Tragedies and Transformations, Part 4

June 11, 2013

by Maria Fontaine

Destitute to Disciple

During my visit to the mission work in Tijuana that I’ve described in recent posts, I had an opportunity to visit their drug recovery/discipleship center. Seeing these people so solidly focused on training disciples was a clear sign to me that they were growing and multiplying.

I found them to be sincere, dedicated Christians whose greatest desire is to mirror Christ’s compassion for others. They help many to get off drugs or alcohol or whatever their problem might be, but their main goal is to teach others how to be disciples of Jesus Christ. They tell those who come to them, “If you’re just looking for help to get off drugs, you’re in the wrong place.—Because our goal isn’t just to get you off drugs but to make you disciples of Jesus.”

It was raining that day as we embarked on the hour-long drive to the 33-acre ranch that serves as both drug rehabilitation and disciple-training center. Our team was composed of my partner and me, along with the youth pastor, his wife, their two young children, and a sweet, intelligent-looking young man, Ivan, age 19. Ivan is the son of a staff member at the ranch. The last 25 minutes of the trip were along rain-soaked, muddy tracks. At times the single-lane roads looked almost impassable.

Ivan chatted easily with us. When I asked what the schedule was for the men at the ranch, he reeled off the hours, obviously very familiar with every detail. It turned out he had personally been through the yearlong program, having come to the ranch after living on the streets with a serious drug problem. Looking at him now—clean-cut and with a radiant smile—you’d never imagine that not long ago he had been hopeless, destitute, and enslaved by drugs.

The youth pastor explained that the one-year program is free of charge, without any special requirements for participation. Participants don’t have to be drug addicts or alcoholics, although most of them are. Some come because they want to strengthen their relationship with the Lord, and to be able to get away from distractions. The generator that provides electricity is turned off at 8:00 in the evening. There are no TVs, computers, or electronic devices. The men have three Bible classes a day. They pray together. They receive a wealth of spiritual support and training from the directors, who have faced similar struggles themselves, and have found the answers and strength to overcome through their faith and reliance on the Lord. They work together on daily chores, play united sports, and have times to enjoy campfires, singing, and fellowship.

Almost all of the sixteen full-time staff members who run the various mission projects went through the discipleship program at this ranch, or the Bible school that is held at the church, and afterwards wanted to stay and become a part of the ministry, as they are so grateful to God for the way He has changed them. They have been saved from death, not only spiritually, but in many cases also physically.

It’s clear from the fruits being borne that they have found the key to transforming lives. The staff have a deep conviction that they must get those in the program firmly grounded in God’s Word and prayer, which will give them the strength to make the monumental changes of lifestyle, habits, and thought patterns that are necessary. The staff have the compassion and humility to weep with them, pray with them, fight for them in spirit, to literally lay down their own lives for these who need them, and to do it for as long as it takes to get them through, one small step at a time (1 John 3:16).

Tijuana is a dumping ground for deportees from the U.S. According to documentaries on this problem, the “dumping” involves not just Mexicans, but many others who had left other countries without proper documentation for a new life in the United States. They came up through Mexico, only to find themselves pushed back across the border. Some are basically stateless, with nowhere to go, and easy prey for drug cartels and other predators. I discovered that many of those at the ranch were deportees.

I chatted with a 29-year-old man, fluent in English, working in the kitchen. Here are some of his experiences in his own words.

Maria: You were born in Mexico?

Mauricio: Yes. My parents took me to the U.S. when I was very small.

Maria: Are your parents still there?

Mauricio: Yes, they’re still there. All my family is there.

Maria: How did you get deported?

Mauricio: They caught me driving without a driver’s license. They put me in jail for a month and they deported me. I have my family—my kids and my ex-wife—over there.
      I was living here in Mexico for three years after they deported me, because I didn’t have the money to go back over the border, but when I heard that my ex-wife just abandoned my kids and left them with my mom, and didn’t want nothing to do with them anymore, I had to go back and help my mom take care of my kids. That’s the reason I tried to jump the border. On my second attempt in October last year I got through. I just lasted in the U.S. for three months.
      But I’m so grateful to God. I told Him, “Please, God, take care of my kids. I want You to have my life. I want to dedicate my life and my kids’ lives to You. So just help me out. I want to see them. I want to be with them. I want to be able to take care of them, but first help me to become a better father and a better son.
      That’s what God is doing in my life right now. He’s so great that He allowed me to go over the border, spend October, November, and December with my kids, and hug them after three years, kiss them, take them to school, take them to the clinic. Then, because I was getting distracted by different things in the U.S., the Lord said, “Son, I don’t want you here. You’re going the wrong direction. You’re going to start doing bad things if you stay here. I want you back over there where they can help you.”
      Even though they deported me, I’m so grateful to God, because He’s saving my life again. So that’s why I’m at peace. I’m at peace with Him.

Maria: Your children are well taken care of? Your mom loves them a lot?

Mauricio: Yes. I know sooner or later He’s going to bring them to me, or He’s going to take me to them. One way or the other, He’s going to do it. I know.

Maria: What a beautiful testimony. What strong faith! When did you start being serious about the Lord?

Mauricio: Really, really serious? In July of last year. That’s when I tried to go back over the border the first time. They caught me and put me in a jail in Arizona for two months for jumping the border. I was still grateful, because thanks to that I started listening to God. He started speaking to me, right in jail with other inmates, immigration jail. They think they’re doing something bad for us when they put us in jail, when they’re actually doing something good if you really listen to God. That’s where you pay more attention to Him.

