Gangs to God

On the street corner, selling newspapers to raise money for the drug rehab program required by his parole, Kenji called out to God with skepticism, “If you’re real, then I need a sign. You need to show yourself to me.” Not more than a few minutes later a car pulled up alongside the curb. A woman rolled down her window, handing Kenji a pamphlet, he read, “God is alive.”

That day should have changed Kenji’s life, but instead it was a seed of faith planted that would grow. Seven years later an unlikely turn of events took Kenji from gangster to God.

Former gang member Kenji Stratton said, “The fear of God keeps me from leading the life of crime I used to live. I know God is personal. He answers my prayers. I see Him at work around me every day.”

Kenji, part of the Prison Ministry at the Rock Church, and Pastor Shawn Wagner, also a former gang member, shared their testimonies with students and moms gathered in my home for our weekly Bible study.

Pointing across the room toward the freeway, Kenji said, “Not too far from here, in Mira Mesa, I ran with my homies. I look back to see how God protected me. The knife wounds missed major arteries; I dodged bullets that should have killed me. ” Wearing a striped blue rayon shirt over dress-slacks, Kenji appeared professional and clean-cut.

In and out of prison for fifteen years, Kenji described how choices to drink alcohol, do drugs, and hang out with the wrong friends lead him down a path of destruction he never imagined. His life of crime impacted not only his own life but those he loves most.

He looked at the boys and girls in the room and said, “If you’re not going to make good choices for God then make them for your mom. Kenji asked the teens, “Would you want someone to hurt your mother?” Mesmerized by his testimony the kids shook their heads, “Then why would you want to hurt her?” He admitted that he can never fix the pain he caused his parents.

Kenji would disappear for months at a time without even a phone call to inform his parents that he was alive. He admitted that he was numb to their pain saying, “I didn’t care about myself how could I care about anybody else.” There were times his mom felt more at peace when her son was in prison, because she knew where he was, that he had a bed to sleep on, and food to eat.

God has bigger plans for Kenji than to leave him locked away. Kenji announced, “Now I have Jesus in my life and the same way I once was high on drugs I’m high on God. He is personal. He talks to me. He loves me. Now I want to please Him.”

Kenji met the love of his life at a drug rehab program mandated by the state after three years in prison, falsely accused for strong armed robbery. With a Degree in Criminal Justice and a Masters in Forensic Science, Charlene supervised the re-entry counselors working with the parolees. After a month, her supervisor position shifted to a new location. Kenji pursued Charlene to discover the reason for her joy and passion for life. He discovered her love for Jesus and invited Jesus into his heart to save him from his sin.

The unlikely pair married a few months later. Charlene admits that during all her years of serving as resource coordinator for parolees, Chair for the reentry program in San Diego, and four years in the San Diego Rock Church Prison Ministry she never considered a relationship with someone previously incarcerated.

Over the years Charlene counseled and prayed with family members devastated by the choices of the incarcerated, but she never fully understood their pain until two months after her marriage.

Newly married, Kenji became intoxicated, which broke his parole and sent him back to prison for five months. Charlene experienced first-hand the shame, guilt, and betrayal of her incarcerated husband. When she cried out to God in her pain, her heavenly Father comforted her with words of peace and purpose, which now allows her to comfort those who have loved ones in prison by relating to their pain.

In prison Kenji experienced true repentance before the Lord. He surrendered his life to Jesus discovering joy and peace for the first time. In a moment everything changed…delivered from his wrong thinking, his addictions, his sixteen years as a gang member to live a life of purpose: loving and serving God.

Today Kenji and Charlene testify to God’s faithfulness and transforming power. God brought this couple full-circle to begin the Prison Support Group at the Rock Church. The first meeting scheduled to meet on Thursday, August 26th from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. Family members of the incarcerated can find comfort, support, prayer, hope, and new friends. For more information contact Kenji Stratton at

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