Sheriff's deputy-turned-lay-preacher Romero uses energetic style to build up an 'army of soldiers for Christ' among English-and Spanish-speaking CatholicsBy Jim Graves
Just over a decade ago, an injury forced Jesse Romero to retire early from his job as a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy, a career he loved.
It freed him up, however, to work full time as a lay Catholic evangelist, a career in which he has found even greater rewards. Since making the switch, Romero said he has achieved a sense of purpose encouraging others to love Jesus Christ and his Church, and to embrace and practice the Catholic faith with vigor.
“I don’t merely teach the Bible, I preach the Bible,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “And I do it with a passionate power.”
Tough upbringingRomero, 48, was born in San Fernando, a suburb of Los Angeles. Growing up in one of the most violent and crime-ridden communities in the region, Romero remembers as a teen seeing yellow police tape strung up at homicide scenes throughout his neighborhood. A fatalistic humor developed among his family.
“We’d sit at home and wonder who was going to get killed over the weekend. It’s what we knew. We thought it was normal,” he told OSV.
Much of the violence in Latino communities in the United States, said Romero, a first generation Mexican-American, is due to a lack of identity among Mexican-American youths. Family in Mexico looked down on him as a “half-breed” and not truly Mexican, he said, while in America he was considered a “wetback” and not really American. Hence, Mexican-American youths are attracted to brown power movements. He remembers as a teen wearing jean jackets with such slogans as “Chicano Power” emblazoned on the back.
His “reversion” to Catholicism changed his mind: “The first-generation Mexican American wonders ‘Who am I?’ When I found out that I was a child of God, with God as my father and Jesus as my brother, the scales fell from my eyes. I was liberated. I realized I was made for heaven.”
Although the family was culturally Catholic and he went to Catholic schools, as a youth the Faith was of little interest to him. His father enrolled Ro-mero and his brothers in martial-arts classes, which became Romero’s “pseudo-religion.”
Martial arts did keep the Romero boys out of trouble, though.
“God used the martial arts to take my brothers and me out of the barrio during our wild teen years. It taught us respect, discipline and mind control,” he said. “While other kids in the neighborhood were doing drugs, drinking beer, listening to music and being promiscuous with women, we’d be preparing for our next karate tournament.”
Faith influencesRomero was a self-described secular humanist, and although he’d go to Mass to keep the family happy, he saw the Catholic faith as a “women’s religion.”
In his 20s, Romero underwent a conversion. His parents attended a Cursillo weekend to revitalize their struggling marriage. The weekend had a profound influence on them. His dad, who had been an alcoholic and absentee father, stopped drinking and started reading the Bible. His parents joined the Legion of Mary and a charismatic prayer group. Friends would come over to pray.
“It showed me that someone not practicing the Faith could turn on a dime,” he told OSV. “My parents have been living a vibrant Catholic faith for 30 years now.”
At age 21, Romero joined the sheriff’s department. Putting criminals in jail appealed to him, and his martial-arts skills seemed well-suited to law enforcement.
Five years later, a fellow officer and evangelical Christian, Paul Clay, asked him about his relationship with Christ. He encouraged him to study the Bible. Romero did, and his attitude toward the Catholic faith changed: “I remember looking at a picture of the Sacred Heart, crying, and telling Jesus, ‘I want to know you like Paul Clay.’” (Clay would later become Catholic through Romero’s influence.)
Romero gave up drinking and swearing. Instead, to the surprise and delight of his wife, he started praying.
His pastor suggested he attend a Catholic Answers seminar led by apologist Karl Keating. In 30 hours at the seminar, he noted, he learned more than he had in all his years in Catholic schools. He told his wife: “I’m home. Jesus started the Catholic Church, and we’re going to the Catholic Church for the rest of our lives.”
Energetic styleWhen he wasn’t on duty, Romero began volunteering at his parish, Santa Rosa Catholic Church in San Fernando, teaching Bible studies and confirmation classes.
“I loved it. People told me that when I taught from the Bible, I preached with conviction,” he noted. “To God be the glory, but I brought energy to the parish.”
Terry Barber of St. Joseph Communications, a Catholic audio and video production company based in West Covina, Calif., learned of Romero’s story and asked to record it for release nationwide. St. Joseph Communications distributed 10,000 cassette tapes, and invitations for Romero to speak to Catholic groups soon came in from all over the country.
A hip injury at age 37 ended his career with law enforcement. In an exit interview, he told the sheriff, “I want to be a preacher.”
Today, Romero hosts a daily apologetics program, “Straight Talk Catholicism,” on Los Angeles’ Spanish Catholic radio station Guadalupe 87.7 FM, the only English program it offers.
He also records a weekly SIRIUS Satellite Radio program with Barber, “Reasons for Faith.”
“Jesse has been an amazing partner on Catholic radio, because of his knowledge and love of the Catholic faith,” Barber told OSV.
Romero, who has a master’s degree in Catholic theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, also leads weekly Bible studies, offers individual counseling and spiritual direction, and does a weekly podcast, “Culture Warriors for Christ.” He also keynotes at Catholic conferences. Twice monthly he offers a Bible study in Hollywood, not far from his Southern California home, for those in the entertainment industry.
Convincing messageOne of Romero’s strengths is that he is fluent in both English and Spanish, which enables him to evangelize both communities.
Romero teaches a Bible study Wednesday nights at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Reseda.
“We love Jesse and are thrilled with what he’s brought to the parish. He has been able to reach out to an important segment of our population, younger, English-speaking Latinos,” Father Paul Griesgraber, St. Catherine’s administrator, said. “He brings not only feeling and enthusiasm, but good reasons why they should be part of the Church.”
Romero’s pet project at the moment is the establishment of a new school of evangelization to train others to share the Catholic faith as he does. He wants to open it under the auspices of Coadjutor Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles.
“I want to create an army of soldiers for Christ to go out and be missionaries,” he told OSV.
In addition to his radio programs and speaking appear-ances, Romero is author of multiple apologetics books, and offers audio CDs and MP3s through his media company, Stand Up For Jesus.
Barber knows many Catholic speakers, and he told OSV that he admires Romero because, as his popularity has grown, he is the same modest man that he met 20 years ago: “Popularity changes some people, but Jesse has remained a humble servant of the Lord. He still takes the time to share the Faith, one person at a time.”
Jim Graves writes from California.
Martial-arts AchievementToday, Jesse Romero may be best known for his energetic preaching of Christ’s word, but it isn’t the first field in which he’s found success. A look at his martial-arts accomplishments shows that he’s had passion and commitment for whatever he is doing for a long time.
- Three-time World Police Boxing champion
- Two-time middleweight U.S.A. kickboxing champion
- Second-generation Chuck Norris black belt in Tang Soo Do (a Korean martial art)