To a kid, gang life is alluring. For Oscar, it nearly lost him his freedom.

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Ask any child and they will tell you they believe dreams come true. They will play with gusto and laugh with abandon. Their smiles will light up the darkest rooms. For some, these whimsical days live on forever and for others, they are ripped from them much too soon. Oscar’s childhood dream ended when he was only 12 years old.

When Oscar was three years old, his parents moved their family illegally to Tennessee from Mexico, but for nine years, he hadn’t really felt the sting of that status. He was able to enroll into school, play baseball, participate in community events, and join a soccer team, all without citizenship. At 12, he was personally invited to play with USA Tours, a competitive soccer league that would allow him to travel the world and play the game he loved. Excited at the chance to pursue his dreams of becoming the world’s best soccer player, he ran to his father and showed him the invitation. Instead of his face lighting up with pride, his eyes showed sadness. Helpless to fix the problem from which he had so carefully shielded his son, Oscar’s father explained the reality of the situation. As his parents began to tell Oscar that he couldn’t play – he couldn’t even leave the state of Tennessee because they were living in the country illegally – the disappointment that Oscar saw in their eyes was reflected in his heart. The reality (of how “different” he now saw that he was) planted a seed of shame that would grow to overtake him.

As the shock of these words set in, Oscar’s 12 year old mind spun into overdrive. He quit soccer because he had no future in it. He couldn’t play soccer in college because he couldn’t go to college. He couldn’t go to college because he was illegal. He was illegal because he was a foreign country. Oscar began to resent his heritage. Anything that reminded him of the Hispanic culture was thrown aside because it made him feel different. It reminded him that his life had limits. He turned to his friends, whose lives were unbound by legal status, and threw himself into their culture, finding his identity in their lives instead of his own. At first, it was small acts of vandalism. Soon, Oscar was getting into fights at school.

During the next school year, the trouble in the classroom began. His teachers knew Oscar was a bright student, and saw he was bored with the 7th grade curriculum so they fast tracked his education in an effort to get his interest and focus back. That summer, Oscar completed his eighth grade school year in three months. The following fall at fourteen, Oscar started his freshman year in high school. As the group of friends grew older, they moved past breaking windows, and began to break into cars. Oscar soon found his first source of income in selling stolen car parts. As the year went on, Oscar was pulled further and further into the gang life as he saw his friends join a gang called the Bloods. He saw as his friends were jumped in and moved up the ranks, they gained a respect that Oscar had never felt for himself. He ached to be a part of something that took away his differences. Oscar saw the Bloods as the answer, so he followed his friends.

By the time Oscar was 17, a junior in high school, he was all but officially jumped into the Bloods. Oscar felt that the Bloods had finally given him what he had been searching for since he was 12. He had a culture he could identify with – a culture that didn’t make him different. He found himself in the midst of many situations he never would have imagined as a kid. One day, he and his friends were out walking when a car full of rival gang members drove by, yelling at and flipping off Oscar and his friends. Instantly infuriated at the disrespect, all of them jumped into three cars and chased them down. Their vehicles carried shotguns, handguns, knives, and baseball bats, ready to be used to handle this situation. Armed, Oscar and his buddies got out of the cars behind a store and stood facing their enemies who were armed with shotguns, hand guns, bats, and knives, too. As they threw challenges, threats, and insults at each other, Oscar was scared to death. He was only 17 years old and was looking down the barrel of a shotgun. His body tensed at the thought that he could be killed at any second – all they had to do was pull one of the triggers pointed in his direction.  A member of the rival gang pointed one of his friends out to fight, which began a series of challenges between Oscar’s friends and the other group. Hoping with everything he had that he wasn’t chosen to fight, Oscar watched as the gangs mercilessly beat each other to pledge allegiance to their group. Once a police car was spotted, the fighting finally stopped and everyone ran.

This wasn’t the only time Oscar was involved in senseless violence. He stood next to a friend as they faced a large group of guys, all advancing to stomp them down. Luckily, Oscar had one person he could always depend on. Michael, Oscar’s best friend since they were 12 and a leader in the Bloods, walked around the corner just as the guys were about to attack him and smoothed everything over. That night, the guy who had spurred on the attack shot and killed a man and was sentenced to prison for life. This was the norm for Oscar’ life from age sixteen to eighteen. The further Oscar got into the Bloods, the more hardened he became as a person.

