JJ Ramirez walks with a stride of confidence as he enters the room.
He has to have that bit of confidence, because some of the people in his classroom on this Thursday evening are looking for guidance from a leader.
“Man! We’re going to have to move into the gymnasium if we keep growing,” Ramirez said, scanning the room filled with about 30 people.
The group settles in as Ramirez stands at the front of the room, readying his papers. There’s no common characteristic among those present. One younger man has baggy clothes of mostly one color, a nicely dressed woman next to him, and another young man drenched in sweat next to her.
“In that room, there were gang members sitting next to business owners. There were people that are living in brick houses and people living in shacks. There was everything you can think of. It’s black, it’s white, it’s Hispanic, it’s Asian,” Ramirez said after the class had left. “It’s just incredible to see. And I think that’s just a glimpse of what heaven’s going to look like. People discriminate, but sin doesn’t. Crime doesn’t. Pain doesn’t. They come because there’s a lot of pain in people’s lives these days. And so it’s just incredible to see all the different walks of life that come.”
Ramirez opens his bible, and begins to start the lesson for the evening. Tonight’s agenda: battling spiritual temptations and overcoming the enemy.
“A lot of us has come off some crazy stuff. Most of us in here has had some battles – it is God’s grace and it is a miracle that we’re sitting in this room together,” Ramirez said to the group, followed by a prompt ‘amen’ from one of the older men in the room.
And for some in the room, the statement rings true. Some are drug addicts. Some have shot at people before. Others have been arrested. But Ramirez doesn’t care about their past, only in helping them achieve a better future. And surprisingly enough, the group hangs to every word Ramirez preaches. Not because he’s holding a bible, but because they know that he too once was in the same situation as them.
“I’ve lost some spiritual battles before. My heart used to be in the streets and doing drugs and chasing women and doing bad stuff that I was doing. But the devil knows that he can’t get me there anymore. I’ve let that stuff go. So what is dear to my heart right now? My children. And so he’ll go after my children and try to tempt them,” Ramirez said, striking a chord with a young Hispanic woman who nodded as if she was worried about the same problem with her children.
Many years before Ramirez began his Save Our Streets (SOS) Ministry - which not only provides a place for spiritual guidance but also aims to help troubled youth in Bryan and other surrounding cities – he himself was hooked on drugs and close to losing his family.
“I had a very troubled youth. My parents did very well, and provided for me very well. But my mom had to work three or four jobs, and my dad was a truck driver and was gone all the time. And so it was real easy for me to get caught up in the street lifestyle. And I got caught up with people in the neighborhoods that were doing drugs. So at 13 years old I was hanging around with heroin addicts and helped them shoot drugs in their veins,” Ramirez said. “And I got to high school and started fooling around with girls and getting caught up and smoking drugs and doing drugs instead of going to class. My mom was trying to get me to go to school, but I just wouldn’t.”
Ramirez barely finished high school, and then began selling cocaine at age 17. Though he said there wasn’t a true organized gang system in Bryan back when he was a teenager, he said the way he and his friends worked the neighborhoods, they would be considered a gang by today’s standards.
“We hung out, we vowed to take care of our hood, and we took care of our drug territory and sold drugs. Drugs and gangs go hand in hand. We got in fights, but back in our days if you pulled out any kind of weapons, it was considered the lowest of the low. Today they don’t have a problem pulling out a weapon in a second. These kids are 100 times more dangerous than we were. And the scary thing is I think we’re sitting on a powder-keg right now. There’s always a struggle for power and to control the crowd, so the more groups or gangs we get out there the bigger that struggle will become,” Ramirez said, almost validating his directive to help troubled youth.
In his early 20’s, Ramirez tried to get away from the lifestyle and focus on raising his new family. But he was pulled back, and began smoking cocaine, eventually spiraling to the point that he was spending between 100 and 200 dollars a day on drugs.
“I was losing my family, losing my kids, my American dream. I was disappointing everybody, lying to everybody, cheating, and stealing. Things I’d never do, I was doing. And I finally got to a point that I had admit to my wife – because she knew something was going on, but she had never been raised in that type of environment so she didn’t know the full extent – had to admit to her what was going on. And she gave me an ultimatum: you get help, or I’m taking the kids and you’ll never see us again,” Ramirez said.
Apparently the message worked. Ramirez began seeing a drug abuse counselor and tried to curb his addiction. But as with many addicts, the habit was hard to break. And so Ramirez, full of guilt and aware of the potential consequences, would take another hit.
