A Second Chance: Former Gang Member Has A Heart for the Homeless in Paterson

photo credit: Dan Hubbard

Dealing drugs and fighting with rival gangs was a way of life for Edwin Placeres while at Eastside High School in Paterson.

Placeres attended the then-embattled school, the setting for the movie Lean on Me, from 1979 until 1984. The gang he belonged to owned one side of the school, a rival gang owned the other half.

“We had our boundary lines and that’s where a lot of the wars occurred,” Placeres said. “They would send their runners over and try to get a piece of our pie.”

At 13, Placeres was making thousands of dollars selling drugs. In one four-month stretch he attended class for only 15 minutes.

“I had my operations to run outside,” Placeres said. “I couldn’t be bothered with class and all that stuff. It wasn’t about school for us. It was about drinking and getting high.”

Placeres was charged with assault several times. His car was riddled with bullets. He was stabbed.

Placeres, 52, never graduated high school.

“I just wanted to be cool and loved having power and money. My parents were very upset with me,” he said. “I came from a great family with high morals.”

He continued to sell drugs. He put Roberto Clemente Park in Paterson “on lockdown” and made his living running the drug trade in the 4th Ward. He said he made $75,000 a week.

At age 20, Placeres started using crack cocaine and heroin, committing crime to feed his habit.

“I went from making $75,000 a week to living in an abandoned building in Paterson,” he said.

In and out of jail several times, Placeres continued to sell drugs while behind bars.

“We used to sneak drugs into prison all the time,” he said.

He left the gang he belonged to when he was in his early 30s. Placeres was serving time in Northern State Prison in Newark, regarded as one of the state’s toughest. But that’s where the seeds of love were planted in his life and that’s when he started going to Prison Fellowship.

Placeres’ brother, Rick, had prayed for him for years. But it wasn’t until he was locked up that those prayers began to get answered.

“I used to tell my brother that he was crazy. I used to rebel and threatened to hurt him sometimes when he was prophesying over me,” Placeres recalled. “I said to him, ‘I’m using drugs and its affecting you. That Bible has got you wacked.’”

He said Matthew 6:33 and Philippians 4:13 were important verses in getting him to realize that he needed Jesus Christ.

God also placed three men in Placeres’ life after he served his first stint in jail.

“I couldn’t grasp how these men showed me that kind of love,” he said. “In the hood, the only time someone showed you that kind of love was when there were strings attached. That kept me around. I wanted to know more about that love.”

Pastor Rich Higby was one of the three men who befriended Placeres. Higby got to know him in 1998 when he was a pastor at Wyckoff Assembly of God. Placeres became a Christian in 1999.

“It was a little unnerving. He was a real rough and tough guy who made me feel insecure at first,” Higby said. “Eventually we began to relate to each other and got pretty close.”

Higby stuck by Placeres when he relapsed, was charged with possession of stolen property, and sent back to jail. He wrote him every week, visited him, and even put money in his commissary account.

“Edwin has become an outstanding man of God,” said Higby, a pastor at Cornerstone Christian Church in Wyckoff.

Placeres, who lives in Ringwood with his wife Laurie, attends Calvary Temple International Assembly in Wayne. He is a deacon and helps run the church’s outreach to homeless people in Paterson and North Jersey. He also works with people at Timothy House, a Pennsylvania-based transition living facility for recovering substance addicts.

“There is no better person to minister to the homeless than Edwin,” said Daniel Kuert, an associate pastor at Calvary. “He knows how to encourage them and show them the tender heart of God.”

Placeres knows he has a responsibility to use what God has blessed him with to help others.

“I have to use what I’ve been given, this second chance, to bless others,” Placeres said. “It’s like that scripture that says: ‘When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required.’ (Luke 12:48) That’s what I’m doing now.”

Placeres, a handyman who works in plumbing, carpentry, and home improvement, understands the need to continue to grow and remain humble as he ministers to others.

“The Lord keeps reminding me that I need to conquer myself every day and, to do that, I need to stay close to Him,” he said. “My identity is not found in what I do, it’s found in the Lord.”

Written by Daniel Hubbard


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