Freed From the Chains of Hate
AS TOLD BY JOSÉ GOMEZ
I WAS born September 8, 1964, in Rognac, a small town in the south of France. My parents and grandparents were Andalusian Gypsies, born in Algeria and Morocco, North Africa. As is common in Gypsy culture, ours was a large extended family.
My father was a violent man, and some of my earliest memories include scenes of him hurting my mother. In time, my mother opted for divorce—something that is rare among Gypsies. She took my brother, my sister, and me to Belgium, where we lived peacefully for the next eight years.
Things changed, however. We children wanted to see our father, so Mother took us to France and was reunited with my father. Living with Father again presented challenges for me. In Belgium we went everywhere with Mother. But on my father’s side of the family, men were to associate with men. Their macho mentality was that men have all the rights and women have all the duties. One day, for example, when I wanted to help my aunt clean up after dinner, my uncle accused me of being a homosexual. In his family, doing the dishes was strictly a woman’s chore. Eventually, this unbalanced thinking rubbed off on me.
It was not long before my mother once again became the victim of my father’s violent disposition. Several times when we tried to intervene, my brother and I had to escape through the window to avoid Father’s blows. My sister was not spared either. As a result, I spent as much time away from home as possible. At 15 years of age, I had no direction in life.
In time, I became known for my violent temper. I enjoyed being a bully. Sometimes I would deliberately provoke other young men, but very few dared to defy me—especially since I was often armed with a knife or a chain. Soon I began to steal automobiles and sell them. In some cases I would just set them on fire and enjoy watching the firemen put out the flames. Later I took to breaking into shops and warehouses. I was arrested several times. And each time, I prayed to God for help!
Yes, I believed in God. While we were in Belgium, I had attended a religious school. So I knew that what I was doing was bad. Still, my belief in God did not have any effect on my conduct. I thought that all I had to do was ask and my sins would be forgiven.
In 1984, I was sentenced to 11 months in prison for stealing. I was sent to the Baumettes Prison, in Marseilles. There, I tattooed various parts of my body. One tattoo read “hate and vengeance.” Far from being reformed, I allowed prison to deepen my hatred for authority and for society in general. Upon being released, after serving only three months in prison, I was filled with more hate than ever. Then, a tragedy changed the course of my life.
Vengeance Becomes My Goal
My family had a dispute with another Gypsy family. My uncles and I decided to confront them to resolve the matter. Both families were armed. In the argument that ensued, my uncle Pierre and a cousin of my father were shot dead. I was so distraught that I stood in the street, gun in hand, yelling in a fit of rage. One of my uncles finally wrestled my gun away from me.
The loss of Uncle Pierre, whom I viewed as a father, left me stricken with grief. I went into mourning according to Gypsy custom. For many days I did not shave or eat any meat. I refused to watch television or listen to music. I vowed to avenge the death of my uncle, but my relatives prevented me from getting a gun.
In August 1984, I was inducted into military service. At 20 years of age, I enrolled in the United Nations peacekeeping force in Lebanon. To kill or be killed was a risk that I accepted. At the time, I was smoking large quantities of hashish. In addition to giving me a sense of well-being, the drug made me feel that nothing could harm me.
It was easy to obtain arms in Lebanon, so I decided to ship weapons back to France to further my plan to avenge my uncle. I bought two pistols, along with ammunition, from local residents. I disassembled the guns, hid them in two radios, and sent them home.
Just two weeks before the end of my military service, three of my companions and I went absent without leave. On returning to barracks, we were locked up. While in jail, I flew into a rage and attacked a guard. It was inconceivable for me to be belittled by a payo—a non-Gypsy. The following day I had another violent clash, this time with an officer. I was sent to the Montluc Prison, in Lyons, for the remainder of my military service.
I Find Freedom—In Prison
On my first day in Montluc Prison, I was warmly greeted by a pleasant young man. I learned that he was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and that he and others of his faith were in prison simply because they did not take up arms. That puzzled me. I wanted to learn more.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, I found, had a genuine love for God, and their high moral standards impressed me. Still, I had many questions. In particular, I wanted to know if the dead can communicate with the living through dreams—something that many Gypsies believe. A Witness named Jean-Paul offered to study the Bible with me, using the book You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth.*
I devoured the book in one night, and my heart was touched by what I read. Here, in prison, I had found true freedom! When I was finally released from prison, I took the train home, with my bag full of Bible publications.
To contact the Witnesses in my home area, I went to the Kingdom Hall in Martigues. I continued studying the Bible, now with the help of a young full-time minister named Eric. Within a few days, I stopped smoking, and I stopped seeing my former partners in crime. I was determined to act in harmony with Proverbs 27:11, which says: “Be wise, my son, and make my heart rejoice, that I may make a reply to him that is taunting me.” In Jehovah, I had found a loving Father whom I wanted to please.
The Challenge of Changing
It was not easy for me to put Christian principles into practice. For example, I had a relapse with my drug problem that lasted several weeks. But the hardest challenge for me was to get rid of the desire for vengeance. Unknown to Eric, I always carried a gun and was still actively plotting my revenge against those who killed my uncle. I spent entire nights tracking them down.
When I told Eric about this, he clearly explained to me that I could not establish a good relationship with God while being armed and seeking vengeance. I had to make a choice. I meditated deeply on the apostle Paul’s admonition at Romans 12:19: “Do not avenge yourselves, beloved, but yield place to the wrath.” This, along with fervent prayer, helped me to control my feelings. (Psalm 55:22) Finally, I got rid of my weapons. On December 26, 1986, after studying the Bible for one year, I symbolized my dedication to Jehovah God by water baptism.
My Family Responds
The changes that I had made in my conduct encouraged my parents to study the Bible. They remarried, and my mother was baptized in July 1989. In time, several other members of my family responded to the Bible’s message and became Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In August 1988, I decided to become a full-time minister. Then I fell in love with a young sister in my congregation named Katia. We were married on June 10, 1989. Our first year of marriage was not easy, for I still had some adjustments to make in my attitude toward women. It was difficult for me to apply the words of 1 Peter 3:7, which encourage husbands to assign their wives honor. Repeatedly, I had to pray for the strength to swallow my pride and change my thinking. Things gradually improved.
My uncle’s death still causes me great pain, and at times I cannot hold back the tears when I think about him. I struggle with strong emotions triggered by memories of his murder. For years, even after my baptism, I was afraid of a chance encounter with members of the family with whom we previously had a vendetta. What would I do if they attacked me? How would I react? Would my old personality take over?
One day I gave a public talk in a nearby congregation. There I saw Pepa, a relative of the men who had killed my uncle. I will admit that seeing her tested every fiber of my Christian personality. But I put aside my feelings. Later, on the day of Pepa’s baptism, I embraced her and congratulated her on her decision to serve Jehovah. In spite of all that had happened, I accepted her as my spiritual sister.
Every day, I thank Jehovah for helping me to break free from the chains of hatred. Where would I be today without Jehovah’s mercy? Thanks to him, I enjoy a happy family life. I also have a hope for the future—that of a new world free of hate and violence. Yes, I have every confidence that God’s promise will be fulfilled: “They will actually sit, each one under his vine and under his fig tree, and there will be no one making them tremble; for the very mouth of Jehovah of armies has spoken it.”—Micah 4:4.
Published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
[Picture on page 19]
With UN peacekeeping forces in Lebanon, 1985
[Picture on page 20]
With Katia and my sons, Timeo and Pierre