Jose E. Hoyos, pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church in Dale City, was shopping at a Giant grocery store in Arlington about six months ago when a face from the past surfaced in the checkout line.
"Remember me, Father?" the man asked.
"Nope," Hoyos replied.
"I was in a gang. You came and spoke with me about it," the man said. "I changed my life. I have a little boy. Father, I want to see you because I am getting married."
It was the kind of exchange that Hoyos, a longtime pastor in Northern Virginia, says he is experiencing with increasing frequency. When he worked at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Falls Church in the early 1990s, the Colombian-born minister became popular among the Hispanic faithful -- and trustworthy to some gang members who were holding secret meetings behind the church at the time. Back then, when gangs were not the headline-grabbing issue they are now, Hoyos was taking them seriously and learning how they operate.
Now, during a time of heightened gang violence, Hoyos is trying to learn even more about gangs and stop them from recruiting more children. For the past year, he has been working with police to inform community members about what las pandillas wear, say and do, and how to prevent children from joining them.
Last week, Hoyos and the church's director of Christian concerns and outreach, Carmen Rivera, helped arrange a "gang summit" at Holy Family, where Prince William County police officers showed community members photographs of gang members, talked about recent criminal cases and gave parents advice on how to make sure their children don't join a gang.
"The Hispanic population is growing fast, and because our population is so young, we realize we need to start educating the community," Hoyos said. "We need to work as one community; otherwise it can be a nest for future terrorists. We waited too many years to start dealing with it."
Other faith-based organizations in the county, and elsewhere in the region, are following Hoyos's lead. Recently, the police department's chaplain asked whether the gang unit could offer the same presentation to an association of Hispanic ministries, said Maj. Ray Colgan, commander of the criminal division.
Colgan said police have also been contacted by All Saints Church in Manassas for a possible presentation.
So many community organizations want to learn about gangs that police are considering holding monthly briefings for anyone to attend, he said.
"The churches are doing it because there's obviously been an increase in gang activity, and I think we all agreed that this is not just a police problem; it's a community problem," Colgan said. "We're not going to solve this by putting all these gang members in jail."
Holy Family is holding another meeting Nov. 20, to be conducted in Spanish, featuring former gang members as well as some professional soccer players, Hoyos said.
Hoyos said his interest in gangs began when he worked at the Falls Church parish, where Mara Salvatrucha gang members held meetings behind the building, socializing and not behaving violently.
"I was trying to understand them," he said. "And they knew I was trying to understand their problems, and they wanted someone to listen to them."
He said he invited police to the church to talk about gangs with some of the parents, helping them build better relationships with their children.
"The good part was that the family became aware of the problem and became very sensitive and supported the kid," he said. "But I didn't know it was going to be the big problem it is now."
Gang-related crimes in Northern Virginia are becoming more frequent -- and violent. An attack with a machete on a 16-year-old Fairfax County youth, who lost some of his fingers, galvanized the community and politicians to better address the problem.
At the gang summit last week, Hoyos told parents that gang members were a local version of terrorism and that they are a problem "worse than AIDS." He held up a machete brought by police and told audience members to write to store owners, asking them not to sell the weapons to children.
Sgt. Greg Pass said during the meeting that parents need to be more watchful of their children. He said parents often do not realize their children are in gangs, even when there are clear signs, such as graffiti, in their bedrooms.
"You don't need a search warrant to search your kid's room," Pass said. "I can't wait until my kids are teenagers. I'll search their room every day."
Aura Velasquez, who lives in Dale City and owns a home-cleaning business, said Pass's presentation resonated with her.
"I am a 100-question mother," she said, standing next to her 11-year-old son, Marco, who was rolling his eyes and smiling. "I like to move around his bed."