Faces of Long Island celebrates the uniqueness of everyday Long Islanders. In their own words, they tell us about their life experiences, challenges and triumphs. Newsday launched this social media journey into the human experience to shine a light on the diverse people of this wonderful place we call home.

‘… When the other gangs were shooting at them, I was going to be shot at, too.’

Gary Chin, Levittown

“I came to this country in 1967 as an immigrant from Macao, China. We were very poor. My father was unable to leave China at that time, so my mother raised all four of us. I was the oldest. I was 9, my sister was 8, my brothers were 2 and 4. My mother went out to work in the garment district in Chinatown. She would go to work before we woke up, and by the time she came home, we were already sleeping.

“My mom didn’t make much money. An American family found out how poor we were, and the mother, who played the organ at the First Baptist Church in Flushing, reached out to us and saw that nobody was watching us. As the oldest, I had to watch my siblings when I came home from school. The woman quit the church job and started feeding us on the weekend when my mom was working. She bought clothing for my brothers, and she started teaching Sunday school for us at her house. That’s how I came to know Christ at a young age. When I was 5 foot, 7 inches [tall] and 12 years old, everybody thought I would be 6 feet tall. But I didn’t grow any more. I looked mature, so I was sent to work as a dishwasher for a restaurant in Queens. The restaurant, which is still there, was so busy that when another dishwasher went on vacation, I worked 15 hours every day, no days off, all summer long. I did that for five years until I was 17, the same year the Communists in China finally allowed my father to come to this country. I had wanted to quit the dishwasher job many times.

“Being young, you want to hang out with your friends. But I never had a childhood because I had to work. Every time I’d said I wanted to quit, my mother would say with tears in her eyes that I needed to work because my father wasn’t here. It’s hard to see your mom cry. But when my father came, I said, that’s it, I’m quitting. It was the disco era of the ’70s, of John Travolta and ‘Saturday Night Fever.’ I was just partying and hanging out with a bunch of guys. I knew they were Chinese mafia, that they were in gangs. They asked me to join the gangs, and I told them, no, but it didn’t matter. When I was with them, when the other gangs were shooting at them, I was going to be shot at, too. And I joined the Chinatown gang.”

I started thinking that God kept me alive for a purpose.

“My friends and I got into gang fights. One time we were outnumbered, seven to 20. Fighting is nothing compared to shooting. In the ’70s, young people in Chinatown gangs got killed every week. It didn’t matter whether I was a gang member. When they shot at them, they shot at me. Chinese gangs are all over the world, in China, South America, the U.S. and Canada. In the beginning, you got your own territory. When you are young, you are in the street, but when you get older, if you survive, you can get into a lot of things a lot of people get killed for. When you move up, you start to get involved with drugs. Our group was dealing with 20, 30, 40 pounds of heroin. I didn’t want to get involved with that. I just handled the money. I never knew paper money was that heavy. It’s not easy to carry around like in the movies. I was always worried the suitcase would fall open, that’s how heavy money is. One time the whole group made a lot of money. They went to Hong Kong, had a good time. I went to pick up a shipment of heroin that at the time was called ‘China white.’

“When you pick up drugs once, they are going to ask you to do it again, but me being me, nobody can tell me what to do if I don’t want to do it. They asked the member closest to me to get me to continue to do drug things. I told them no; I only take care of the money. Two weeks later, one of our guys got busted, so everybody started to run, some to Hong Kong, some to the Dominican Republic. I couldn’t run because I knew that if I ran, my marriage was over.

“I was 25 when I got married, and by this time, my wife and I had two kids. I loved my wife and my kids, but, like the old saying goes, talk is cheap. I was drinking, never came home and, when I did, I would come home wasted. My wife didn’t know what I was doing. If I continued with this journey, I would be in prison for a long time. If I continued with this journey, my marriage is over. If I continued with this journey, the gang member closest to me might be the one to blow me away. Some of the guys were arrested by the NYPD. In a gang, you’re always afraid someone will rat on you, but nobody ratted on me. I started thinking that God kept me alive for a purpose.”

I’m able to walk, eat and be a blessing to other people.

“During my 14 years in the gang, I never brought a penny of the dirty money home. I gambled it all away. I had to act normal so my wife would think I had a regular job. In 1982, I took the Civil Service test, and the third time, I scored in the 90s, and I got a job as a postal clerk in Great Neck. After six months, there was an opening for a carrier, so I transferred. At first, I was doing different routes, and the last 15 years I got a steady route. The people on my route got to know me, so I made a lot of Christmas tips. We were living in College Point, Queens. I would get up at 5 a.m., get to work, spend three hours in the office and walk a route for 5 hours, get home around 5.

“In 1989, when my friends got busted, I took that warning seriously. I went to Hicksville to buy a house, and the broker happened to be a Christian. She gave me her card. I didn’t buy a house from her, but I looked at the card and went to her church, the Long Island Abundant Life Church which I didn’t know was one of the biggest Chinese Christians churches on Long Island. By 2000, I was doing missionary work in Mexico. I went to a school to become a chaplain and founded a prison ministry. God called me to a prison ministry, I think, because of my gang experience. For 10 years I visited the Nassau County Correctional Facility.

“Today, including preaching and Bible studies classes, I meet with a total of about 450 inmates every month at three correctional facilities. I tell them there’s always hope, and if you come out and need help, we can follow up with you. Before COVID, I taught a class in electrical work in Hempstead for the Nassau County district attorney’s Community Partnership Program. I have a transitional home for up to 15 prison inmates. We help then find jobs. I gave up my car-sales business in 2003 and my post office job in 2008. Most of my crew are still alive, and they are not involved with gangs anymore. I still am friends with them. They all know that I’m a pastor. Two have become Christians. Most pastors only preach three or four times a month. I preach eight times a month. I’m a grandfather, I’m here, I’m alive. When people ask me how I’m doing, I always say, I’m great! I’m able to walk, eat and be a blessing to other people.”

Interviewed by Jim Merritt