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Former gang member shares his journey to becoming a pastor, filmmaker in Fort Smith

Julio Gomez went from living a life of crime to preaching the word of God to a congregation in Fort Smith.

FORT SMITH, Ark. — You could argue Julio Gomez was dealt a bad hand in life.  

"When I was a little kid, no one believed in me," Gomez said. "I grew up thinking that I wasn’t worth nothing."

Poverty, abuse and crime make up the memories of his childhood. After going to jail three times, Gomez decided he needed to play his cards differently and it’s been more than two decades since his last run-in with the law. Today he’s a pastor at Iglesia Bautista Gozo de Mi Alma on Bluff Ave. in Fort Smith. 

“I wasn’t planning to become a Christian or to become a pastor,” he said. “I just, I needed to stop doing drugs.” 

Rough is the word Gomez uses to describe his upbringing in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. 

“I grew up without my dad or my mom,” he said. “I didn't [go] to school. I was abused when I was a little kid. I had to immigrate to a place that I'd never been before.”  

He has nine brothers and three sisters, but four of them are dead. Instead of going to school, they learned about gangs and worked to make money to provide for their broken home. 

“Since I remember, drugs and illegal stuff, it was around that family which I came into,” he explained. 

He was 13 years old the first time he got in trouble with police after immigrating to Houston, Texas. 

“I had to defend my mom from a man who was beating her, and he was choking her,” Gomez said.  

He said he spent a year in juvenile detention. When he was 17, he married his wife Minerva. 

“I didn’t stop what I was doing, so I brought her into my world,” he said. 

Police arrested Gomez in 1994 for smuggling and again in 2000 on a marijuana charge. 

“We got pulled over and, and they found the drugs, and we went to jail,” Gomez said. “This time it was different for me. In a way, it was humiliating. My wife was innocent, and no one wanted to believe that she was innocent because she was the one driving the car."

Gomez calls this moment his wake-up call. He started going to church, got baptized and a friend convinced him to share his testimony. 

"I thought I was created to be a criminal, a gang member,” he said. “But I knew that I was created for something better than that. So that gave me a rush, like no other drug. I wanted to do it again. I said, man, this is great!”

Most of the community seems to embrace his transparency, but he knows some people will judge his story. 

Here’s how he deals with adversity:

“The way that I deal with that mentality is not paying attention to them,” he said. “I know they will always be there. I know I can do nothing to change their mentality, but I can protect my mentality from their mentality.” 

While he loves preaching to his congregation in Fort Smith, he says visiting inmates at the county jails every Friday is his most important work.

“Maybe they will listen to my story,” Gomez said. “Maybe they will appreciate what they have.” 

He donates food to people in need and also has a Spanish radio station, 102.3 FM KGDA Radio Vida.  

And if that wasn’t enough, he’s taking his message to another format—producing movies. Pastor Gomez is currently working on his fourth feature film called Labor Day

Jessica Pliler is one of the actors who has loved getting to know Pastor Gomez over the past few months. 

“Him telling his life stories and though so many things were set against him, he found a way to push through all of those and is still trying to help anybody that he can with no judgment or anything,” Plilar said.  

Pastor Gomez wants everyone, including his cast and crew, to believe in themselves and go after their dreams. That’s what he’s doing with his second chance. 

“I choose not to stay in my past,” Gomez said. “I'm gonna use my past to bring something positive out of it."

Labor Day is expected to be released on Sept. 5, 2022.  

His wife Minerva Gomez has stayed by his side for more than 30 years. They have three kids together. They're all in their 20s now and say they are so proud of the person their dad has worked to become. 

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