From drug baron to faith leader: a Richmond redemption

on December 17, 2014

Eleven years ago, Bridget Gaines was driving through North Richmond with her son, and as the police pulled her over, her life was at one of many turning points. She had not slept for days due to smoking crack cocaine. She had been selling heroin that night on 2nd street and had both crack and heroin on her person.

“I was scared to death, and high as a kite,” she says. “I though this was it, I was going to jail. I’m pretty sure my eyes were dilated like a mug. But the police officers look at me and my son, and said ‘Ms. Gaines, have a nice day but go get that tail light fixed.’”

While luck favored her this time, there are few episodes in her life when fortune has looked on the now 54 year-old Gaines so kindly. Still, her story is an odds-defying journey, rising out of abuse, trauma and criminality to a newly productive life.

Raised in East Oakland, she attests to sexual molestation from the age of five by various older members of her family as well as a female babysitter.

“I suppressed a lot of horrible events. You were told to be quiet and not talk about those things [the sexual abuse].” Gaines was offered a lifeline at the age of 11. Her mother had a nervous breakdown and with her absent father addicted to heroin, she and her baby sister were dropped off at their more affluent aunt & uncle’s house in the Oakland Hills. She discovered playing the violin and reading books.

“I understood that education didn’t necessarily mean college, but reading books and learning. At 15 I was reading The Gulag Archipelago [by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn].” However, teenage temptations inevitably grew and Gaines became pregnant with her first son Ricky at the age of 19, with a boyfriend who did not stay around for long. Working as an “insurance claims administrator,” she married a man called Derek at 25 with whom she had two more sons, the now 25 year-old Shawn and 19 year-old Christopher.

Working and earning in insurance, Gaines enjoyed economic stability, but there was a dark reality to her marriage with Derek. “We managed to do what none of our parents nor grandparents could do — buy a home, the American dream. And it was fake.”

“He acted one way in public, and then whispering in my ear ‘you’re a slut, a whore.’ I had no idea there was such a thing as verbal abuse. I stayed because I wanted my marriage to work, I’m Christian and I wanted things to go properly.”

Going to church together every week, Gaines “couldn’t even say ‘Amen’ in church without him hitting me.”

"Every few months the authorities say this place is being sorted out. And every few months we wait," she says. (Photo: Tom Goulding)

“Every few months the authorities say this place is being sorted out. And every few months we wait,” she says. (Photo: Tom Goulding)

 

The persistent presence of faith has been a common feature throughout Bridget’s life, and is clearly now a primary, life-affirming motivation for her. After long periods of talking about the great pain that she has been through, she will often end discussion of a traumatic episode with an enthusiastic ‘Amen!’

Gaines eventually split with Derek after 16 years of marriage with a card on Christmas Day of 2001, saying ‘Merry Christmas. I want a divorce.’ However, she had next to no one to turn to for support with the divorce and the death of her little sister from AIDS in the same year (“Everyone that I grew up with was now dead”). Unable to work due to chronic pains from being hit by a bus many years previously, Gaines was forced out of her home. She relapsed into heavy crack cocaine use that she had managed to avoid since the early eighties.

While retaining custody of her children, Gaines went back and forth between shelters, motels and periods of homelessness in Richmond (“I slept in my car with a knife for a while”). Without a full-time job, Gaines befriended addicts and dealers. Her familiarity and access to drugs grew to the extent that she rose to the top level of a drug-dealing ring, which operated throughout Contra Costa County in co-ordination with local gangs. In an environment where drug dealers were the only visible economic success stories, the incentives were there for someone who couldn’t work due to disability but had a large family to feed.

This turbulence lasted until 2009, when Gaines ran a drug team out of a motel in Vallejo, many of them women, whose money-making methods were diverse and complex. “I had a lot of girls in a lot of the rooms running tricks, scams, credit cards, selling crack cocaine, meth, anything and everything to get money.”

Gaines became a ruthless, profit-making boss. “The mentality of us was off the hook, it was do or die, if people are not loyal, you deal with them. If they steal from your gang or organization, you deal with them. And sometimes it’s not pretty.” Although Gaines says she never personally harmed anyone.

Gaines had met her current partner Antonio a few years previously, who she says was “one of the hardest thugs in Richmond – everyone knows about him.” This isn’t the description that comes immediately to mind when I first see Antonio. He is holding the microphone at the temporary home of the ‘Global Christian Ministries’ church up on Hilltop, passionately leading the singing of a Sunday service to the congregation of twenty worshippers.

Their union came at the right moment for both of them, and they helped each other forward. “I feel God did a Holy Ghost drive-by when he introduced me to him! But I kept calling him a man of God over the years, and three months ago he joined the church, and now he leads our singing the hymns.”

Antonio speaks of Gaines as a game-changer for the type of life he could be living. “She introduced a life of God to keep me working hard and positive,” he says. “You need someone to keep you on the right track. Without each other, we would probably be doing much worse things!”

Gaines helps organize the running of this small church, and is now trying to finish her Bachelor’s course in psychology at various community colleges to fulfill her ambition of becoming a clinical therapist. She has been clean from drugs for five years, and lives in the dilapidated Hacienda public housing project in Richmond. She has recovered from multiple stints of drug addiction, sexual abuse as a child, abusive relationships and homelessness to a colorful, functional, sociable presence. However, most of her partners in vice over the years are less fortunate, whether dead, incarcerated or still battling these problems.

“I’m incredibly proud of her,” Antonio says. “She’s come a long way in seven years.”

Gaines’ success in navigating through multiple abusive relationships and marginalization has taught her a great deal in how to deal with such harm. “The problem is that people will settle for the status quo, tricked into thinking this is what I have to accept,” she says. “No, you don’t have to accept that. You can change things.”

Gaines drives from the Hacienda every Sunday to Hilltop to help lead her church service. (Photo: Tom Goulding)

Gaines drives from the Hacienda every Sunday to Hilltop to help lead her church service. (Photo: Tom Goulding)

 

“Bridget’s been through a hell of a lot,” says Alberta Houston, another effervescent, middle-aged woman who helps Bridget run her church service. “She’s battled through all kinds of trauma, and now look where she is!” As Alberta says this, Bridget is laughing happily with her congregation, loudly making jokes while she moves chairs around for the service.

How do her friends explain such a transformation? “It’s one thing, pure and simple,” says Marilyn, Antonio’s mother whom she and Antonio care for and take to church every Sunday. “God. For both of them [Bridget and Antonio]. Coming to church every week gives them something to believe in. And to believe in themselves, too.”

The effect of the role models and lifestyles which surround young people growing up is not lost on Bridget. “I’ve learnt that we really do become a product of our environment,” she says. “Unless you’re really super strong and just an anomaly you tend to do what other people do. If a child grows up in an environment where all the men are pimps, dope dealers and hustlers, the mentors they see, they’ll want to do the same thing, they want the glamour.”

Redemption and relapse are two sides of the same coin. Redemption can be a fragile state, one that must be continuously nourished and supported. Perhaps what most makes Gaines redemption so persuasive is that she is keenly aware of that.

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