We met one of the directors of the ranch, who I had seen earlier at the shelter in town reading his Bible. He explained that he has one day off every week and he usually goes to the shelter, where it’s quiet during the day, to study the Word. The staff members here work very hard, so when they use their precious free time to delve into the Bible, I think that speaks volumes about their dedication and love for God’s Word and their realization that their life—and the lives of those at the center—depend on it!

We walked up the hill to another building where we came across Ivan, the young man who’d ridden up to the ranch with us, chatting animatedly with a fine-looking man who turned out to be his father, Sammy. Sammy is an assistant director of the ranch. He’d had an amazing deliverance from heroin and had helped his son, Ivan, to get off drugs as well. Here is a short interview that I had with Sammy.

Maria: So, Sammy, you were on drugs?

Sammy: Heroin.

Maria: For how many years?

Sammy: Oh, 15. I lost the mother of my children because of drugs. She left me because I did so many drugs and a lot of crime.
      I lived on the streets of Tijuana after my wife and children left me, rummaging through trash cans to survive. I was really bad off. I was like an old man, all hunched over. My hair was long, past my shoulders, and I was very thin. I had become very hard in my heart, but everything changed for me with Jesus. Now every day I read the Bible and pray so I can keep going, keep walking on.
      Sometimes I feel like going back, but I can’t, because Jesus lives in me. That is why I keep going. He lifts the lowest and most despised people so that it shows His power. Jesus lifted me up, and I am still reading and praying and looking to Him.

Maria: When you gave up drugs, was it a drastic and overnight change, or did you have a long road with the withdrawal process?

Sammy: I first went to the shelter because someone told me about it. I began to see that if I didn’t change, my life was over. I was going to die. That’s what helped me decide to come here to the ranch, and I never went back to my old life. But physically it was rough; for one month I couldn't sleep. I went through strong withdrawals for that whole month.

Maria: That sounds like hell!

Sammy: Yes, and some people in other places actually die in the process of withdrawal. I didn’t use any medicine to help with the withdrawal process; it was only God’s mercy that kept me and delivered me after so many years of heroin. There were many times during the withdrawals when I was so desperate for drugs that it was only God who helped me to stay here. My whole body and mind told me I had to get out of here and not continue on. I was in a lot of physical pain, and also, in my mind I wanted to leave—the mind battles were so strong. The mind battles went on longer than the physical withdrawal.

Maria: Why did you stay then?

Sammy: My desire to be free from the drugs was even stronger than my desire to leave. So I had to hold on to God, but it was such a fight; the mind battles were tremendous. I didn’t have my children. I lost my wife. I didn’t have anything, no more family. I only had God, and I couldn’t let go of Him because He was all I had. I really wanted to be free, and God helped me. I am no longer a slave to those old things. I'm only a slave for Christ.

Maria: Now you are able to help many other people.

Sammy: Yes, and my son came here and was able to change his life, to get off the drugs. He is now helping the kids in his neighborhood and their friends. And God has given me a new wife and a new family.

Sammy and Jessica had been married just a year before. We met his beautiful wife, two young sons, and their two-month-old baby. Jessica is 32 and had lived from the age of twelve in the U.S. without U.S. citizenship. At the age of 27 she was arrested for gang activity and doing drugs and was deported along with her one- and two-year-old boys. These missionaries had taken her into one of their facilities. She soon found Jesus, and before long started working on the staff of the orphanage.

When I looked at this beautiful family—including Sammy’s grown son, Ivan—I marveled at the light that shone in their eyes, at the beauty of Jesus that was there. He had taken the shattered and splintered remains of these lives and formed them into this beautiful expression of God’s power to do the impossible with anyone who reaches out to Him.

We said our goodbyes and went to the classroom, where we talked to some of the men who had just finished their Bible study. They gave us bits and pieces of their testimonies. They said, “Please, please pray for us. It’s not easy to go through this program. We have to hang on fiercely.”

Living in God’s Word and standing on it, they’ve been able to face life-and-death struggles together. As they pray for one another and encourage one another for as long as it takes to gain the victories, they are witnessing the miraculous power of God in each other’s lives.

Seeing such transformation was a fresh and vivid reminder to me that God, through His children, is still in the business of changing lives. He takes those who are lost and mired in vice, completely broken, crushed, and nearly dead, and gives them newness of life, radiance, and a heavenly glow through the power of His Word. Jesus bathes them in His glorious light and dispels their darkness, cleansing them and making them whole, giving them life through His Word (Matthew 4:16, I Peter 2:9, Isaiah 53:5, John 6:63).

As followers of Jesus, our most precious possession is our connection to God through His Son. That connection is also the most valuable gift we can share with others.

As these Christians are demonstrating, sharing the Gospel is so much more than preaching a sermon. It has to be implemented in real life: doing, feeling, living it. For each of us, whatever it takes or however Jesus leads us to do it, the goal is always to help others build a personal connection with Him.

My personal prayer is that I can be a friend who can provide a safe spiritual haven for those who want to learn and grow and see God’s power manifested in their lives.


The youth pastor and his wife who drove us to the ranch.


Interviewing Mauricio.


One of ranch managers on his day off loves to study the Word at the shelter.
Note the makeshift desk.


Sammy, Jessica, and son Ivan.