By Cheri Cauthon
Everyone who enters and exits goes through "the room." For some,
the room means life behind bars; for others, freedom. Alex Velazquez
Jr. walked into prison and unimaginable freedom.
The moment Velazquez stepped into Receiving and Discharging, he was
conscious of other inmates eyes following him as he was processed.
One man offered him shampoo and slippers. Warned by his lawyer not
to take handouts, Velazquez refused. The man insisted, so Velazquez
sized up this possible opponent. He reluctantly took the gifts.
|Alex and Amelia
Velazquez during a Christmas outreach at Oasis Tabernacle Assembly
of God in Philadelphia, Pa.
The inmate asked Velazquez to meet him after chow to walk the prison
track. He knew the track posed greater risk of being jumped by inmate
gangs, but he wanted to face his fear. He met the inmate and for 15
minutes had a normal conversation. Then Velazquezs new friend
stopped and faced him.
Outside the room
Growing up in New York City, Velazquez was one of five children raised
by a single mother. She worked three jobs and continually supported
her family in prayer. At 16, Velazquez started smoking pot. Because
he kept a job, he believed he wasnt addicted. Marijuana weekends
turned into cocaine weekends. For two years, Velazquez thought he
was in control.
As his addiction worsened, drugs took his paycheck. Selling cocaine
was the quick answer to his money problems. Within five years, Velazquez
had gone from a teen experimenting with pot to dealing. He established
himself as a New York City kingpin most weeks he made more
than $30,000. The money, cars, jewelry and clothes were abundant.
"I didnt want to be the person I was," Velazquez says. "I had
everything on the outside, yet I was empty." Velazquez called out
to God. The money and drugs continued to flow, but God heard Velazquezs
The authorities were tapping his phones, staking out his home, doing
undercover work. In 1987, federal agents broke down Velazquezs
door. On August 1, 1989, he was sentenced to four and a half years
in a medium-security federal prison.
An open door
"Alex, Im a Christian. Would you come to a fellowship service
tonight?" the inmate from the room said. Velazquez no longer feared
being jumped or set up. He knew God had heard his cry. He attended
chapel later that evening and immediately felt the presence of God.
He ran to the altar. "I was weeping," Velazquez says. "I knew I wanted
to come home to my Father."
From the first day, prison was the scene for Gods plan. Spirit-filled
prison chaplains Mike Reighard and Manuel Cordero discipled Velazquez
for more than two years. God restored his marriage. He learned to
read and received his GED.
Released on parole one year early, Velazquez went in a new direction.
God provided for him and his wife, Amelia, to attend Valley Forge
Christian College in Phoenixville, Pa. After both graduated, they
planted Oasis Tabernacle (Assemblies of God) in Philadelphia, six
blocks from where he was released from prison.
In little more than a year, the church has grown to almost 100 children
and adults and completed a building project. The church logo proclaims:
"A place of refuge for hurting people."
Prison ministry will always be a priority for Velazquez and his congregation.
Some members hold monthly services at Delaware County Prison, Gratesford
Maximum Prison and New Life Youth Facility. "Prison ministry is important
to me, because prison is what God used to break me," Velazquez says.
"Inmates are people who have made mistakes and are in need of the
Savior. If we show them the love of Jesus Christ, we will break down
walls." Velazquez now counsels families who are back together after
one of their members was released from prison.
Cheri Cauthon is an Assemblies of God missionary
associate in Belgium.