“Big Mike” Prado is from East Los Angeles. Until recently, he was a fourth-generation member of the Maravilla gang, one of the oldest street gangs in the United States. He’s been on drugs; he’s been in prison; he’s been shot at close range with an AK-47. This hulking but soft-spoken man has seen just about everything there is to see. And he lives right here in Abilene.
“I found a way out,” he says.
The way out was long and difficult and winding – and it’s not over yet. Mike still attends Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. He also mentors other young people. Out of all the support groups, though, one is different. That’s where we met him.
Da’Cipher is a support group, a daycare, a dinner party, a family reunion and a classroom. Most importantly, it’s all-inclusive.
“At Da’Cipher, we have a formula where people feel comfortable,” says Robert Lilly, the founder and facilitator of Da’Cipher; most people call him Brother R.O.B. “It’s a place you can come share what you know, who you are, where you’ve been.”
The group began about two years ago as a response to the Def Poetry Jam performance. Rob – a 39-year-old nontraditional student who spent 15 years of his life in jail – and several other students who were concerned about social justice formed a poetry group that focused on changing attitudes toward “other” people. Six students became about 60 participants, ranging from infants to grandparents.
“We were concerned about youth and the lack of tolerance and acceptance in our community,” Rob says. “We decided to create this community where if you’re young and confused, someone will still wrap their arms around you and tell you they love you.”
Da’Cipher meets every Monday night at 6:30 p.m. at the GV Daniels Recreation Center, and usually dinner is provided. Rob says the only price of admission is an introduction, so everyone walks around the circle shaking hands and exchanging names.
“The circle represents 360 degrees of knowledge and wisdom in life,” Rob says. “No matter if you’re 9 or 19, you can teach something to someone who’s 39 or 59.”
Although last Monday, Mike was the “scheduled” speaker, everyone is encouraged to speak, to laugh and to share. Anyone new to Da’Cipher was asked to introduce themselves to the entire group, which met with snapping because “we too cool at Da’Cipher to clap,” Rob says.
The most important purpose of Da’Cipher, it seems, is to give young people a forum to ask questions and bring to light issues that adults – and Christians – tend to ignore or avoid, Rob says.
“There are few opportunities to express what’s going on in traditional churches. When do we build relationships with people that are more than surface deep?” he says. “We pay lip service to our young but we don’t spend the quality time with them that’s necessary to create change on a consistent basis.”
A good number of the people who attend Da’Cipher are “troubled” teens, drug users, ex-offenders, children with bad home lives or bad grades or both. But just like Big Mike, they’re all there because they’re looking for their purpose in life – as are some of the ACU students who attend.
That’s the point of Da’Cipher, Rob says. We can acknowledge our struggles and our differences and receive validation without secluding anyone. We can choose to see value and not worthlessness in each and every person. We can help each other become assets to society instead of liabilities. But we can only do that if we know the real person, not the façade. And that’s why the Da’Cipher community is so important, he says.
“What we’re doing is the work of redemption,” he says. “God is in the recycling business.”