Urban Youth Collaborative Director Carlos Nicasio
Making A Difference On School Campuses: Carlos Nicasio Is Reaching A New Generation
Written by Henry Orltip
Raised in what he describes as a strict Christian home, by his early teen years, Carlos Nicasio was on a path of rebellion. He turned to gangs, drugs and a destructive lifestyle. By his own admission, he says it is a miracle he is alive today. At 22 years of age, Nicasio recommitted his life to Christ after struggles in his marriage and fighting an addiction with drugs. It was through this journey that Nicasio felt led to reach out to teenagers through their schools. Today, as the South Bay Director for Urban Youth Collaborative and the South Bay Representative for Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the greater San Diego area, Nicasio oversees 26 schools with a student population of 42,000. His approach is to partner with schools including teachers, coaches and faculty to impact the school as a whole. Risen caught up with this also pastor, to talk about his childhood, experiences in school, and how he trains teams of kids to effectively go onto their campuses to share and reach others.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in National City, California
RM: Let’s start from the beginning. Describe where you were born and what your family life was like growing up?
Carlos Nicasio: My family is originally from Guanajuato, Mexico. We moved to the U.S. in 1973 when I was four months old. We moved to a community in San Diego called National City. I grew up in a home with primarily Spanish-speaking parents. When I went to kindergarten, I started to learn English. I really struggled a lot early on in school because of the language barrier. So much so, that I remember when I was a kid my dad would take me to the store, he would stay in the car, and ask me to walk into the store and ask for a pack of matches. I didn’t know how to say matches and we both didn’t speak any English, but I think he figured I would be able to find a way to get the matches for him. So, you know, just funny things like that are ways I learned to speak the language.
I grew up in a community that was predominately Hispanic. There were many issues in the community like dealing with gangs, violence, and drugs. In the early 70’s there was a different gang and drug culture, and as a kid in the neighborhood that I grew up in, there was great need for change. I have kind of been around that my whole life.
I grew up with two brothers and three sisters, my parents were very attentive to our needs. I had a good family structure. My parents came to Christ when I was seven years old. I remember being in a Sunday school class, and the teacher saying, “Who would like to receive Christ as their personal Lord and Savior?” This was my first time in church and I didn’t know what that meant, but I saw every other kid raise their hand. I looked around and thought I didn’t want to be excluded, so I raised my hand and at seven years old I gave my life to Christ. I think from that journey itself, there was a sense of hope that had come into my life and into my family.
RM: Becoming a Christian so young, did you notice a change in your mind and heart at that age? How did the seed that was planted that day grow?
Carlos Nicasio: I think when I received Christ in my heart, I definitely do remember having a transformational experience. I recall as a little kid, I had this desire to go to church and this ambition to learn about God. There was an environment of excitement and I looked forward to it every week. When I first came into the church it was very foreign to me, but as I gave my life to Christ within in the first year, I really started getting involved in what was going on in my Sunday school class. I was always outgoing and very much an extrovert. I connected with the teacher and the kids and it was a fun environment. In the initial part of my walk with Christ as a kid, it was really fun.
RM: How did these experiences of your youth shape your passion for ministry later on?
Carlos Nicasio: As I got older, I became turned off by the church. I think the real reason was because my mother was so protective of us. She tried to shield us from anything outside of the church. We were guarded and disciplined in ways that most kids weren’t. My parents wouldn’t let us listen to secular music or shows, they really put us in this box as teenagers and they tried to shield us from any secular thing that was out there. That really shifted my heart and [I thought], “I don’t know if this is what God wants.” It was really hard for me, because my parents were so religious at one point, and that’s when many things began to change for me in my walk with the Lord. There was a lot of anger and rejection. I felt isolated from everyone else.
RM: What age was this? Did this lead to tangible rebellion, or was it more internal?
Carlos Nicasio: This was in seventh grade; I was thirteen. There was some internal rebellion in my behavior which led me to connect with the wrong friends. That opened up an avenue for me. I started misbehaving, not doing homework, hanging out with the wrong crowd and really just getting sucked into the world of gangs, violence, and drugs which opened the door for me into that lifestyle.
We went from being this little group of kids on the corner pushing a gang, to spray-painting everything you could possibly imagine. That lifestyle snowballed into drugs and other things.
RM: Moving into that destructive lifestyle, how did it affect you?
