Richard Bernard helps people who share his past find a future
A lot of good people travel the road to hell. A special person uses it as a highway to get others out.
Richard Bernard (BA '03, MA '08) is doing just that because he believes God has a plan for him. That's the only way he can explain why he's still alive.
Today Bernard is a quiet man. With his ponytail and bi-focals, he may not seem like someone with a master's degree, but he definitely does not look like a former gang member and heroin addict.
But at Bernard's Mariposa home is an M.A. in peacemaking and conflict studies, and under his plum sweater is a gallery of gang tattoos. And in his past is a study of roadmaps, human and holy.
At first life seemed without direction. Bernard started using heroin when he was 11, growing up in North Visalia. "It was everywhere," he said. He got involved in a street gang, then went to prison and into the life there.
During 28 years as an active addict, gang member and convict, there were some hints at a path. He married Gloria, who stuck with him. They have a son Richard, Jr., daughters Leah, Felicia and Raquel and five grandchildren.
Bernard started treatment in 1983 and by 1990 was a drug counselor and assistant director at Fresno's Maroa Home, a Christ-centered treatment home for men. "My pastor described me as a fallen minister," he said.
Continuing work as a counselor, Bernard completed a bachelor's in FPU's management and organizational development program and life's way seemed clear. The next year he began what he saw as the next step. "My masters' degree is one of the last goals I wrote for myself 20 years ago when I got into treatment," he said.
Peacemaking was a natural. "Mediation is a lot of what you do dealing with people in recovery," he said. "It's a basic of the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program. They're both biblical principles and they both work," Bernard said.
Enter Ron Claassen, who would become more than a professor. "He was well on his way to changing when he came here," Claassen said.
In 2004, Bernard started his master's. Within a year all plans were on hold. Bernard found he had Hepatitis C from cirrhosis and needed a liver transplant. "All I had left was two units and my thesis," he said.
After gangs, after prison, after addiction came this new twist in the road. Bernard's weight fell to 118 pounds and ballooned to 240. He found himself on the second of two lists for potential liver transplants: One of family and friends who could be a match, the other a general list, which includes less-than-perfect livers. Eighty percent of people on the second list never get a liver.
At one point, "my surgeons told me if they didn't find a match I didn't have more than 24 hours to live," he said. Six hours later a match was found, but the ordeal went on. Before surgery Bernard was in a coma four times and pronounced dead twice. "The experience I had then I consider more real than what I see around me," he said.
On January 23, 2007, Bernard had a new liver and two surprises—the surgeon mistakenly gave him a clean liver instead of the imperfect one he expected, and he had also been dying of cancer of the liver. "You can't deny the hand of God is in everything that's happened," he said.
Another signpost was the support of family and friends, as many as 20-25 at a time in his hospital room. "I knew it was their prayers that kept me alive," Bernard said.
One friend called Bernard on his way home from the hospital. "I had a note on my phone that just sat there and sat there," Claassen said. "That I called him right then he believes is not an accident."
Today Bernard is going back to the Hispanic gang members still trapped where he was. "I know it from the inside," he said.
Bernard calls gang members "misplaced warriors"—which he thinks is a great title for his book. "There are people of the same race that have developed ancient hatreds and would kill at the drop of a hat because of physical locations and the colors they wear. Many do not have a clue how the war started and yet their misplaced affections and affiliations govern their very existence," he said.
Claassen is excited by the opportunity. "When he came into the program. . .I said restorative justice needs to speak to the whole gang issue," he said. "I was hopeful Richard would try to help us figure that out."
His example has already meant something. "I've had many people come to me and say, Richard, how did you get clean and sober?" Bernard said.
The answer: "The difference in me is Jesus," Bernard said. Faith has taken Bernard from places he's been—ex-gang, ex-addict, even surgery survivor—to the future: First in the family to graduate from college.
This article, written by Wayne Steffen, was originally published in Pacific, July 2009.