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Seeing the Sonrise

By Orlando Rivera as told to Mildred K. Butterfield

I was sitting in a housing project in Brooklyn, N.Y., when my feet began to grow numb. The paralysis crawled up my body until I passed out. I woke up 11 days later on a respirator in ICU.

My drug buddy who lived two floors below my apartment felt an urgency to “go check on Orlando.” He found me passed out on the floor. He dragged me down six flights of stairs to the first floor to a taxi. By the time I got to the hospital I’d turned black and stopped breathing.

It was the 46th time I’d gone to the hospital in four years. Seven times I ended up on a respirator — this time from rat poison in drugs I’d injected. Other times were from drug overdoses and smoking cocaine until my lungs collapsed. I knew I was in big trouble.

I was born in South Bronx in New York. My father was a drug addict. I grew up surrounded by gangsters and drug dealers. From my earliest years I wanted to be like them.

My sister’s friend gave me a $2 pack of heroin when I was 12 years old.

Wow, this feels so good, I thought as the rush of that first dose hit me. I don’t have to feel bad.

That little pack of heroin had the power to transform my life. From the first day, I was hooked. I was an extremely hurting, angry child. My parents were disconnected from my life with no love between us. In those days you could buy a pack for 50 cents, so at first it was easy to support my habit. But I gradually needed more and more, so I stole and burglarized to supply myself with drugs. I was constantly arrested for shoplifting, truancy, violence and drug dealing. Most of my upbringing was spent in prisons and institutions.

I became more and more immersed in heroin and methadone. I started mixing heroin and crack cocaine. It was a snowballing effect that spiraled me downward. I was in terrible trouble. I didn’t know there was any hope.

I was 18 when I completed the Logos drug program. Desperately seeking to get away from the drug culture, I went to visit a cousin in Staten Island. There, in God’s timing, I met a Christian girl who was knocking on doors and selling magazines. She introduced me to Christ. I started to attend church but had a continual struggle between my love for drugs and wanting to be free. I didn’t have any mentors, so I continued to live the drug lifestyle for 19 more years.

I was getting dressed one morning when I heard a voice in my head:

If you’re going to live like this, you’re going to have to worship me.

I knew it was Satan. I started to worship him. The next 10 years plunged my life into darkness, destruction and demonic worship. I went through failed marriages and my health began to fail as I was in and out of numerous prisons.

As a result of sharing needles with drug addicts, I became infected with the AIDS virus at 34 years of age. When I got the letter informing me I was HIV-positive, I completely gave up.

I’m going to die soon, I thought. There’s no point in struggling anymore.

I was in jail on Riker’s Island when I was drawn to a young man with a colorful Bible.

“Where did you get that Bible?” I asked him.

“A church gives them away. You should call the pastor.”

I wrote to the pastor. He mailed me a Bible. Then he sent clothes, Bible studies and money on a weekly basis.

“When you get out of Riker’s Island I want you to stay with us,” he told me.

I went back to the streets of Harlem as soon as I was released. I wasn’t ready to quit yet. I continued to use methadone as well as cocaine, heroin and pain medicine.

Shortly after my near-death experience with the rat poison I was evicted from my apartment. All my money went for drug use. A friend offered to share his closet at the 111th and Lexington Ave. train station. It was only large enough for two men to lie down.

One night, full of remorse over my lifestyle, I lay all night on that cold floor thinking how I’d destroyed my life. I didn’t expect to live much longer because the doctor said I had the lungs of an 80-year-old.

“God help me,” I cried out in desperation.

After that long and painful night, I went outside the train station in Harlem and walked to a busy shopping district. Cold, hungry and tired, I stood freezing in front of a department store window to beg money. The sound from television sets in the store window was piped outside. I heard Marilyn Hickey say, “Stop the show. There’s a man standing on the sidewalk and he is feeling hopeless. God says He’s going to deliver you. Don’t give up.”

I knew she was talking to me. I felt impressed to call the pastor.

“I can’t take it anymore. I need help.”

“Orlando, come,” he said.

I took a subway to the church. They took me in right away. Within a few days of attending nightly worship services, something began to work on me. I thought it was a nervous breakdown. I began to shake as I sat at the table with the pastor.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

Instantly he laid hands on me and prayed, “I command you, Satan, to go.”

Something forceful came out of me. At the same time I was filled with the Holy Spirit. I’ve not been the same since. I knew I was delivered from drugs. Everything became new. The next 30 days were a time of spiritual cleansing. I listened to worship songs, studied the Bible and cried like a baby for hours.

The Lord told me, “I’ve delivered you. I want you to tell My people what good things I’ve done for you and how I’ve had mercy on you.”

Another time I was studying the Bible when I came to Isaiah 53:5: “With his stripes we are healed” (KJV).

God spoke again: “Orlando, I have healed you.”

A year later the doctor declared me free of HIV.

Later, I read in Joel 2:24, “I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten.”

I began to experience that kind of restoration three months after I came to the church. I was on a bus heading for Oklahoma. My daughter had tracked me down and called me.

“Dad, I’m married and I’m about to give birth to your first grandson. I’d like you to be here.”

“Yes, I want to be there,” I told her.

My pastor paid my bus ticket. I met Bill Everitt, Oklahoma director of Teen Challenge at First Assembly of God Church in Lawton, Okla. He knew God wanted me to work at the Sonrise Ranch, a Teen Challenge Center for drug addicts. That wasn’t what I wanted to do. God didn’t bring me from a long line of drug addiction to work with drug addicts, I thought. Finally I consented to go to a barbecue at the ranch. When Bill showed me the dorm supervisor’s room, I heard God say, “This is your room.” That was 14 years ago.

Now I can’t imagine doing anything else in my life. It has been the greatest thing in all the world to help others find freedom from drugs. I’ve found if you surrender to the will of God, you’ll be happier than you ever imagined. These have been the most glorious years of my life. tpe

MILDRED K. BUTTERFIELD lives in Enid, Okla.

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