Carlos Nicasio: Man, I’m a miracle. The reason I do what I do today is because I’ve lived the way the kids on campus are living. At 13 years old, coming from a good family, rebelling into a society that was already upside down and broken, and being part of the brokenness. It was really tragic to just look back and reflect, and say, “Here are the things that I went through.” Joining a gang, joining a graffiti crew, that was really a lot of what I did. I was an artist spray-painting walls. We were what you called in the late 80’s “Tag Bangers.” We went from being this little group of kids on the corner pushing a gang, to spray-painting everything you could possibly imagine. That lifestyle snowballed into drugs and other things.
RM: From the time of following the Lord when you were young to when you were into gangs, was there an individual who made a positive, lasting impression on you?
Carlos Nicasio: Absolutely. When I was young and connected to the church one of the things that I didn’t experience was having a youth leader. There wasn’t a system in the church where a youth leader would intervene in my life; at least I didn’t experience that. I think I grew up with the anger that no one in the church cared enough to come out and get me. I think I felt like I lost out on that. When I was experiencing God early on in my life, I got my passion from my mom. I saw how passionate she was for Christ and even today, I attribute the passion for Christ in my heart to my mother. I got my work ethic from my father; he was a hard-working individual. Part of why I work as hard as I do to try to reach every kid is because my dad taught me a hard work ethic.
I grew up in an era of the hip-hop generation; when hip-hop was birthed in the 80’s. One of the biggest influences in my life was Eazy-E and N.W.A. The whole gangster rap scene was something I was very attracted to at the time. We mimicked what we saw on television. I was highly influenced by I-Cub, L.L. Cool J, Slick Rick and all of the hip-hop artists of that era leading into the 90’s. The lyrics were very violent and profane. That was influencing our attitudes and our behavior, and what we did on the streets. I think there was a recklessness we were experiencing due to the music we were influenced by. I mean, I was busted at 16 years old for grand theft auto and I remember driving down the street to Eazy-E. It was crazy, but to me this was normal; this was real. I lost friends through the process, I lost cousins, I lost family, and I lost my own brother. All of it to either gang violence, drug deals gone badly, or prison. One of my friends just got out of prison after being in there for 20 years for murder. Now he knows the Lord; he’s redeemed. I come from a redeemed generation.
We don’t just want to be the Bible-thumpers on campus who come in and have a Bible study for 30 minutes, we want to be the church, we want to be the body of Christ, and the believers God is sending into the school to impact it as a whole.
RM: How has the culture changed from the time you were in high school to what teens are facing today? Are the struggles the same or has it evolved to something greater?
Carlos Nicasio: It has evolved to something greater. In my day we carried a gun. If we had a brawl at school, most likely we’d be in a gunfight after school. Some of the kids, who are crazy, will go shoot up a school, as we’ve heard about… but you didn’t hear about kids fighting on campus during school hours, busting out guns and shooting each other. In my community, you would hear about kids fighting in school and they would shoot at each other after school. It was violent; it was the 90‘s. Today, it is much more dangerous because kids are taking their own lives. They are suicidal. There’s so much depression and kids are so isolated in themselves that they are taking action into their own hands.
RM: How are you taking your background and love for Christ and ministering to kids on their school campuses?
Carlos Nicasio: One of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned in what I’m doing today on campus, is that people are really open to the church. The school is really open to hear the voice of the church because of the issues that the school faces; both at the budget level and behavioral level on a daily basis. I’ve learned that when the school gives us the opportunity, we have to act on it and that’s a valuable thing. Many times as a church, we look into a school and we’re afraid to pursue the opportunities God has given us, but the school is really crying out for the church to come in and be a part of what happens there every day.
I think one of the biggest challenges today, being in this type of ministry, is the lack of wholeheartedly committed people to be involved on campus. Only two things change the world; consistence and love. Kids today want to feel that they have someone consistently in their life who loves them. Even as we partner with churches all over the city, sometimes I feel like a pastor doesn’t get it. You know, a lot of people get excited about what the possibilities are at schools and what God can do, but there’s an investment of not only time, but finances that has to be made to empower the church to go into a school and bring true transformation. True transformation, obviously, is to see a kid come to Christ. But there are other components in the school where I think the church needs to play a vital role in; like the entire curriculum coming down from the government and the state. I feel like we as a church need to shine brighter. There has to be this idea, how do we serve schools from the front door to the back door? How do we partner with the school and meet the needs of the students as a whole, including the teachers, coaches and faculty? We don’t just want to be the Bible-thumpers on campus who come in and have a Bible study for 30 minutes, we want to be the church, we want to be the body of Christ, and the believers God is sending into the school to impact it as a whole.
