Finding a “Way Out”
(Rosa Gonzalez started coming to The Way Out as a child. Through it, she found hope. Photo courtesy Rosa Gonzalez.)
Transforming Hawaiian Gardens meant changing a generation. So that’s what Barry and Terryl Bruce set out to do.
At 11 years old, Rosa Gonzalez had seen a lot.
In the span of a year, her father walked out on her family; she moved from a relatively safe neighborhood in Cerritos, California, to one riddled with crime in nearby Hawaiian Gardens; and her brother joined a gang. Within months, he landed in a hospital bed, shot by a rival gang.
It was amidst this tumult that Gonzalez first met Barry and Terryl Bruce. Although they didn’t know her brother, the couple heard about the shooting and came to visit him in the hospital, where they prayed over him and invited him to come to a Bible study. He decided to go—and he took his sister with him.
The Bible study was Gonzalez’s introduction to The Way Out Ministries. The Bruces started The Way Out with RCA support in 1984 to show young people in Hawaiian Gardens how God’s love could change their lives, offering them an alternative to the gangs and drugs that dominated the city’s streets. Over the years, The Way Out has carried out that mission in myriad ways, from Bible studies like the one Gonzalez attended with her brother, to after-school tutoring, to arts programs, to even a recording studio.
When Gonzalez started going to The Way Out, she didn’t have much hope for her future.
Barry Bruce remembers her saying at the time, “I’m sure that I’ll marry an alcoholic or drug addict.” When he asked why, she told him, “Well, my mom did, and everyone else I know is.”
That was before she saw the mountains.
Gonzalez had hardly been outside Los Angeles County when she met the couple. Bruce says that’s pretty common among kids in Hawaiian Gardens. So as part of The Way Out program, the Bruces try to take them on trips. Gonzalez went with them on a trip to Yosemite National Park.
“I remember being out there [in Yosemite] and just feeling so much hope,” Gonzalez says. “It had a huge impact on my life—to be able to go on trips like that and see how amazing the world is, to hear the Word on a mountaintop. It’s hard to explain how much that can impact a kid.
“Barry and Terryl always told me that I could do all things through God who gives me strength. Those words got me through so much.”
Twenty-five years later, Gonzalez is a committed Christian, is married to a man who is neither an alcoholic nor a drug addict, and has two children. She works as a deputy police officer for Los Angeles County.
For Bruce, seeing the lasting impact Christ has had on people like Rosa Gonzalez is the most rewarding part of ministry.
“We knew when we got into this ministry that we needed to change a generation [in order to change the community],” he says. “We thought it might be a long time before we would see results, and we were right. But now, after 32 years, we see the impact everywhere.
“We have a lot of stories like Rosa’s: people who were in gangs, drug dealers, kids who thought they would never amount to anything. Now they’ve became nurses, police officers, and physical therapists.”
The Bruces have also seen positive changes in Hawaiian Gardens as a whole since they started their ministry. More teens are graduating from high school. All of the streets are paved. The dead-end roads that were once hotspots for crime have been removed. Speed bumps discourage drive-by shootings.
But the community still faces challenges. Dysfunction in the government—particularly the police department—of Hawaiian Gardens has led Barry Bruce into a whole new arena: politics.
“I realized we were doing everything we could spiritually, but there were still areas [of Hawaiian Gardens] that could only be changed by getting involved in the government,” he says.
So he ran for mayor. He won. As mayor, he’s working to combat institutional corruption from within and improve the relationship between citizens and the police.
Still, the Bruces remain committed to the ministry of The Way Out, as well as The Gathering, a church The Way Out planted in 2003.
“We tried to get people involved in other local churches, but eventually we found that there was something here at Way Out that the other churches couldn’t offer,” says Bruce of the decision to plant a church. “Many people at our church are kids that grew up in our programs.”
Now those who have come back to The Way Out through The Gathering church are sharing their testimonies with a new generation.
“Kids in Hawaiian Gardens need to see someone who has been in their shoes come out of it okay,” Gonzalez says. “I think that’s what Barry and Terryl have been able to give them. They’ve got people who were ministered to as kids coming back and being ministers.”
“Most people who grow up in the city can’t wait to get out,” Bruce admits, “but when people do have that attitude of wanting to stay committed to the city and give back, we’re seeing the powerful impact that can have.”
Thank God for the transformation taking place in Hawaiian Gardens.
Support the work of Barry and Terryl Bruce at www.rca.org/bruce.
Pray that seeing changed lives would bring young people to Christ.