I was awakened by the hurried sounds of correction officers rushing into the cell block, with their key rings clanging together, their handheld radios blaring, and their loud voices interrogating the inmates. They were trying to determine whether one or more of us had taunted or terrorized José in a way that had caused him to commit suicide, which was a common enough occurrence at Rikers Island prison in New York City.
I hadn’t really known too much about José. In fact, I’m not even certain that was his real first name. I did know, however, that he shared my last name (Vega) and that he slept in the cell in front of mine.
I couldn’t stop thinking about how he might have taken his own life. One inmate said he had hung himself from the ceiling. Another speculated that he was able to tie his sheets to the bed while using his weight to choke himself as he lowered himself toward the floor. Either way, the deed was done and final.
As tragic as José’s death was, in some ways it launched me on the path to becoming a Christian. Oddly enough, this happened largely because of a mix-up on the part of the prison staff, who misidentified me as the prisoner named Vega who had committed suicide. The prison sent a chaplain to my family’s home to deliver the bad news. Amid the confusion that prevailed while Rikers Island was on lockdown following the incident, they didn’t learn the truth until several days later. For all they knew, I was dead.
There’s something powerfully symbolic in how I was “dead” but not yet buried. Looking back on this moment in my life, I believe God was beginning to show me that although I was physically alive, I was spiritually lifeless. And he was beginning to show me that true life would only be found in dying to self.
I was born into a humble family and raised in the gritty midtown New York City neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen. The oldest of four siblings, I had a love and a talent for baseball, and my family envisioned me playing for the New York Yankees one day.
But my upbringing lacked structure and discipline, and I had too much freedom for someone so young. I also struggled with low self-esteem and a need for acceptance. Compared to other kids in my neighborhood, I was small in stature and physically nonthreatening, which led to gnawing feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. To overcome these emotions and secure my place in the “in crowd,” I made a series of destructive choices—involving alcohol, drugs, and promiscuity—that dashed my dreams of playing professional baseball.
I started drinking alcohol at age 11. At 13, I began smoking marijuana and eventually graduated to hardcore drugs like cocaine and heroin, which quickly escalated into full-blown addiction. I enjoyed the thrill I received in the moment, but I hated the way I felt after the effects wore off. The only way to escape the pain, shame, and guilt the drugs created was turning to them for relief, which trapped me in a vicious cycle.
Selling drugs to support my habit became a revolving door in and out of prison. Each time I landed there, I would busy myself making plans to successfully stay out. But as the boxer Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” I wasn’t doing the necessary work of honest reflection that might have changed my course.
Once free, I would find sporadic employment in retail stores, as a messenger or delivery person, in telemarketing, or working other odd jobs. At one point, I even had a good, steady income working at a hospital in Syracuse. But I always ended up quitting or getting fired. Material things couldn’t change a wayward heart.
After several stints in prison, a glimmer of hope arrived in the form of Michelle, who strolled into my neighborhood with a style and grace all her own. I sensed she was different from the other girls. I said to myself, “She has to be mine.” We became friends, and eventually became intimate.
But Michelle grew frustrated with my persistently destructive actions and addictions. She was pregnant with my child, but we both knew I was ill-equipped for the responsibilities of fatherhood. In her hopelessness, she turned to God and started attending a church. She had been raised in a strict religious family that encouraged good behavior but not a relationship with a loving, merciful God. Finding encouragement from fellow believers, she prayed for my salvation, for deliverance from the degrading life I was leading. And she suggested that I go to a Christian recovery program for help.
Looking back, I can see that God was pursuing me even before my encounter with Michelle. There was the prison chaplain who would often encourage me to read the Bible. There was the inmate who spoke to me about God and invited me to attend services at The Brooklyn Tabernacle, a church he had attended.
I also started feeling deep remorse and shame over the pain I had caused people in my family, especially my mom and dad. I felt like I had to pay them back somehow. So I started attending prison chapel services. At first, it was just something to break the monotony of prison life, but before long, I actually started looking forward to it. I was always deeply moved, even to the point of tears, when we sang the song “Lord Prepare Me to Be a Sanctuary.”
From there I started reading the Word of God, and gradually it got a tight hold on my heart. Some of the passages I clung to during this time were Psalms 27 and 91, as well as Galatians 5:1–13, which speaks of freedom in Christ and liberation from a “yoke of slavery” (v. 1). My seminary was the Holy Spirit meeting me in the prison cell, where I could spend hours reading and praying without boredom.
All the while, God’s love and mercy for me were evident. He placed mentors along my path who taught me how to walk with God and obey his Word. This included a group of men who gathered regularly to study the Bible and strengthen their relationship with God. Following their example, I decided to surrender my life to Christ.
It took some time to see Jesus not just as my Savior, but also as my Lord. As a new Christian, I needed to better absorb the wisdom of Proverbs 3:5–7, which compels us to submit to God “in all your ways,” to “lean not on your own understanding,” and to “not be wise in your own eyes.” But when I left prison for good in 1996, I knew Christ had remade me from the inside out.
Since then, God has opened doors I never would have thought possible. I’ve enjoyed a successful career as an insurance executive. I’ve served as executive director and CEO of Goodwill Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter and addiction-recovery program based in Newark, New Jersey. And since 2009, I’ve pastored East Harlem Fellowship in New York City.
Meanwhile, I’ve been married to Michelle for 30 years, during which we’ve raised four children. And I’ve traveled to five of the seven continents on mission trips, preaching the message that in Christ, there is hope for overcoming every crisis we face in this life.
Nothing is impossible for God Almighty! When the world had labeled me an addict and a career criminal, his love and mercy overwhelmed me, testifying that I was made in his image and worthy of being presented as a trophy of his grace.
Hector Vega is the author of Arrested by Grace: The True Story of Death and Resurrection from the Streets of New York City, which he has sent to hundreds of prisons across the United States.
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