One year ago today, Johnny Gonzales, a well-known minister and leader of the Community Volunteer Program and Prison Door Ministries, left his earthly home after battling with cancer. During his life, Johnny Gonzales and his family worked to provide for the needy of Roswell (and beyond) year-round from food to school supplies to toys at Christmas.
On Thanksgiving Day, Mary Gonzales, wife of Johnny Gonzales, and Nathaniel and Josiah Paredes, her grandsons, extended family, friends and volunteers gathered at the Fraternal Order of the Eagles from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. to host the Thanksgiving dinner that began in 1979. Last year the dinner was called off since Johnny Gonzales was facing his last days. Mary Gonzales described him as a “highly honored man” who turned his life around after growing up in poverty and crime; she said he loved children and teenagers and it was his mission to reach them before they turned to a difficult life of crime.
For the healing process, Mary Gonzales said keeping busy has been helpful, but this month is especially hard because of the anniversary of his death. Mary Gonzales said the fun behind the dinner happens in the preparation. The family said they miss him and are now celebrating his life.
With this year’s dinner behind them, Mary Gonzales said she and her family will be resting over Christmas to prepare for events next year. Mary Gonzales shared gratitude for the community and their contributions during the last year.
“It’s a legacy for my husband and I am honoring him,” Mary Gonzales said. “This month, the 25th, will be when he went home to his eternal home and I’m honoring my husband to keep the legacy going. And of course, the main thing is for people to come to know the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Jesus Christ and because he is the one that provides things like the fishes and loaves. That’s an excellent story.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. He gave. God gave. We give. We as Christians should give to others — who is ever in need and whatever it is.”
Shortly after Johnny Gonzales’ passing, Mary Gonzales had originally said she had planned to take a year off to grieve and adjust to the loss of her husband of 46 years, but the Gonzales family hosted an Easter food-drive in the spring for their first event. In the summer, the Gonzales family hosted three school supplies giveaways and have partnered to adopt Nancy Lopez Elementary School and Mesa Middle School to ensure students have supplies and food during the school year.
“I’ve known of all the stuff that Johnny Gonzales has done for a very long time and I think it just started out with the Thanksgiving thing — and it extended to Christmas and before you know it, they’re doing school supplies and these other fundraisers,” Marcos Franco, principal of Mesa Middle School, said. “As a family, they travel together, they work really well and this year working with Mary — it has been a blessing. She’s kind-hearted, easy to talk to and always has a great attitude — and I think that reflects through all the family. The ones that I’ve met that have come to Mesa along with her, they exhibited the same attitude.”
Mary Gonzales calls Nathaniel and Josiah Paredes her co-directors and the brothers have announced their plan to carry the torch of their grandfather alongside their grandmother. The Parades brothers said they were raised by Mary and Johnny Gonzales. They said Johnny Gonzales was their father-figure and he advised them to do well in school, work hard, focus on their faith and how to forgive and be compassionate with other people.
“I liked what he did,” Nathaniel Parades, 21, said about growing up with his grandfather’s example. “Even when I would help him, I would even ask myself why — ‘why do you do this, Grandpa? Work all the time, what drives you? What wakes you up in the morning so early to go out and do the work you do?’
“He would always tell me, ‘I’m doing it for Jesus. I’m doing it for God. And I said, yeah, that’s the only thing we have in this life is Jesus. That’s pretty much why I do it.”
Nathaniel Paredes said his grandfather was known throughout the state and even some parts of the country for his ministry and Paredes hopes he and his brother can expand the ministry in the coming years. Nathaniel said his grandfather always had new ideas to help the community and the school adoptions were one of his grandfather’s dreams.
“I’ve been with him to all these places,” Nathaniel said. “And we all want to do it again and just revive it because I remember what this ministry is in this town — it’s big. Back in the ‘80s, ‘90s, what they did, it was big — it was something really, really big and it changed a lot of peoples’ lives. When I was younger, I saw that.”
“I love the community,” Josiah Paredes, 17, said about why he helps with the Gonzales family events. “I’ve been poor before. I’ve been low before and in that environment. I know how it feels like whenever you are poor … when you don’t have anything in the fridge, when you don’t have anything in your hand or a drink or anything like that, you feel sad — so that’s my dream to help others that don’t have anything. That’s what I like to do.”
Hanan Galassini, general manager of Red Lobster, said she has been helping with the dinner for years and she thanked the Gonzales family for their hard work. After cooking the turkeys, Galassini brought nine volunteers to help with the dinner and she said she hopes for more volunteers and more people to come out next year.
“I love them,” Galassini said of the Gonzales family. “I always wondered how Johnny did all this because he didn’t just do Thanksgiving. He also did a lot for the kids, for the schools, the senior citizens’ homes and even Halloween he did for the kids. I was amazed at ‘how did this one person do this?’ and when he passed, God rest his soul, I thought, that’s it — it ended because we didn’t do it last year — but of course he passed around the holidays … and then Mary Gonzales popped up and she’s like, ‘I am doing it.’ I’m like, ‘God bless you. How are you going to do this all alone?’ I don’t know how Johnny did it, let alone you. She was like ‘I can do it. The Lord will help me.’”
Florence Carr said she is a friend of the Gonzales family and understands the work and “huge undertaking” for hosting the Thanksgiving dinner. Carr said she was “very proud” of Mary Gonzales and said she knew Johnny Gonzales was “smiling” on Thanksgiving Day.
“It had to be done because Mary has been with him through all of this all these years …,” Carr said about carrying on Johnny Gonzales’ legacy. “It is very important that we as citizens carry on Johnny’s dream — which was to feed the poor, help the homeless, the people on dialysis, provide wheelchairs and whatever else he could, school supplies. I mean — all of that had to be donated. Johnny was a man of prayer, and so is Mary, and he would always when he had a dinner like this or anything, he would always feed them the food, but he would feed them the word of God and that’s why their ministry has lasted so long because it’s a two-fold street. I pray that we will do something in Roswell in his honor.”
“I think this man deserves a plaque, he deserves a medal, he deserves a statue, he deserves something because he served the community with all his heart — community-minded all the time and many, many, many, many people got blessed,” Mary Gonzales said about Johnny Gonzales. “So I think he should be highly honored. I keep repeating that over and over. That’ll be my next project.”
City/RISD reporter Alison Penn can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.