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Ex-gang member helping ex-cons get on track

Former gang member Matthew Taufetee leads Life After Prison, a residential,
faith-based program at Pacific Islander United Methodist Church in Honolulu.
A UMNS photo by John Coleman. 

A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert*

Nov. 13, 2007

While many "preacher's kids" have a reputation for trouble, Matthew Taufetee may be the worst "PK" of all.

At 14, Taufetee joined a gang and began stealing purses from elderly women. By the time he was 28, he had been in prison twice for violent crimes and was addicted to alcohol and crystal methamphetamine.

"I kept hearing stories that pastor's kids are the worst," he said. "I can testify to why we are the worst."

Taufetee (left) became involved in gangs when he was 14 and served prison time for manslaughter. A UMNS photo courtesy of Matthew Taufetee.

Taufetee's father, a United Methodist pastor, often was called to help the "guys who were making trouble." But those were the same guys with whom Taufetee clicked as a teenager.

His first prison term came when he almost beat a man to death with his bare fists. His second sentence was for stabbing another man to death with a knife from his mother's kitchen.

Three months after he was in jail on murder charges, word came that a rival gang had killed his brother in retaliation for Taufetee's crime. "I felt responsible for taking my brother's life," he said.

"At that time I didn't really know about God even though I went to church. I had people writing letters to me from different churches telling me 'God loves you,' but I never really took that to heart."

After many hard years and many relapses, Taufetee finally turned his life around and founded "LAP," or Life After Prison, a faith-based program that integrates former prison inmates back into the community. He is also a lay minister at Pacific Islander United Methodist Church where his father, the Rev. Faaagi Taufetee, is pastor.

A life apart

Today, Taufetee finally has a loving relationship with his parents.

One of six children, he always had "issues" with church and also with his Samoan, native Hawaiian family. When they moved to the Honolulu suburb of Salt Lake for a new pastoral appointment, Taufetee felt like an outcast because they were the only Samoan family.

"We grew up with strict parents who did the best they could in trying to discipline us, but I just held a lot of things in and I became bitter," he said. "Eventually I just started turning to the wrong crowd."

Bloods and Crips, two notorious rival gangs that started on the mainland, came to Salt Lake, where Taufetee became associated with the worst gang in Hawaii: BSB, for Bad Samoan Bloods.

"They made me feel special," he recalls. "They were always encouraging me, but little did I know they were only feeding my ego."

“I really felt this was something I could do — share the same love of God that I really felt and let them know that God loves them and there is hope.” –Matthew Taufetee

At 17, Taufetee became the chauffer for one of the biggest drug dealers in Waikiki. In 1987, he was charged with attempted murder after beating a guy with his bare fists. "Till this day, he is brain dead," he said. "I had to go to jail that time for attempted murder, but my dad got me out of supervised release to home, which I know now was probably a mistake."

After another gang-related fight, the victim died. Taufetee was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

"I had a chance of coming out at three and a half years, but they let me out on furlough and I went straight to my gang friends and ended up partying. I went back to jail under the influence."

The violation added another year to his sentence, and he spent 30 days in solitary confinement. "I was just by myself with a toilet for 30 days during my birthday, Christmas and everything," he said.

After completing his sentence, Taufetee quickly rediscovered gangs and drugs. By this time, however, his father was transferred to Torrance, Calif. For the first time in his life, he didn't have his family to fall back on.  

Burden lifted

It took "Men of WAR" to finally get him back to God.

Those Christian men of WAR (Wisdom, Authority and Righteousness) followed Taufetee into the bars where he was partying and told him about Jesus.

"I really didn't care to hear anything about the word of God because I felt I was a pastor's son and I was going to heaven. That's what I believed. I was so lost," he recalls.

Life After Prison helps former inmates return to community life. A UMNS
Web-only video image.

Taufetee finally relented, though, and went to church at the Word of Life Christian Center. "I remember seeing this Mexican pastor just ministering the Word, and all it took was for him to say 'Jesus loves you.' It was a feeling I cannot describe. I felt like the burden was lifted finally and I felt like I had a future."

His parents moved back to Hawaii and started Pacific Islander United Methodist Church, where Taufetee began attending to support his father.

During this time, Taufetee began to envision a program to help other people like himself when they are released from prison. "LAP" was launched with a grant from the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race.

"They (prisoners) come back wanting to do this and that, to get a relationship back with a girl or get a relationship back with their kids, and they never really work with the issues that caused them to go to prison in the first place," he said.

In Hawaii, one stipulation for prison release is that the inmate gets a full-time job. The first hurdle begins when they have to check the box that asks if they have been convicted of a felony. "Nobody wants to hire a felon," he said. "They don't get called in for interviews, and it kind of leads these guys to go right back to the same thing."

Because Taufetee has walked the same path, he gets a lot of respect from ex-prisoners.

"I really felt this was something I could do — share the same love of God that I really felt and let them know that God loves them and there is hope."

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


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