a glanceThe free presentation, including music and drama, starts at 6 p.m. at Zion Christian Fellowship, 715 S. Central Ave.
Valdez also holds weekly church meetings in his home, 356 E. Walnut St., at the corner of Central Avenue. Sunday prayer is at 9 a.m., followed by a worship service at 10 a.m. Bible studies are at 7 p.m. every Wednesday.
For more information, call David and Alice Valdez at (209) 369-1368.
He wants Lodi youths to have that option, too.
Today marks Valdez's first large-scale event in Lodi - a presentation featuring drama, music and rap, and ending with an altar call. Similar events have brought crowds by the hundreds to troubled neighborhoods in Stockton, Sacramento, Fresno and beyond.
For weeks, Valdez has been passing out glossy fliers that feature fancy cars and a stereotypical gang member dressed in black. Valdez talks quickly, knows gang lingo and has no fear of walking down alleys to talk to groups of young men. His home phone number and address are listed on the fliers, and he invites anyone and everyone to attend weekly church services at his East Walnut Street home.
Valdez is thrilled that he's now hearing young men say, "Oh yeah, you're the guy in the yellow house."
With about 350 documented gang members in Lodi, police welcome those who want to help, said Lodi Police Detective Eric Bradley.
"What he's trying to do is a good thing for the community," Bradley said, noting that Valdez has a long history of success and trouble-free events.
Valdez is in Lodi for a year as part of the Victory Outreach church in Stockton. The church pays the rent for his house, and the rest is up to Valdez and his wife.
They make enough to provide for themselves, their 17-year-old daughter and anyone temporarily staying in their home.
Valdez and his wife, Alice, met when he was 15 and she was 13. A year later, she had their first child.
At one point, Valdez said, he spent two weeks in juvenile hall for running across a parking lot carrying a gun. He managed to avoid prison.
Valdez arrived in Stockton in 1985 at the age of 22, still carrying a gun and looking over his shoulder.
"My marriage was falling apart. My life was all messed up," he said.
After straightening out his life, Valdez became a licensed minister. He performs weddings, preaches and takes to the streets.
His earnest demeanor quickly reveals his intent: He wants to help people.
Valdez will go into drug-filled homes and pull people out if there's a chance they want to change. Valdez doesn't give them cash, but he'll take them in and find them a safe place to start over.
That's what Valdez did with Joel Rodacker, who was hooked on methamphetamine and was part of a Woodbridge gang. One time, Rodacker said, his name was in the crime section of the newspaper in connection with a drive-by shooting.
Then he crossed paths with Valdez.
Now 28, Rodacker has been off drugs for six years. He credits Valdez with not giving up on him, even when he'd relapse in the early days of kicking meth.
Instead of spending time behind bars, a strong possibility for most gang members, Rodacker is now married and working full-time as a minister at Victory Outreach. Like Valdez, he's now reaching out to gang members since he knows the lifestyle and understands the desire to belong to something.
Rodacker is one of many people Valdez has taken into his own home because he saw some potential.
As long as the people aren't sex offenders or on psychiatric medication, Valdez lets them in. Not once has he had to fear for the safety of his five children, four of whom are now grown and living on their own.
"I'm open 24 hours a day," Valdez said. "My phone rings all the time."