My name is Rafael. I was born in East L.A. and was raised in the city of Northridge in the San Fernando Valley.
I have two older siblings, a brother and a sister who were born in Mexico. After sometime around when my brother was 12 years old, he came to the States to live with us.
My dad was well-known around town and people respected our family because of his reputation. I was proud of my dad. Unfortunately, my parents separated when I was about 4 years old. I suddenly felt ashamed and confused for not having a father in my life.
Life went on. We didn’t have much, but me, my mom, and my younger sister had each other. I have great memories of us laughing as we watched re-runs of “El Chavo del Ocho” as we sipped hot coffee and ate Ritz crackers.
I poured my energies into becoming a good student in school. I loved reading and writing and expressing myself through art. I got along well with the neighborhood kids and with the “smart” kids at school.
Without a father in my life, I wanted badly to fit in with others. I had friends in gangs doing drugs and I had other friends who were studious.
As I grew older, it became harder to be in both groups. When I was 8, I got caught shoplifting. My hand was slapped and I was in trouble with my mom, but life went on. I kept finding new ways to fit in with the gang.
Around the same time, a tiny ray of light shone in my dark life. A yellow school bus took us street-hardened kids to a church in Canoga Park. We sang songs, made crafts, ate sloppy joes, and heard Bible stories. One day, a man named Bill Kershaw brought us the message. His question stuck in my head: “Do you know if you died today you would go to heaven?” Yes, heaven sounded wonderful. I was interested.
I was 14 years old when I finally got sent to juvie (Juvenile Hall). That was scary! Inside juvie was like being on the streets with rival gangs all around. It was dangerous. The experience scared me a lot. This was the first time I was held captive and not allowed to leave. After that, I thought I was scared straight. I never wanted to be a prisoner again.
When I got out, the fear of imprisonment kept me away from gangs. But, the hopelessness of living in the projects, the powerlessness I felt not having a father, and the dangers both in school and on the streets, made me desire something better. The answer, I thought, was right outside my front door. It seemed to offer security and a feeling of being significant. I felt drawn to the glamour of gang life.
Following the wrong crowd, I started to experiment with drugs. In another year or so, I followed the path of my cousins in being initiated into the neighborhood gang. I withstood being “jumped in” (being beat up for 13 seconds) by the gang and was now a full member of this brotherhood. It felt right. I had arrived.
I felt unstoppable. For the first time in a long time, I felt “accepted” and “included.” It was my new normal. But, it was all fake. I could not let others see my fears or doubts. To cover up my insecurities, I put on an air of bravado. No matter what I did or how hard I tried, the void of this meaninglessness kept on getting larger and deeper.
At the time, I started to get hooked on marijuana and cocaine. Drugs temporarily transported me to a place of deep pleasure inhabited by demons. I spent a lot of time drawing various versions of a “devil’s child”, no doubt influenced by my drug trips. Drinking alcohol helped me to forget those scary visions. Being high and drunk got me kicked out of every high school I went to. I never finished high school. The gang accepted and encouraged this and other destructive behaviors.
I spent more time in juvie. The one good thing about juvie is that they made you go to chapel. Because of Mr. Bill Kershaw, chapel time gave me pause to ponder deep questions about the meaning of life. I had many chances to turn myself around, but the choices I made kept me in the never-ending cycle of drug addiction and crime. After some time, I had more under-the-influence arrests/convictions, more than I can count or remember. So eventually I was court ordered to Rehab under a new law called Prop 36.
Years went by and I was never able to kick my drug addiction. When I was 22, I was re-arrested after spending a year at a rehab. I was clean for seven months, dabbled with drugs, then re-arrested, this time facing a charge for first degree murder. Although it was a trumped-up charge, it brought up those old fears of long-term incarceration.
My mom was afraid for me, but she knew I needed to “face the music.” People around me would mention that Jesus can change my life. I wanted Jesus Christ to get me out of jail so that I could continue my lifestyle. In my desperation, I called out to God: “If You exist, get me out of here!”
One week later, I was released and at home. I went to church that Sunday with a girlfriend and her family. I came in and sat in the back. Then she joined me sitting in the back row. Strangely, I felt I belonged in this house of God,…but I still went back to my destructive life choices.
One month later, the police had gathered more evidence and I was re-arrested and sent to Pitchess detention center. I lawyered-up and awaited trial.
For the 100-person dorms, religious people came into the day rooms all the time to preach to us. I was receptive to what they had to say now than in times past. It wasn’t motivated by cowardice, though. To leave a gang and to join the Christians meant a loss of protection against other gangs. I knew in my heart that I had not been able to change myself. Maybe God could change me. What did I have to lose? On May 24, 2003, I prayed the sinner’s prayer and I gave my life over to the Lord Jesus Christ.
