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June 15, 2003: Joseph Martinez enters La Trinidad United Methodist Church and climbs the stairway, leading to the Sunday morning service. Outside the sanctuary, the youth director greets Martinez with a warm embrace and poses a question.
“How would you like a ticket,” Alex Gonzales asks, “to the Spurs game tonight?”
The offer overwhelms Martinez, a 19-year-old member of the La Trinidad youth group. He has never attended an NBA Finals game.
Raised by a single mother in 78207, one of the city’s most impoverished zip codes, Martinez takes in Game 6 of the NBA Finals with a mentor and friend. Seated in the third row at center court of the AT&T Center, Martinez watches the Spurs defeat the New Jersey Nets, 88-77, to win their second NBA title. Tim Duncan hoists a trophy. David Robinson retires as a champion.
Martinez joins the cheering, dancing throng around him, confetti falling, sound exploding on a day he finally gets to celebrate: Father’s Day.
Alex Gonzales, now 77, has two biological children, Mark and Elizabeth, both schoolteachers. He has thousands of spiritual children. Too many to count. From 1960 until 2008, Gonzales served the youth at La Trinidad, the 142-year-old church his mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother attended. For the past 22 years, he has served athletes at Lanier High School as a booster, volunteer, advisor, mentor, father figure, crisis counselor, and unofficial chaplain.
Gonzales is the guy who sells tickets at the gate. The one who prays in the lockerroom. The hand who carries the water cooler at football games. The smiling face who offers support at Summer League basketball games. The friend who visits the injured at the hospital. The donor who pays the water bill – and sometimes the rent – for families in dire financial straits.
“Alex,” said Joseph Martinez, now 34, “is the kindest person I’ve ever met.”
The reach of one man’s kindness and influence extends across 78207, home to La Trinidad and Lanier, and beyond. Consider Martinez. He met Gonzales in 2000 as a sharpshooting guard on the Lanier basketball team. Eighteen years later, Martinez is the head coach.
Orlando Mendez-Valdez met Gonzales at Tafolla Middle School, attended La Trinidad, and became a pro basketball player in Mexico and Israel. Martin Cardenas, another Gonzales protégé, is the head basketball coach at Edison High School.
Other youth group alumni include Mark Nerio, a vice president at BB&T Bank; Andy Hernandez, former president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project; Norma Guerra, professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio; Judy Clark, engineer for Cheniere Energy in Houston; and Minnie Trejo, a retired senior vice president at Frost Bank.
Several alumni became United Methodist pastors, among them David Grout (in Bowling Green, Kentucky), Cindy Grout Layton (Austin), David Moreno (Edinburg), and Max Perez (Kerrville).
Gonzales is the grownup kids love to be around, affable, approachable, more down-to-earth than a pair of old sneakers. Teens look up to him, college students admire him, young adults want to emulate him. Why? Gonzales has a remarkable, almost supernatural, ability to inspire, to make others feel good about themselves.
In the locker room, athletes spill problems to a bespectacled man with a round face and a disarming smile. My parents are splitting up. Dad is going to jail. Money is tight. We got an eviction notice. The refrigerator is empty.
Former Lanier Principal Peggy Stark: “Alex was a master at relating to what kids were going through and giving them an encouraging word.”
Former Lanier basketball Coach Rudy Bernal: “Whenever kids needed something – whether it be shoes or food – Alex was always there to help.”
Alex and his wife, Sylvia, gave quietly, generously, and often. A Lanier student wanted to attend church camp but didn’t have the money? Alex and Sylvia paid. Basketball players were hungry after a late game? Alex took the team to dinner and picked up the tab. Without the support of Sylvia and his own children, Alex says, he could never invest the time and money required to make a difference.
“The joy of seeing how you can affect a young person in their journey is so rewarding,” said Alex, once the co-owner of a title company, now a part-time escrow officer at Mission Title. “God said to go out and be His voice, His hands, His feet. To listen, advise, counsel and forgive, to love, to cry, to laugh with each individual who is a child of God – that’s what keeps me going to this day.”
