by Brandon Gracia
“My life changed the day I held a gun in my hands. What a destructive time of my life” said Jon Santos, a 45-year-old former felon who became a preacher. Jon’s past life of crime and drugs is what connects him to many of the parishioners at New Baptist Church in Brooklyn. Like them, it took Jon a long time to turn his life around. Just five years ago, Jon was behind bars for committing a robbery at gunpoint, where a clerk was shot and injured.
Jon was raised in a household where guns were not allowed. His mother, a nurse, and his father, a preacher, were his best role models. “He was a fairly quiet kid at home. He was mainly into sports and reading books. Our neighborhood was not the best place to be, though”, said Linda Santos, Jon’s mother.
Gowanus, the neighborhood where Jon grew up, was home to gangs and drug addicts. Jon saw people with guns and drugs on the street corners every day when he walked home from school.
He held a gun for the first time when he was 19. One day on the basketball court, his childhood friend Dantell brought Jon something in a black paisley bandana. He opened it and found a black nine-millimeter pistol inside. “At first, the words of my parents filled my mind, but in another instance, the thought of protecting myself became more important,” said Jon. His choice is what got him in trouble.
In 2000, Jon was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison for robbery. In an National Center for Health Statistics press release from the same year,then-Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala said, “Each day, 10 children and teens are killed by firearms, and that is 10 too many.”
“The day of the robbery was the toughest day of my life. I shot someone over money…it’s just paper” said a teary Jon, outside the entrance of the brown, gothic church. “Those next 10 years of my life were tough as nails. Time was wasted, in reality. It took jail to bring the light of the Lord into my life.”
Jon said that the clerk recovered from the gunshot wound but does not know where the man is today.
Santos, now a married father of two, has been the New Baptist Church pastor for the last four years. “For all that it is worth, I will not go back. Not for anyone or anything. I’m here for my wife, my kids, and anyone who is going through the struggle. Drugs and violence are not the end. I want anyone who comes through those doors to know I understand, and I just want to help them get through it.”
Jon recently led a special service to educate teens about the dangers of guns in the community. He talked during the service about his own experiences, to show that knows the consequences of gun violence. He plans to continue to educate young people through his services.