Former gang member brings message of hope to Dover

Rafael “Junny” Encarnacion Jr. is a member of the Dover-based Riding 4 Christ motorcycle ministry. (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)

Rafael “Junny” Encarnacion Jr. is a member of the Dover-based Riding 4 Christ motorcycle ministry. (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)

DOVER — He’s seen the drug trade, violence and vice stagger a community and was an active participant in the decay.

Rafael “Junny” Encarnacion Jr. grew up hard in Brooklyn, New York, and has the prison stays and body scars to prove it.

Now a 47-year-old Christian family man with stable employment in Sussex County, he knows what a truly troubled neighborhood looks like.

While acknowledging that Dover is a city with growing issues, Mr. Encarnacion knows it can become worse.

“When you see guys walking down the street in colors and staking out their corners, then there will be a real problem,” he said. “Dover is small enough and has enough great people trying to do the right thing that it doesn’t have to get like that.”

The former prison gang member figures Delaware’s capital city is salvageable, and there’s opportunity to reverse the violent trend.

That’s why the Georgetown resident makes several 45-minute trips a month to Dover.

“I know I wouldn’t be coming all the way up here if I didn’t think this city was worth it,” he said.

Balanced on two wheels, Mr. Encarnacion and roughly 20 members of the Riding 4 Christ motorcycle ministry regularly set up in the downtown area to share a hopeful message.

The outreach efforts are based at his Maranatha Life Changing Church at 1235 E. Division Street in Dover.

Street meetings

Once a month, Mr. Encarnacion said, the church crew sets up on New Street in the downtown area, sharing free hot dogs and water for whoever wants to hear a message of hope. The sessions run from 10 p.m. to midnight on Fridays over the past three years, off and on.

Rafael “Junny” Encarnacion Jr., 47, came to Delaware in 2001 from Brooklyn, New York. (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)

Rafael “Junny” Encarnacion Jr., 47, came to Delaware in 2001 from Brooklyn, New York. (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)

“We set up the grill and break out a guitar,” he said. “We sing songs of worship, pray and speak with whoever wants to take part.”

On other Fridays, groups of three to five Maranatha members walk the most challenged streets hoping to engage in conversations with an optimistic tone.

“Walking these streets at night and seeing what’s going on, it’s a reflection of my life in New York,” he said.

“I want to give them love, I want to give the people here some hope. Politicians mean well but they can never give them what I can give them.

“I want to let them see what I’ve been through and show that there is a way out of it.”

Regarding his belief in Maranatha, he said, ““It’s a church of God, it’s a church of love. If you walk into the church and don’t feel loved then we’re not doing our thing.”

Gotta love Delaware

Mr. Encarnacion’s love affair with the First State began when he traveled here to visit family in the 1970s.

“Every time I visited here I called it ‘tranquility’ because it is so different than New York is,” he said.

“There was not the stress, there was not the fast lane. I love New York but it’s a hard city to keep a right mind in.”

By 2001, Mr. Encarnacion had years of drug abuse and prison time, with more seemingly on the way.

“Growing up in the hood you see drugs on the corner, fast money, loose women,” he said. “There’s no time to sleep because at whatever hour of the day you could get involved with whatever you want to.”

When he became embroiled in a dangerous beef with a “big time” drug dealer, Mr. Encarnacion said his brother living in Delaware “grabbed me by the hair and said ‘You’re leaving, that’s it.”

Even with a parole violation by leaving New York unannounced, the move proved well worth it. He said he violated parole for 14 years while settling in Georgetown. He said he eventually cleared up legal issues in his home state, but remained in his adopted home.

Eight years ago, the Lord arrived in his life, completing a transformation that involved raising a family with a spouse he adores, and working regularly in Sussex County in the chicken processing and trucking industries.

“It wasn’t tough at all,” he said of kicking addiction and believing in God. “I don’t know how it happened, it just happened. I have to believe that God was the reason for it.”

His kids here are 4, 10, and 14, and get far more attention than his children of 23, 24, and 25 from an earlier relationship in New York.

“I wasn’t a father,” he said of growing up quick in the city. “My life was contained to the streets.”

Fortunately, his mother never gave up on him. She attended Maranatha church in Dover, and he followed her here when his life was transformed.

“My mom was always a church goer,” he said. “She always believed in me and never stopped praying for me.”

To contact Maranatha Life Changing Church, call 734.9510 or email maranathadelaware@comcast.net. Information is available online at maranathadelaware.org.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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