It was March 13, 1986, a snowy Thursday night. I was all alone and getting high. But I had also gotten drunk on fantasies of somehow becoming a drug kingpin at age 18.

Earlier that night, I had left my brother’s house in Newburgh, New York, to deliver 4.5 ounces of cocaine to one of his customers. I hadn’t noticed the headlight out on Dad’s pristine red 1978 Plymouth Volare, but the New York state trooper sure did. After pulling me over, he also noticed that I was driving under the influence, not to mention the lump protruding from the left pocket of my leather jacket.

I was young and naive, clueless about what lay ahead. But the stark reality caught up with me later as I sat in a cold cell at the Orange County Jail in Goshen, New York, where I wrapped a bed sheet from an old cot around my neck and began tightening it. Death seemed like the only way out of this mess. I was trapped. Hopeless. Finished.

As the sheet got tighter, the world started fading away. But just before succumbing to the darkness, I heard a voice in my native Spanish: “Eduardo, no lo hagas. Hay esperanza para tu vida.” (“Eduardo, don’t do it. There is hope for your life.”)

That sweet, soft voice saved my life that day—and has changed it every day since.

Drugs, disco, girls

I was born in Uruguay, but my parents moved to Queens soon after. We lived there for a few years before they got divorced. At age five, I went to live with my mom’s parents back in Uruguay, where I experienced feelings of loneliness and hopelessness. From attending a new school to speaking a new language to navigating an unfamiliar culture, everything was changing at a disorienting pace.

Mom rejoined me two years later. She was a very hard worker and constantly showered me with gifts. But what I wanted most from her—affection—was something she didn’t know how to give. I suppose my presence was a tangible reminder of a painful season in her life.

Meanwhile, Dad remarried in New York, and we would sometimes talk on the phone. About ten years later, he paid me a visit while taking a summer vacation in Uruguay. Reconnecting with Dad rekindled my love for the United States, and when I turned 16, I went to live with him in Brooklyn.

Being a young man in the big city was exciting on its own, and that was before meeting my much older brother, Danny, whose existence had been unknown to me. Danny had the life any teenage boy would envy: cars, clothes, money, women. And soon enough, I began tasting small samples of that life myself.

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I will never forget stumbling into my brother’s office at the disco he owned and seeing large plastic bags of white powder being weighed and packaged with brown tape. Danny introduced me to marijuana, but that high just wasn’t enough. Before long, I tried my first hit of cocaine. From there, it was drugs, disco, and girls—rinse and repeat. I was hooked on the whole lifestyle—the very lifestyle that led me to jail and to the brink of suicide.

But even at the darkest moment, God’s plan was already unfolding. After hearing the voice that stopped me from killing myself, I said, “God, if that’s really you, please help me.”

I was facing a sentence of 15 years to life in prison, and I didn’t know what to do, but the voice brought a certain peace of mind. When a guard gave me a Bible, I started reading the Gospels, and I was captivated by the stories of Jesus—how he would speak to people in great need and meet those needs in miraculous ways. But the verse that made the deepest impression was 2 Corinthians 5:17, where Paul promises that “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”

Soon, I was invited to a church meeting in the jail’s gymnasium. On a Monday night, a volunteer hugged me and told me that not only did God love me, but he did too. I had forgotten what it felt like to be hugged. That very night, October 6, 1986, I surrendered to the love of Christ, accepting his offer to be my Lord and Savior.

In a sequence of seemingly miraculous events, my sentence was reduced and I became eligible for parole after just three years. Meanwhile, I continued growing closer to Christ. I was a new man in every way. I went from being filled with rebellious thoughts to appreciating the gift of life, no matter the circumstances. With the aid of numerous chaplains and Christian volunteers, I overcame hatred toward my father and brother and learned to forgive them. In the Spirit’s power, I battled to rid myself of foul language and break addictions to pornography and masturbation.

In March 1989, my release date finally arrived. But instead of walking out of prison a free man, immigration officers took me into custody. Three weeks later, I was deported back to Uruguay and banned from returning.

But I was determined, over the next 21 years, to do just that, because I knew I would always be a debtor to America. There were so many people there who shared the love of Jesus with a kid who was completely lost.

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As the years passed, I attended Bible college and began preaching. I met my wife, Sandra, and started a family. But the desire to return to America only intensified, even as the US Embassy in Uruguay denied my requests over and over again.

Summing up those two decades of trying, failing, waiting, and failing again in a few sentences doesn’t do it justice. It was grueling, and many times I was upset, frustrated, and worried that all my efforts were made in vain. But God remained faithful even when my spirits flagged. Finally, after writing an extensive letter to Eric Holder, the US attorney general at the time, I received a call from the embassy informing me that a pardon from the State Department had been granted and my tourist visa had been approved.

The larger redemption

I returned to the United States in 2010, connecting with a church near Nashville. In 2012, this church hired me as the pastor of an on-campus Hispanic church. Things were not always easy in these early days as my family adjusted to our new life in America. As the first few years passed, I worked several different jobs, but my heart was always drawn back to those behind prison walls, who are so often forgotten.

I began volunteering and sharing my story with prisoners in county jails and state prisons. Over time, the Tennessee Department of Correction hired me to serve as psychiatric chaplain in a maximum-security prison. Joy filled my heart with each conversation, hug, and promise of hope in Christ that I was blessed to share.

Last January, God finally granted my fervent wish for full US citizenship. But this part of my story is only one piece of the larger redemption he has worked in my life. That sweet voice that cared enough to whisper encouragement into my prison cell still cares deeply for me now. Life has not been easy, but I have tasted and seen that the Lord is good, even to those who make terrible mistakes like mine.

Eduardo F. Rocha is a corporate chaplain for Charter Construction in Tennessee and a military chaplain for the Tennessee State Guard.

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