Looking back on my life before God, I see what a thoughtless and selfish life I lived. I grew up in Highland Park, in a conservative home. Even though I wasn’t taught religion or faith, I remember talking to God when I was eight years old. My childhood felt lonely. I would wake up in the early morning and go for long walks, thinking about life and the world around me. I remember doing chores with my siblings and peering over the fence, wondering at the world outside. It’s like I could see the world coming, and no matter how fast I ran, I could feel the violence—the darkness of life as I saw it—coming for me. And rather than fighting it, resisting or becoming a victim of it, I chose to face it head on and walk straight into the heart of darkness.
At the age of 14, I joined a gang. It gave me something. I needed a sense of belonging. Little did I know that for the next 30 or so years, my life would become very violent. I did things that are hard to live with, but I committed myself to this lifestyle and made it into my ultimate reality. I sincerely believed that it was my mission in life to impart justice—my standard of justice—to those deserving of punishment. I became my own god and did a lot of cruel things to hurt people. I didn’t fear anyone. No one except God, or my limited understanding of him. I eventually turned to heroin to help numb me out so I could live with myself. I needed heroin to feel normal. But it wasn’t long before it controlled every aspect of my life and started to destroy me. I lost my job. I lost my family. For twenty-three years, I lived as a heroin addict. My memory of that time is so fragmented I would hardly be able to tell you what felt real. The only thing that felt important was my survival.
By the summer of 2013, at the age of 45, I was homeless and living on the streets. I lost my home. No one wanted anything to do with me. I was slowly dying and wanted to end my life. Death has always felt close. I think about all the times death had a hold of me, and for some reason, I would find myself still alive. I remember this one time, I had gotten beat up pretty bad and ended up at the General Hospital. My first thoughts when I slowly came back were, “Now what did they do to me? I’m still here.” Every time I shot up heroin, I wished it was my last time. I was lost. I was broken. And under all that I was trying to cover up, I was hurting. I knew I had to do something, but hope was so far away.
I walked into the Union Rescue Mission, October of 2013. One day I happened to turn the radio on and I was flipping through the dial and I heard about the URM and their Christian Life Discipleship Program. I don’t know what it was, but something deep down felt this prick sense of hope. I knew that I not only had to get off heroine, but even more difficult than that, I had to get honest with myself. I not only had to look inside myself, but admit what I had done with my life. I had to let go of all the baggage I had picked up along the way. I had to take ownership of what I had done with my life and the role I had played in all of it. And hardest of all, to forgive myself.
You see, because of what I had done with my life and people I had hurt, I beat myself up for many years. I came to a place where I believed I didn’t deserve anything good. I became my own executioner. One of the greatest things I experienced at the mission was being shown care with no strings attached. On March, 2014, I connected with a mentor named Clint from Pacific Coast Church in San Clemente. The first time we met, I felt awkward. I didn’t know what to say. I thought to myself, “How can I possibly relate to this guy?” But we ended up going to ball games together, went out to dinner, talked on the phone. We talked through things I was wrestling with —my life at the mission, goals I had.
One day, Clint invited me over to spend the night with his family. I had always been a private person, and because of the lifestyle I lived, I didn’t trust anyone to know where I lived. But here was this guy, letting me into his most personal space! He trusted me in his home, in the company of his wife, his children. That was huge for me. I remember lying in bed that night, thinking very deep and hard. This guy trusted me. As I got to know Clint and watched him, I began to be more open with him, more talkative. I began to understand that there was no give and take. You see, in my life before, there always had to be an exchange: nothing for nothing. And with Clint, he was just willing to be my friend and spend time with me. Though Clint’s life was very different from mine, he showed me what it means to be a true friend, and most of all, what it means to be a man of God. I saw him in his work life, his humility and work ethic. I saw how he led his family, how he and Jill led Bible studies in their home. Today, I see that we have more in common than our external differences. I know we will continue to be friends for many more years to come.
I left the URM back in 2015 and have not stopped going back. My relationship with Clint and this idea of mentoring propelled me to take it to the next level. For me, this means mentoring other men. I visit with them, talk about our struggles, what is going on in each other’s lives. I pay close attention and remember our conversations. I have barbecues at my house, go to movies, grab dinner. And when I tell my story, I realize that my journey is tied to a much bigger story: His.
Today, I mentor a 17-year old young man whose struggles I see in my younger self. I know what it’s like at that age with all the challenges he has, like growing up without a father. I try to model for Kevin what it means to be a man of God, what it looks like. When we go eat somewhere, I always pray. He has met many of my church family, men from the mission. I want him to see that being a Christian is my life in all parts. As I look back at the old hardened, solitary and private Joe before God, and the new gentle, open-to-others Joe after God, I cannot help but see the common denominator as the love and care people showed me. Especially when they took the time to look at me. They say Love is the strongest force. I know that personally to be true. It’s not only important, it’s necessary in our Christian life if we are to meet the human need. Love is the lifeblood of our Christian life.