Years ago, Jose Perez went shopping at a local Walmart with a pocket full of drug money, probably so much he could have bought the whole store.
Perez, you see, was the middle man: the guy on the ground between the Hispanic drug dealers and their American clients.
There in Walmart, one thing, strangely, caught his eye.
"The Passion of the Christ," Perez remembered.
He bought it with drug money. That night, he lit a blunt, and put the DVD in. The film hit him like a bullet to the soul.
"It broke me," he said. "I hadn't cried in years."
This image of Perez is crucial. Before you read about Perez's life today, remember this: stoned, with drug money scattered about him like dead leaves from a tree, living in the middle of some purgatory of midnight drug deals and street violence.
That image of Perez represents so much of what our city faces.
So far this year, Chattanooga is averaging two-and-a-half shootings a week.
We've reached some social purgatory, on the edge where things can get far, far worse.
Or ... better. Much, much better.
Street violence does not have to happen. It's not gravity. Sitting before Mayor Andy Berke is a tremendous opportunity. Things can be done. Things are being done.
So consider the story of Perez as a small metaphor for what could come our way. The image of him today is completely different than years ago, and it is this hope -- the possibility that things can change, that those who do violence can one day wage peace -- that we should never forget.
"Let good overcome evil," Perez said.
Days before Christmas 2004, Perez went to deal one kilo of coke; undercover cops from Cleveland, Tenn., busted him. Pleading guilty to distribution, Perez went to jail, and whatever seed had been born that stoned night in front of the TV grew and grew and grew.
"Like the Jaws of Life cracked open my chest," he said.
In federal prison, he became a chaplain's assistant, leading church services and Bible studies between African-American and Hispanic prisoners, including some from the notorious MS-13.
Released after three years in prison, Perez is now a walking apology; all he does these days, he does to amend for the crimes of his past.
Mondays, he works with Chattanooga Sports Ministries, teaching life skills to teenagers, then goes to advocate for area Hispanics at court.
Wednesdays, he's in the Hamilton County Jail, using his MaxiMYze program to teach life skills to inmates. Then, to work with a domestic violence intervention program, teaching men how to change their behavior.
Thursdays, he walks the streets in Highland Park and East Ridge, talking with folks.
"Kids I'm after are the at-risk and marginalized. Kids without fathers," he said. "That's the issue. Structure, not gangs."
Saturdays, he helps coach a team of area athletes -- black, white and Hispanic -- playing in a rec league. Sundays, he runs a Bible study at Brainerd Baptist.
He speaks in schools and was selected to become an all-important "interrupter" with the former Gang Task Force.
"Let's create five scholarships for every at-risk school named in the gang assessment. Let's tell every kid with a 3.5 GPA, 'we will cover the electricity [bill] for your family for one year.'" he said.
Perez can't, and won't, do it all. Don't misunderstand these words as simplistic -- that if we all dump Mel Gibson films in troubled areas, gang violence stops.
What I am saying is this: Nothing gets solved without honest people loving kids in the most troubled parts of our city.
Or put it like this: When we have middle men, showing us how to go from violence to something more like hope, things can and do get better.
Contact David Cook at email@example.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...
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