Just over a decade ago, an injury forced Jesse Romero to retire early from his job as a Los Angeles sheriff’s deputy, a career he loved. It freed him up, however, for full-time work as a lay Catholic evangelist, a career in which he has found even greater rewards. Since making the switch, Romero has achieved success and a sense of purpose from encouraging thousands 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 explained. “And I do it with a passionate power.”
Romero, 48, was born in San Fernando, a suburb of Los Angeles. He is a first-generation Mexican-American, one of five children. His community was the most violent and crime-ridden in the Los Angeles area. As a teen, Romero vividly remembers 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 in the neighborhood was going to get killed over the weekend. It’s what we knew. We thought it was normal.”
A lot of the violence in Latino communities in the United States, Romero came to believe, is due to a lack of identity among Mexican-American youth. Family in Mexico looked down on him as a “half-breed,” and not truly Mexican, while in America he was considered a “wetback” and not really American. Hence, Mexican-American youth are attracted to Brown Power movements such as MEChA, which Romero describes as anti-white and racist. He remembers wearing jean jackets with such slogans as “Chicano Power” emblazoned on the back as a teen.
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, the faith was of little interest to him as a young man. His father enrolled Romero and his brothers in martial arts classes, which for Romero became a 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. 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.”
Romero was a self-described secular humanist, and although he’d go to Mass to keep the family happy, he was turned off by the Catholic religion because he saw it as a religion for women like his mother and grandmother.
In his 20s, Romero had a dramatic conversion. His parents attended a Cursillo weekend to revitalize their struggling marriage. The weekend had a profound influence on them. His father, 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 on the weekends and join his parents in prayer.
Romero remembered, “It showed me that someone not practicing the faith can turn on a dime. My parents have been living a vibrant Catholic faith for 30 years now.”
At age 21, Romero saw a “Wear a Star on Your Chest” advertisement recruiting for the Sheriff’s Department. Putting criminals in jail appealed to him, and his martial-arts skills seemed well-suited to law enforcement, so he joined the department.
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 towards 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.’” (Paul would later become Catholic through Romero’s influence.)
Romero had developed a drinking problem, but gave alcohol up after his conversion. He also gave up swearing. Instead, to the surprise and delight of his wife, he started praying.
Although Romero was drifting toward an evangelical Christian church, the pastor at his Catholic parish suggested he attend a Catholic Answers apologetics seminar led by prominent apologist Karl Keating. In 30 hours of seminars, 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.”
When he wasn’t on duty, Romero began volunteering at his parish, Santa Rosa in San Fernando, teaching Bible and confirmation classes and doing anything else his pastor, Father David Ulrich, asked. As a policeman, martial-arts expert and athlete, he was well respected in the community.
“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.”
Tape Ministry and More
Terry Barber of St. Joseph Communications, a lay Catholic education organization, learned of Romero’s story and asked to record his classes for release on cassette nationwide. Today, Romero records a weekly Sirius satellite radio program with Barber, “Reasons for Faith.”
Barber remarked, “Jesse has been an amazing partner on Catholic radio because of his knowledge and love of the Catholic faith.”
St. Joseph Communications distributed 10,000 Jesse Romero tapes nationwide, and invitations for Romero to speak to Catholic groups soon came in from all over the country.
A hip injury at age 37 ended Romero’s career with law enforcement. Sherman Block, L.A. sheriff at the time, asked him what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Romero told him, “I want to be a preacher.”
Romero also hosts a daily apologetics program, “Straight Talk Catholicism,” on the Spanish radio station 87.7 FM, the only English program offered by the station. He 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 throughout the country. Twice monthly he offers a Bible study in Hollywood for those in the entertainment industry. His bilingual skills enable him to evangelize in both Spanish-speaking and Anglophone communities.
Romero teaches a Bible study Wednesday nights at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Reseda. Father Paul Griesgraber, St. Catherine’s administrator, remarked, “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. He brings not only feeling and enthusiasm, but good reasons why they should be part of the Church.”
Planning is under way to televise Romero’s presentations at the parish to reach a broader audience.
Romero’s pet project at the moment is the establishment of a School of Evangelization to train others to share the faith as he does. He is hoping to open it under the auspices of Coadjutor Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles. He related, “This is a way of sharing my techniques, of duplicating myself. I want to create an army of soldiers for Christ to go out and be missionaries.”
Romero is author of multiple apologetics books and offers many audio CDs through his website.
Terry Barber is acquainted with many Catholic speakers, and particularly admires Romero because though his popularity has grown, he is the same modest man that he met 20 years ago. Barber noted, “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.”
After nearly a quarter century of evangelizing, Romero has maintained his zeal, in part by meditating on the “Four Last Things” (death, judgment, heaven and hell).
He concluded, “I’m writing my eulogy right now. When I’m gone, I want my kids and friends to say, ‘That guy loved Jesus and his Church.’”
Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.