At first, I kept my conversion to myself. I didn’t want others to know that I was a Christian. Over the next couple of years, godly men taught me how to be a good Christian, to pray in public, and to read the Bible in public. I met with 10 to 15 other guys in a prayer circle in the day room and we would be led through The Daily Bread devotional. After a while, the group leader wanted me to lead the group, but I refused.
Meanwhile, my lawyer told me there was nothing to worry about. He said the detectives knew they didn’t have evidence and there was no case. A few years later, I went to court. “I was going home.” To my surprise, the court decided on a 21-year sentence!
I couldn’t believe it. I dropped to my knees and prayed. “I’m done. I’m all in. God, do something in my life!”
I was to spend the next several months at the “Reception Center” awaiting transfer to the “big house.” Where would I be sent to? I heard stories about different prisons and how dangerous they were. I was assigned to Pelican Bay State Prison, known to be a most dangerous prison! It was a maximum security level 4 prison. I would be spending 23 hours in a small cell and let out into the yard for only 1 hour every other day. I would always be shackled. My greatest fear was realized.
A depression sunk over me, and my desperation drove me to read the Bible. I stopped watching TV (except for National Geographic). My faith was built up by listening to Christian radio KWAV out of Calvary Chapel Crescent City; I always had KWAV on. Pelican Bay had a chapel time run by a no nonsense ex-military chaplain with blue piercing eyes, but available only to 32 inmates. There was a long waitlist to get in. At last, I got in. In Chapel, we were taught the Bible and prayed together. My cellie (cell mate) also taught me how to study the Bible on my own.
I quickly increased my skills in studying the Bible and became more confident in my knowledge of the Bible. Finally, the day came for me to share one of my Bible studies in Chapel. Afterwards, the chaplain gave me a beautiful blue Nelson Study Bible. With joy inside of me, I realized God’s call for me to study and teach the Bible to others.
I spent seven years in level 4 prisons. This meant I spent a lot of time in my cell. I spent the time writing many letters to my family telling them how accepting Jesus had changed my life completely. I had hope and encouraged them with this newfound hope. They didn’t believe it!
Through jailhouse jobs and getting educated, I got re-classified to a level 3 prison. This meant more time out of my cell and more freedom. I continued to attend Bible studies and sometimes I translated our conversations into Spanish for my Christian brothers who did not speak English. At first, I never wanted to lead Bible studies. But, when a need arose to combine the English and Spanish speaking congregations into one, I reluctantly volunteered to translate the sermon into Spanish. This was my first taste of doing real-time translation and I felt it was a great honor that God would use me. Acting as translator, we were able to have more combined congregation bilingual services. Through this process, I began to prepare original Bible lessons based upon my own studies, as if I were speaking it to someone. God used this to help prepare me for a preaching ministry. I loved seeing men’s faces light up during Chapel time. As I had received, I also wanted to give the truth of God’s Word to the men so that they, too, would be healed and take back a message of hope to their families.
After getting my G.E.D. in 2015, I wanted to go to a school that would teach me the Word of God. A program offered by Harvest Bible College met my expectations for being trained and equipped for a teaching ministry. I applied and became a full-time student. I began volunteering teaching in Chapel on a regular basis. By the power of God, I saw peoples’ lives transformed and freed from addictions.
As I studied the Bible, Isaiah 6 became my prayer: “I heard the voice of the LORD saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then said I, Here am I; send me.” (KJV)
Through my studies, education, and ministry, God was teaching me, changing me, and developing in me good character. God was preparing me for life outside of prison walls.
In April of 2020, I was released from prison after serving 18 years out of the 21 years sentence. It was the beginning of COVID and everything was closed. I moved in with my family. Straight out, I sought out and began attending a Bible-teaching church in the San Fernando Valley. By the grace of God, I began teaching in the men’s Tuesday night Bible study at church. By the grace of God, I got accepted for a “full ride” at a private cosmetology school; I expect to graduate by August 2022.
The one thing that I can say about the God we serve is that He is the same behind the walls as He is out here. He is faithful!
What I would like to encourage you with is:
1. To know that God must be our all in all. Not just a part…the center.
2. We need to continue to build our relationship with God. Surround yourselves with others who will teach the Bible, holy and faithful people: “As iron sharpens iron”
3. Find a good Bible-teaching church. Get involved. Do works of ministry. Bless others.
4. Be consistent, the same godly person in public as in private. Strive to be genuine.
5. Read and study the Bible.
Would you like to make Jesus the Lord of your life too?
If so, you can pray this prayer - Lord Jesus, I believe you are the Son of God. Thank you for dying on the cross for my sins and rising again. Please forgive my sins and give me the gift of eternal life. I ask you into my life and heart as my Lord and Savior. Please help me grow in you and live for you. Thank you for coming into my heart.
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