A deacon and former detective tells his stories

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Deacon Arnaldo Santos stands next to a display with his newly-published book, “Street Gangs and God: The Battle for the Streets,” at the Littlest Angel Bookstore in Vineland.

When Deacon Arnaldo Santos tells stories from his own life, one might think he’s speaking of two or three men, two or three lifetimes. But the stories are all his. And with each story, as he moves from his childhood in Puerto Rico to his life now in Bridgeton, with wife Maribel and their three children, he becomes more passionate in expressing his love for Christ and his conviction that in following the Gospel, “we win the battle.”

A cheerful warrior, he’s been fighting hard his entire life, beginning at age 7 when he fled with his mother and little brother from an abusive father in Puerto Rico. He grew up in government-assisted housing in Bridgeton and, at age 19, began a 25-year career in law enforcement.

As a police detective, he was recognized by the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey as an expert witness on East Coast Mexican street gangs. In fact, he spent his years as a police detective on the front lines of gang warfare.

In 2005, just before he retired from law enforcement, Detective Arnaldo Santos was ordained as a permanent deacon. Currently he works as an associate chaplain for the Diocese of Camden and as the pastoral associate for Hispanic Ministries at Saint Clare of Assisi Parish in Swedesboro.

Deacon Santos has stories to tell. Lots of them. And he’s told them now in his newly published book, “Street Gangs and God: The Battle for the Streets,” published earlier this month by Waterfront Press.

Deacon Santos’ work is part memoir and part spiritual encouragement for parents and young people who are struggling to survive and find a pathway to God’s purpose for their lives in the midst of gang-saturated cultures.

Bishop Dennis Sullivan wrote the book’s foreword. In it he says, “Parents, counsellors, religious, young people and clergy will learn much from this book.”

But it wasn’t easy for Deacon Santos to get his story into print.

He recounts how Catholic publishers didn’t know what to do with the book. “They said it was trying to be too many things at once,” he says. “And I said, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I intended!’”

The book is both an intensely personal story and a kind of crash, how-to course for parents who fear gang influence on their children. Most of all, his intention in the book is to offer hope and practical advice to families who are struggling to live Catholic lives in the midst of what he describes as the most ancient evil.

Deacon Santos writes, “The devil and his followers became the first gangsters, and since then, they have been the influence for so much crime in the world.”

And gang influence is growing. In “Street Gangs and God,” Deacon Santos reports that, according to the National Gang Center, there are 1.4 million gang members affiliated with more than 33,000 gangs in the United States, and in the state of New Jersey, there is gang activity in all 21 counties. As a police detective, he saw the violence and evil of gang culture waste young lives and ruin families. He set out to share the message that life does not have to be that way.

As a police detective, he gave talks all over the state of New Jersey. “I had a ‘state talk’ for schools and law enforcement and a ‘Christian talk’ for church groups.”

That’s when he realized that the only way he could really make a difference was to focus on bringing kids, parents, and their communities to God. “He’s the only answer,” Deacon Santos says.

The deacon has help in his work. Together, the Santos family works in youth work and music ministry. A few years ago, at Immaculate Conception Parish (now Holy Cross Parish) in Bridgeton, Maribel Santos started a group for teenage girls to offer an alternative to the gang lifestyle. Her goal was to keep them busy “learning more about their faith in a fun way.” There were skits, games, Bible reading, prayer services, visits to nursing homes and cooking days to provide food for the poor.

The teenage boys in the parish noticed and asked for something of their own, so Deacon Arnaldo organized a youth group for boys.

The two groups came together to participate in processions and attend Masses. They held car washes and raised money for retreats and pilgrimages and trips to theme parks. They learned that a life in Christ is better than any alternative a gang could offer them.

“We saw a transformation in many troubled teens including some of them being gang members. They began walking with the Lord,” said Deacon Santos.

And now, with the publication of his new book, the hope is that he can reach more at-risk kids and their families. Deacon Santos hopes to offer free presentations in parishes that commit to buying a pre-arranged number of books. In addition, he envisions that parishes that are interested in selling his book as a fundraiser will be able to retain a percentage of the sales.

To kick off the promotional activity, he’ll be holding two book signings at the Littlest Angel Bookstore in Vineland on Friday, Feb. 10, from 2-4 p.m., and on Saturday, Feb. 11, from noon until 2 p.m.

For Deacon Santos, the goal is simple and critical: to make sure that he can reach as many kids and parents as possible with the Good News. He wants to tell them that there is evil in the world, but “Christ is the answer.”