But one day, something happened that Ramirez proclaims changed the direction of his life forever. As he sat on his porch coming off a high, while his pregnant wife was off at work, an old friend that he used to deal drugs with pulled up. The friend, who Ramirez hadn’t seen in more than a year, told Ramirez he began thinking of him recently, and wanted to let him know about the bible and that it had helped him change his life.
“And when he drove off, I looked and thought man this guy has done one too many drugs. His mind is gone. This isn’t going to help me,” Ramirez said. “I thought, ‘how dare you give me this little book – you’re crazy.’ I almost got angry inside. But I didn’t want to disrespect him because he was my friend.”
Ramirez tossed the bible on his porch table without much thought. And then a few weeks later, as Ramirez went back to sit on his porch while his pregnant wife as off at work, feeling depressed.
“I couldn’t even hold down a job. I couldn’t even pay for the food. They were cutting of my lights. They were cutting off my gas. They threatened to take my American dream because I couldn’t pay for it. My wife doesn’t even trust me to take care of my own child. And I sat down on that porch and for the first time in a long time, began to weep. And I’m putting my face in my hands, and I bent over, and there was that bible that I had left there a couple of weeks ago,” Ramirez said. “And I just picked it up and I said ‘God if you’re for real show me something. Because I’m losing it here. I don’t even know if you’re for real.’ So I opened up that little pocket Bible – I didn’t know anything...New Testament, Old Testament -- and a scripture jumped out at me. It was John 8:36. And it said ‘He whom the son sets free, is free indeed.’ And I don’t know what happened. But the pain and frustration all of the sudden felt different.”
Ramirez returned to his drug counselor with renewed hope, and began to have better success battling his addiction. He also reconnected with his 11-year-old daughter, from a previous relationship, who invited him to a Christian concert at G. Rollie White coliseum on Texas A&M’s campus.
And it was there, that Ramirez said everything changed. As the preacher leading the concert spoke about battling demons, Ramirez said he heard something.
“I heard the voice of God for the first time in my life. It penetrated. I heard his voice. I knew it was him. I didn’t hear it (in my ears), I heard it in (my heart). And I heard him say ‘JJ this blood’s for you.’ He called my name. And then He said, ‘if the son sets you free, you’re free indeed.’ And I lost it. I lost it. I couldn’t hold it. The tears started coming. And the more I tired to stop, the more it came out,” Ramirez said, choking up with tears again. “And I felt a hand on my shoulder, and when I looked it was my little girl. She had one hand on my shoulder and one hand in the air. And tears were streaming down her face as fast as they could fall off her face. And she was praying for me. And asking God for me. And I didn’t deserve that.”
The preacher then asked for any volunteers to come to the front that wanted to receive further spiritual guidance. And so Ramirez and his daughter went to the front.
“The next thing I know is I’ve got this big 11 year old in my arms and tears are streaming my face. And that day I gave my life to Jesus Christ. And it’s never, ever been the same. That day God gave me a call. And I knew there was a calling my life to do something, I just didn’t know what yet. And I said man if this message can change me, it can change anybody. Anybody. My life was going in a very downward spiral, and here I am don’t have the desire for drugs or alcohol – almost instantaneously. Boom. It’s gone,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez began going back into the neighborhoods where he used to deal drugs, talking to anyone that would listen. And slowly people began seeking him out for advice. He began working out of spaces loaned by other churches, sometimes preaching in the back corner of a gymnasium. He began dreaming of a big building of his own, with classrooms and a place that the trouble youth could come to in order to get off the streets. And one night, Ramirez claims he heard God again, instructing him to accomplish his dream.
“And I made a vow that day. I said ‘God, if one person comes out just like me, that’s all I want…is just that one. I dedicate my life that day to that one individual that can come out just like me. I don’t know how it’s go, I just know I’ll go for that one.’ And He whispered back, ‘I don’t just want one, but I want them all,’” Ramirez said. “And so here we are, 16 years later, and it’s come out of the ground. And so I know why I’m called. I know why I wake up. I know why God made me. I know that He turns everything to the good. I know some of the bad choices I made were teaching tools for me to understand what these young people are going through and what their generation is dealing with and those generations to come will have to deal with.”
Ramirez continued to work on building his ministry, and as it grew in size each year, he soon outgrew the space he was working in. He worked with community members to slowly begin raising funds to build a new building, complete with classrooms and a gymnasium.