During his junior year, Oscar’s parents moved him away from their neighborhood in an attempt to change the influences in his life. Oscar was somewhat removed from the gang life. While this was good, he found himself again searching for something to be and be a part of – something besides being illegal. The shame from his Hispanic heritage began to fill him once again. The only reprieve came during his senior year of high school, when he was granted a temporary driver’s license, and finally felt “normal.” But then, Oscar graduated from high school, and his license was revoked because he had no paperwork to renew it. The limitations that had been pushed back with the license came back tighter than ever and Oscar was thrown into a deep depression. He felt worthless, he saw that no matter what he did, his illegal status was going to limit what he could achieve in life. He had just finished the highest level of schooling he could achieve and he had no documentation to be able to get a job and begin a career. He had no prospects, no options, and no hope. One day, while riding home with his dad from the last possible chance to get a driver’s license at the last DMV they hadn’t tried, Oscar put his hand on the door handle. Oscar began to imagine throwing himself out of his dad’s car as they drove on the interstate. Ending his life felt like the only option. As he was about to unlock his seat belt and pull the handle, he heard his dad’s voice. Oscar realized that his dad’s last memory of him would be watching him throw himself out of his car. Oscar loved his dad too much to do that to him, so he stayed in his seat.

With nothing else to do, Oscar began playing basketball from nine o’clock in the morning to nine o’clock at night at the Life Church gym. In addition to losing eighty pounds in four months, he caught the eye of the gym director. Oscar was eighteen years old when the director walked up to him and said, “Hey man, you’re always here. Would you like to just work here?” Oscar couldn’t believe he might actually have a shot at a job, so he said yes. About six months into the job, Oscar’s boss approached him again and this time said something that would mark him forever. He said, “Oscar, you know, you’re the first face that people see when they walk into the gym. You represent this gym and you represent Life Church.”

Oscar was shocked. He thought, “What? How could I possibly represent this church? I don’t know God, I don’t believe in God. Who am I to represent anyone?” But with that simple statement, the roots that held that seed of shame in Oscar’ heart began to loosen. For the first time since he had gotten the letter inviting him to the soccer team, Oscar was proud of something he was doing. People could finally see him as more than a hoodlum, or as an illegal alien. Oscar stopped lying, he stopped cussing, and he cut out all of the negativity that had followed him from his old life.

In July of 2007, Oscar’s best friend Michael walked into the gym. Oscar could see that Michael was still stuck within the confines of his gang life. While they were talking, Oscar felt like he needed to tell Michael to be careful that weekend. As they said good-bye, Oscar told Michael not to do anything stupid that weekend, to be careful. Two days later, Oscar got a call that Michael, along with a few other guys, had kidnapped and tried to rob an US Army Soldier. The soldier fought back, so they shot him in the head in a parking lot next to an ATM. The soldier was killed instantly and Michael and the others were arrested and sentenced to serve twenty-five years to life. Oscar cried as he realized that his best friend, the one guy who always had his back and stood by him no matter what since they were twelve, was gone forever.

About a week and a half later, some of the youth leaders that Oscar would play basketball with and had been getting to know invited him to come to a youth camp with them. Oscar was shocked because he was still pretty rough around the edges, but needed to get away from his grief – so he agreed. Oscar was as depressed as he had ever been. Michael and Oscar shared a birthday, and they were supposed to celebrate that night. Oscar had cried all night because he knew that because he was illegal and didn’t have an ID, he could never go and visit Michael again. He would never see his face or talk to him again. All Oscar wanted to do was give Michael a hug and tell him he loved him. He desperately wanted one more day to tell him goodbye. He couldn’t imagine his life without the guy who, when Oscar told him he wanted to go hard and get jumped into the Bloods, told him no. Michael had said, “You are going to do bigger and better things with your life. This life isn’t for you.” Oscar couldn’t believe that the very thing Michael had saved Oscar from had swallowed up his life completely.