RM: As times are changing, how do you think the church is adapting?
Carlos Nicasio: I think we need to be very careful with how we approach change. We are the church; we are the body of Christ. We have convictions and beliefs as a church and we have to be relevant to the world around us, yet differentiate ourselves from it. We have to stand in our convictions. We are the church and we will embrace change as change comes, but we also have to tell the world this is our position, we will not be moved from our faith in Christ, in the reality of the cross, and the Gospel. I think at times, we as a church, will negotiate our faith in so many words, so we are able to have a conversation of how we can engage in certain communities or certain issues in our society. I feel like everyone [non-believers in the world] is threatened by Christianity, threatened by our faith, and by what Christ did on the cross. People will not have a conversation with us at times, because of who we are, because it threatens their position and their agenda. As times change we have to use wisdom in how we navigate through these different changes.
RM: Have there been moments or relationships in which you know that God really used you in a special way?
Carlos Nicasio: There is one moment that always comes to mind when I’m asked this question. One of the things we do at the church is a seven-day intensive internship during the summer. Kids come from all over the city and participate in training. It’s geared towards reaching their campus. We start on day one with the ABC’s of campus ministry and we close with “Rock Your Campus.” We teach them how to start a Bible club on campus and we teach them how to launch a full assembly. Through this process we have nights where the kids come for general sessions and this one particular night that we were in session, we were praying and hundreds of kids were here and I just remember very vividly where God’s spirit came upon everyone there in the meeting and it almost felt like His stamp of approval for what was taking place that night. It was almost like the Holy Spirit came and is now sending us forth. It reminded me of the day of Pentecost when the Spirit of God came in that upper room and then everyone went out into the community and transformed the world. I remember feeling that same feeling that God’s Spirit had come, empowered all of these kids and then sent them right out into the public schools. After that experience, we went from four campuses and several thousand kids to this vision for 26 schools, 42 thousand kids in the largest secondary school district in the entire United States. That’s kind of where we are at.
We have convictions and beliefs as a church and we have to be relevant to the world around us, yet differentiate ourselves from it.
RM: When did you meet your wife and how does your family interact with your work?
Carlos Nicasio: I met my wife, believe it or not, with my sister at the drive-thru at Jack in the Box. I saw this gorgeous girl walking across the street and I said to my sister, “That’s going to be my girlfriend one day.” And my sister looks over and says to me, “You’re crazy.” Then several months later, a friend of mine was dating this girl and he asked me to go on a double date, and sure enough, when we pulled up, it was her. So, that’s how I met my wife. We picked up my friend’s girl he was dating, so I was introduced to her. One thing led to another after that first date and the rest is history.
We’ve been married for 20 years. It’s been awesome; I love it. My wife is highly involved in everything that I do. She’s always been by my side and has always been in every ministry area that we’ve been a part of, as well as my daughter, Cassandra. Just seeing her grow up as a kid going on mission trips; she’s really been a part of our ministry and has helped our family. Both are very heavily involved in our ministry now.
RM: What is currently your biggest passion?
Carlos Nicasio: One of the biggest things for me, in what God has called us to do all over San Diego, is to train and equip students, college-aged students, and youth pastors. I have a heart for leadership development and to get kids to come and learn. When we first started working on a school, we had an outreach Bible club, where we saw over 12,000 kids come throughout the year. We built a model there and we invited the whole city to come and showed them how to do ministry from the front door to the back door; being an example of really engaging the entire needs of the school. When we built that model, we wanted to show people what a holistic approach to campus ministry looked like and what this could look like in their community, in the hope that there will be a day that God calls them to do the same in their community with some of those ideas. People have done it, and they’ve outdone us. That’s one of the desires that I always had. When it comes to leadership training and development, we have really empowered our generation in schools and we’ve seen tremendous growth, both spiritually and numerically, at schools by the kids who are leading these clubs. We trained 120 kids last summer. There are 42,000 students; it’s a huge mission field. One of my desires is to find a way to turn this seven-day intensive internship into a two-year, semester-based program. That is our dream right now, to build an internship in San Diego where kids can come from all over the nation and live in this beautiful city with a focus to reach a generation on school campuses.
Exclusive Interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Summer 2014
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