Finally, in 2009 Ramirez was able to open the doors of his new S.O.S. Ministries building, a 21,000 square foot, three-million dollar facility that would allow him to continue in his quest of providing a place for youth and all others to come in off the streets.
And at a banquet celebrating the opening of his new facility, Ramirez said a young woman that had attended a few of his bible classes approached him and told him a story that again validated what he was doing.
“She said she lived across the street when she was younger, and her family wasn’t exactly living correctly. And one day one of her mom’s boyfriends had touched her incorrectly and so she ran away. And she said when I was abused, I ran to this property - and it’s the exact property - I laid in the middle of that field for hours until it got dark. And I laid in that field and I looked up in that sky and I said God make this stuff stop. Make a place where this stuff can stop. And it was right in the center of where we built this building. And she wept because she said even as a little girl, he heard my prayer. So it’s just really exciting to see how it’s all connected and always been connected and this is what God wanted to do. And I’m the most privileged man on the face of this earth to be able to see what God has shown me and to continue to be able to work with the people that I work with,” Ramirez said.
The proof of Ramirez’s work can be found in many places. Like through Jose Sifuentes, a quiet Hispanic man who answers almost everything with “yes ma’am” or “yes sir”. But Sifuentes alludes to the fact that he wasn’t always so courteous when he was growing up in Houston.
“My parents tried to raise me right, and I took the wrong decision to hang around gangs and become a gang member. I got involved in drugs and at the age of 12 I was already what you might call an alcoholic, drinking all the time. And I tell people I did 15 years of school, but didn’t really graduate,” Sifuentes said.
After a run-in with the police in Houston at the age of 15, a judge was prepared to sentence Sifuentes to five years of prison. But his representative was able to convince the judge to allow Sifuentes to be placed in the boy’s ministry at S.O.S., under Ramirez’s supervision.
“When I came to the men’s home, it became a different experience for me because it wasn’t a case of me having to come in and represent who I am like it was on the streets; it was a house that showed love it was a house that opened their arms to me and accepted me as the ministry does. It just became the place where I felt like I could call this home. I always felt like I was rejected everywhere else and I didn’t feel rejected here,” Sifuentes said.
Since that day, Sifuentes has been drug-free, now has a family with three kids, and recently just bought his own home.
And there are others who vouch for Ramirez, like Eric Rodriguez, who has been coming to his ministry since he was a young boy.
“The main thing he’s done is inspired me to be greater. I’ve never seen a man in my life do something with their life as far as helping other people change their lives,” Rodriguez said. “He invited me to his house and I saw what a real man was. Because I didn’t see one growing up. I saw what he would do in situations with his family how we would open up to different people.”
Rodriguez credits the ministry and Ramirez for helping his life stay on the right path, which he said eventually helped him get into college – the first person in his family to do so.
But for all the ones that Ramirez is able to help, there are many others that he doesn’t have as much success with. Ramirez points to a young man he thought was turning around, and wound up getting shot. Though the young man lived, Ramirez said he has occasionally kept up with him, and knows that he has been in and out of jail as well as battling drug addiction.
“Have I ever thought about quitting? Oh yeah. Multiple times. You see them fall back and it’s really devastating to me. And a lot of people have come to me and said I don’t know how you do it. Because it’s heart breaking. It’s heart wrenching. It’s a tough thing. And sometimes that’s why I think I’ve learned that’s why a lot of people don’t do this. Because it’s tough.”
Ramirez even admits a few years before he began work to build his new building, that he was very close to officially calling it quits. And as he struggled with the thoughts running through his head, he said he received a phone call.
“There were numbers on the cell phone that I hadn’t saved, and I didn’t recognize. So I answered it. And it was this 14-year-old kid that was no longer a 14-year-old kid, and was in the United States Navy now. And he said ‘I just wanted to hear the only father’s voice I ever really knew. If it wasn’t for you, I couldn’t be fighting for my country.’ That day, that kid my check for the rest of my life. I’ll do this for nothing. Just to get that one kid just like that,” Ramirez said, choking back tears. “If I can just see one through it, I’ll go through 500 more just to see that one. Because that one makes a difference.”
So every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday night, Ramirez continues to stand at the front of the classroom, telling stories of his past and giving guidance to those who might be going through the same things he did.
And he does so with a bit of confidence. Because he knows if he can earn the respect of the people in his room, he has a chance at getting through to just one more person.