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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

True Freedom

By Ginger Kolbaba
Sept. 15, 2013

Jackie Romero knows what the Holy Spirit can do in a person’s life. A former crystal meth addict and alcoholic, Romero, 45, drank beer all day, stole to get drugs, and lived expressly to serve her own needs, leaving her two children essentially to fend for themselves.

But when God got hold of her life, Romero dropped those addictions and chased after Him with the same fervor. Now she works in her church’s community outreach prayer ministry and shares the gospel with any and all who will listen. And that transformation started because of God’s work in her youngest child — and one woman who cared enough to love Romero through to change.

Ten years ago, life for Romero’s son, Al, then 15, seemed out of control. He became withdrawn and dropped out of school. Romero and her husband, also an addict, had little ability to care for their son, let alone attend to their own emotional, physical, and spiritual health. Romero was frightened by what she saw in her son and tried to pray, but knew little about God and was unsure where to turn.

Estela Balistreri knew how to help. Balistreri’s and Romero’s sons were friends. When Balistreri discovered what was happening with Al and his family, she encouraged him to attend her church, Calvary Temple (now Hope Restored), an Assemblies of God congregation in San Diego. Al accepted the invitation, committed his life to Christ, and began to attend faithfully.

Each Sunday when her son returned from church, Romero noticed Al’s face shone brightly.

“When he came through that door, I remember it clearly,” Romero says. “His face looked like he’d seen God himself. I’d look at him and think, I want that so bad, but I didn’t know if I could have it. I was such a mess.”

When her son was baptized at church, Romero showed up, sat on the front pew, listened intently to everything, and beamed with pride. Afterward she celebrated — with a 12-pack of beer.

For her son’s birthday, Romero invited Pastor Jack Sampier Jr. and his wife, Ashley, Al’s spiritual parents, to her house to celebrate. She hid the booze in the hallway, except for her own cup, which she kept filled with her “apple juice.”

“They were so kind and loving, I couldn’t believe they brought the love of Jesus to my house,” she says tearfully.

Even as Al Romero’s life was reborn, Jackie Romero still struggled. Until God used a loved one’s death.

On Oct. 19, 2005, Romero’s mother called to inform Jackie that her brother had passed away. He was only 36. Romero had been up most of the night partying. The news made something snap within her.

Romero told God, “That’s enough. I’m done. I want to see my brother in heaven.” She quit drugs cold turkey. “That was the opening God gave me, and by His grace, I chose to obey,” she says.

Although the drug problem was miraculously gone, and she attended Calvary Temple regularly, Romero still clung to her alcohol. She doesn’t remember much about the first year at the church except that every week she looked at Pastor Jack Sampier Sr. and could see only a cheap bottle of beer, wishing he would quit preaching so she could go have one.

One Sunday, Romero took her niece to the nursery and stayed to help Dixie Sampier, the pastor’s wife. As the service drew to a close, though, Romero became nervous.

“I have to go,” she told Sampier. “I have to go to the altar.”

Sampier told her that they could pray there in the nursery.

Romero was stunned. “I can?”

After Sampier reassured her, Romero admitted, “I have a bad secret. If anybody knew they wouldn’t like me.”

“What’s your secret?”

“I’m an alcoholic.”

“Miss Dixie looked at me like, That’s it? That’s your secret?” Romero says and laughs. They prayed, and she went home and drank a 12-pack.

But God was working behind the scenes and used another health crisis — this time in Romero’s own life — to get through to her.

Romero’s excessive drinking caused her body to swell to the point she could no longer walk. When the pain became unbearable, and the doctors explained the severe consequences of her drinking, she turned to her last — but greatest — hope.

“I begged God to take my addiction away. I didn’t want to live any longer if this was going to be my life,” Romero says.

Immediately a warmth spread throughout her body. “I didn’t know what was happening, but I know it was God,” she says, crying. At that moment Romero quit drinking and completely turned her life over to God. Now her thirst was for Him, and it was insatiable.

Romero found herself at church every time the doors opened. The things that held her captive in her heart and mind were gone. The drugs and alcohol no longer called her name. She was free.

Romero knew nothing about Christianity, so Pastor Sampier and the other leaders patiently taught her the fundamentals of the faith.

“She was so intent in learning about God,” says Sampier. “She couldn’t get enough.”

Romero attended a women’s Bible study and carted with her a Bible Estela Balistreri gave her. Not a great reader, Romero decided to read only the shortest books.

“Most people tell you to start at John; it was too long for me!” she admits. So instead she started with Jude. The more Romero read, the more God fed her desire to know who she was in Him.

“I couldn’t believe what I read — I’m an adopted child. He loves me. He wants me. Me,” she says. “You don’t know how tough that is to take in when you’re an addict.”

As the truth sank in, Romero took that message to everyone she knew, spreading God’s love and requesting forgiveness.

“The Bible says to love your neighbor as yourself,” she says. “But I couldn’t do that, because I didn’t know how to love myself.”

Romero apologized to her family, friends and neighbors for not loving them in the past the way Jesus was now calling her to love them.

A decade later Romero’s childlike faith and intense desire to know Jesus have not diminished. Sampier loves to talk about Romero’s faith journey.

“I wish our church had a dozen more like Jackie,” he says. “The thing that sets Jackie apart in so many ways is her tenacity. She made up her mind to follow Jesus, and she has never gone back.”

Romero is now involved in her church’s weekly prayer ministry at the community outdoor market. People stand in line to pray with her — quite a feat since the ministry takes place out in the open.

“She has a way of connecting with those people, because she’s been there,” Sampier says. “She knows that kind of a life — the loneliness, the pit we put ourselves in. And she knows the One who can change them.”

Romero continues to marvel at God’s faithfulness. “After all the years of drugs and alcohol, you forget what, as a little child, you wanted to do,” she says. “But God didn’t forget.”

Growing up, Romero wanted to do two things: teach and drive a bus. Today she does both. She teaches a Sunday School class for 3- to 9-year-olds, and is the church’s bus driver.

It is God’s story, Romero insists. “I tried to get clean on my own. It didn’t work. But He was in that darkness with me. I was the mess He cleaned up. I was the one He loved. I’m thankful for somebody inviting my son to church. I’m thankful that this church filled that child with love and he believed. That love changed my life forever.”

GINGER KOLBABA is a writer who lives in the Chicago area. She is the author of Desperate Pastors’ Wives.


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