At the invitation of Stark, Gonzales made Lanier a mission. In the late 90s, disturbing signs appeared at the school: Occultic messages on computers. Ritualistic burnings on rock altars. T-shirt with satanic symbols. Murderous threats in student journals.
In response, Gonzales began attending football practices. He complimented players as they came off the field. He initiated conversation. He asked questions. Next thing you know, the coach invites Gonzales into the locker room.
Stark, meanwhile, solicited help from police, social workers, community leaders, and other clergy. Security and counseling arrived along with an innovative idea: The Fifth Quarter Party.
La Trinidad became a host for a post-football game fiesta. Gonzales organized church volunteers, who provided chalupas, desserts, and soft drinks. He set up games in the church gym – musical chairs, hula hoop, and 3-point shooting contests – and offered prizes.
“We had 250 show up for the first party, 500 for the next,” Gonzales said. “It started at 11 o’clock. It ended at 1:30 in the morning. But nobody wanted to go home.”
In time, satanic symbols vanished at Lanier and school uniforms appeared. Students involved with ritualistic burnings moved out of the district. Teens met at “Pray Before You Play” events off campus.
“Alex worked to provide a safe environment and unconditional love to those kids,” Stark said. “He would speak truth to them, give them options for decisions they had to make. He never preached.”
The Fifth Quarter Party attracted Lanier students to the La Trinidad youth group. Kids began inviting their parents to worship services. “On one Sunday,” Gonzales recalled, “39 members of the Lanier community became members of our church.”
I met Alex in the summer of 1974. The La Trinidad student choir was going on a two-week tour to Los Angeles. He needed a drummer. Would I be interested? My cousin, Rudy Rodriguez, sang in the choir. So did my best friend, Mike Escareno. At age 15, I packed a suitcase and loaded my drums.
We performed at Methodist churches in four states. We slept at the Grand Canyon. We visited Disneyland. Four of us hailed a cab and went to a Dallas Cowboys-Los Angeles Rams preseason game at the Los Angeles Coliseum. The cost of a general admission ticket: $3.
To finance the trip, Gonzales organized fundraisers. To pay for the charter bus, he secured a donation from his title company. When someone ran out of money, Gonzales dug into his pocket. He not only paid for admission to Disneyland, he sprang for snacks and souvenirs.
Gonzales set boundaries but let us have fun. When we spent the night in a high-crime area, he chain-locked the doors to the sanctuary. When we started a raucous, shaving cream fight after curfew, he pretended not to notice (as long as we cleaned up the mess in our rooms). From San Antonio to Los Angeles and back, he led a rag-tag collection of teens and young adults with patience, grace, and faith.
“We had the greatest youth counselor,” Escareno said, “that any church youth group could ever have.”
I went on one summer tour. But Gonzales led others – to Denver, Albuquerque, Indianapolis, Orlando, Kalamazoo, Washington, D.C., and Mexico. Many of those choir members got married and sent their kids to Gonzales’ youth group. Before he stepped down, he was leading a third generation of youth at La Trinidad.
“Even though they are no longer kids, I still call them ‘my kids,’” Gonzales said. “They seek me out to this day and want to make me a part of their lives. I’m so grateful.”
His ministry today is to the athletes at Lanier, and what a legacy he has built. Mendez-Valdez is one face of that legacy. He not only led Soles de Mexicali to the Liga Nacional De Baloncesto Professional championship in April and won MVP honors, he gives back to his community. Mendez-Valdez holds free summer camps in the neighborhood. He donates gear to the Lanier basketball team. He tries to do for the youth in 78207 what Gonzales did for him.
“Alex always had so many things to manage,” Mendez-Valdez said, “and yet he made it look smooth and easy. He was so patient. That reflects well on him and has helped me a lot.”
Martinez remembers the Fifth Quarter parties. He remembers the anchor in the locker room, the friend who took him to watch the Spurs win a championship. “That’s gotta be one of the luckiest days of my life,” Martinez said.
He remembers something else, too. One father reaching out to one kid, then another and another, until an entire community came together.