Oscar went to the church camp and wasn’t expecting the camp’s atmosphere to be as intense as it was. He kept seeing kids walk into the service looking heavy and burdened, but watched them leave light and full of joy. He saw that the change occurred when the pastor would call for those who needed prayer and one by one, he watched them walk up and get completely overwhelmed by God’s love. Oscar cried himself to sleep every night, until the second to last night when he decided that he wanted to experience what the kids were feeling. That evening at the service when the pastor called for prayer, Oscar went up. He began to cry as he explained to another pastor at the camp what was happening in his life. When he was finished, the pastor told him to close his eyes and he would pray. The instant he closed his eyes and the prayer began, Oscar found himself in a dark room. His best friend, Michael, was ten feet in front of him and Jesus was five feet further back. Michael walked up and shook Oscar’s hand and Oscar told Michael that he loved him. Oscar felt every finger, warm and solid in his hand. They hugged, and Oscar could feel as Michael wrapped his arms around him. As they stepped apart, Oscar told Michael that he loved him and he was praying for him. Michael said he loved him too, and then turned away to walk towards Jesus. Jesus put his arm around Michael and they walked out together, leaving Oscar alone in the dark room. After what had felt like a few short minutes, Oscar opened his eyes and looked around. The room that had held 300 kids when he closed his eyes was empty. Only Oscar and another leader remained. Oscar looked at him with wide eyes and asked what had happened. He told Oscar the service had ended two and a half hours ago, and that Oscar had been sleeping that whole time. It was in that moment that Oscar felt the strength of God’s love. In that moment of bewildered confusion, Oscar realized how strongly God was for him, how much He wanted him. God had given Oscar one of the deepest desires of his heart: he was granted the good-bye he wanted so desperately with Michael. As this thought washed over him, he realized that the shame, the depression, and the suicidal thoughts that he had carried for so long were gone. Oscar stood up and felt lighter and freer than he had ever felt. What’s more, in a life dictated by limitations, Oscar felt limitless. As Oscar walked from the room, he heard God’s voice for the first time telling him to go back in. Oscar turned around and as he walked back through the doorway, he saw the puddle of his tears that stained the carpet and fell to his knees. He heard God leading him through the prayer of salvation and he gave his life to Jesus without a second thought. As Oscar stood up, a smile stretched across his face as he felt his freedom for the first time.

Oscar was hungry to know this Jesus that had ruined him in the best way and couldn’t ask enough questions about Him. Over the next year, Oscar’s faith grew and everyone at Life Church noticed. When a wilderness ministry wanted to start a ministry school with Life Church and asked the leadership whom they should bring in, Oscar was everyone’s first – and only – choice. As this was Oscar’s only chance at higher education, he jumped at the opportunity. Once in ministry school, the questions and thirst for more knowledge only grew. Oscar’s classmates went out and bought him a children’s picture bible so he could have some background on what they were discussing. All Oscar had to do was think about scripture or even look at the bible before he would be in tears, overwhelmed at the beauty of God’s desire for man to be with Him. Oscar began having radically vivid dreams about a service. In these dreams, people would walk into the service broken and walk out whole and rejoicing. He had dreams of miraculous healings that would send his body into shock and he would wake up shaking. He’d pray himself back to sleep, knowing God was showing him that this service was part of his life’s purpose.

In the next three and a half years, Oscar and his team put on several Spirit-filled services. They saw countless people find salvation, miraculous healings, and missionaries and youth pastors were born from these services. God was awakening Oscar’s generation and moving in big ways. One night, God told Oscar that his time with the service had come to an end. Oscar was devastated to let it go, but knew that in his obedience that God was going to continue to lead him into more and more revival of the kingdom.

Oscar’ story is only beginning. In his 20’s, already having seen so much that God has done, he knows that God really does have “bigger and better” in store. Through another ministry opportunity, his consistent involvement in church and ministry, and his ever-aching thirst for more of God, Oscar has only scratched the surface of what his life will hold.

Even though Oscar grew up an illegal immigrant, he no longer feels like one. He is a permanent resident of the US, but, more importantly, of the kingdom of God. Oscar knows he is a child of the one true King, and that nothing – not a country, not a single law – can ever limit him again.

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Photo Credit: Caleb George Morris / Courtesy of Unsplash

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