By Gonzalo Venegas as told to Christian Standard
I was sitting in a prison cell, serving time for crimes I had committed as the leader of a street gang, when God spoke to me: “My children, my children—take care of my children.” I sensed his radical love. It is the only time I have ever heard from God in such an amazing way, and I cried because I knew exactly what he meant. God wasn’t talking only about young children, but all of his children. He was calling me to be a pastor.
My Life on the Streets and Behind Bars
I grew up in an abusive home with a father who was not the least bit affectionate. Our family lived in Palatine, Illinois, in Section 8 apartments, where gangs ran the roost. One of my two older brothers joined a street gang with our cousins and some of his friends; it was all fun and games to them until someone was murdered.
At age 17, my brother was involved in a homicide with a group of his friends. He was frightened as soon as it happened. My brother was arrested because surveillance cameras captured the horrific incident. After his arrest, my brother made the ultimate mistake one can make in the ghetto: He became an informant in the homicide case.
Soon after, my cousin Jose, who was in the same gang, found out that my brother was marked for death for cooperating with the authorities. Jose warned my brother and thought he could defend my family, but Jose eventually was killed for refusing to give our family’s address to the gang.
After Jose’s death, our family moved almost 200 miles away, to Holland, Michigan. We moved hoping for a better future, a new beginning. My brother even moved there when he was released from prison. The problem was, nothing inside of us changed; we were full of fear and hatred for the past. Soon after moving there, I joined a street gang in Holland and eventually became the leader.
The gang was my life. I called the shots for gang members—not only in Holland, but in Fennville, Pullman, and as far away as Grand Rapids. We committed all sorts of crimes. We did horrible things. I dropped out of high school in 12th grade to go on the run, but eventually the law caught up with me too. A few years later, I went to federal prison because of my crimes and the crimes of my gang.
When I got to federal prison, I knew I wanted to change my ways. My heart was broken. I was tired of life in the streets. But I was still involved with my gang in prison, and that gang was controlled by the Mexican mafia from California.
In prison I completed my GED and worked toward my associate’s degree in psychology. I also began to study the Word of God. The more I studied and reflected on it, the more I realized how lost I was. I was so tired of the hatred in my life that I prayed to God to free me of it. I asked him to change my heart and fill it with the love, grace, mercy, and joy I had read about.
The more I tried to change, the more my gang opposed me. Eventually, my gang decided to try to get rid of me in prison. They wanted to kill me. I knew I couldn’t take their abuse anymore, but I couldn’t hurt them either. I refused to do that. I wasn’t that man anymore.
In my fear, in my desperation, I prayed to God. I gave everything to him—all my anger, all my resentment. I decided to forgive all the people who cooperated against me. I was so scared of the old me that I prayed for a new me. I cried and repented of all I had ever done, and I thanked God for everything in my life. It was the most real and most difficult prayer I had ever prayed. I told God that if he freed me from my prison within, I would be willing to do 10 more years in prison for him. In that moment, everything changed. I repented of my sins. I was crying out to God and holding on to nothing but my faith in him. I wanted him and nothing else.
In my cell, it was like a void was filled. No drug, alcohol, gang, relationship, or pleasure could come near to the feeling I experienced that day. I’ve never felt such love and regeneration; I could feel my entire being cleansed and purified. I cried and cried as I thought of passages I had read in Ephesians 2, and my favorite, 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” I cried out to God and asked, “Why me? I don’t deserve this.”
My Ministry in Holland, Michigan
Trying to follow Christ in prison put a target on my back, but by God’s grace and mercy, I survived. He protected me in prison. When I got out, I went back to Holland, to the same streets I had controlled as a gang leader. Now that I was saved, I had to do a lot of apologizing for the horrible things I had done. I had to ask for forgiveness.
I was afraid to do those things, afraid to go back to the neighborhood where I had been a gang member. But God assured me it would be OK, and it was. It was more than OK. Because I chose to trust God when I returned to Holland, people there started to come to Christ.
Through that process, I began to understand God has called me to the ministry of reconciliation. I have accepted God’s calling and been blessed as I have tried to serve him. Many people have come to faith, including my family, old friends, old rivals, and others. God has delivered me from evil and even death, and now he is using me to help deliver others.
I began serving God at My Father’s House Church in Holland, a bilingual, multiethnic congregation. I attended seminary and was ordained and commissioned by the Reformed Church in America. In January 2017, at 30 years old, I became lead pastor of My Father’s House Church.
Our nation was extremely divided at that time, as it is now, and many people in our community thought the church wasn’t needed. I believed our church needed to reconnect with the community, to show the people we had the answers they were seeking.
I suggested 40 days of prayer and fasting in our church before we did anything to try to reach our community. We held two services a day for 40 days—one in the morning, one in the evening—and during that time of prayer and fasting, families were healed and marriages restored.
Those 40 days changed the culture of our church. Now we go out of our way to serve the community. This is God’s church and the community’s church. We as a church must belong to the community. We have a slogan: “We are more than a church. We are a family. Together we are better.”
Our church has continued to grow as we have challenged ourselves to reach everyone in our community. We constantly try to disciple all kinds of people—especially people who don’t look like us. I don’t want my spiritual son to look just like me; I want him to look like Christ!
I’m called by my heavenly Father to preach the Word of God and share the good news to different kinds of people. I can preach to gang members, youth, and adults, and impact them with a message, while upper-class people also receive the message with impact. I feel God has given me this gift to reach people from varied backgrounds with his Word.
Planting Encounter Church in Orlando, Florida
Even as I have preached and pastored at My Father’s House Church, I have believed my family and I would someday leave to plant a new church to reach the lost. I want to serve in urban ministry, and even though I know that is my calling, I have wrestled with God about leaving Western Michigan. My wife and I spent a lot of time in prayer and fasting, and originally I thought we might move and plant a church in California or Chicago, but at Exponential, God revealed his plan for us to reach one of the most diverse cities in America. Later, God reaffirmed his plan at the North American Christian Convention in 2018.
Friends from the Christian church invited me to last summer’s NACC, where I met Ken Idleman. That was a turning point; Ken believed in our calling and was a great encouragement to us. While at the NACC, I also met Phil Claycomb with Nexus: church planting leadership (www.nexus.us). He later introduced us to Greg Marksberry from Florida Church Partners (www.floridachurchplanters.org). Through their shared guidance and much prayer and fasting, we accepted the call to plant Encounter Church in Orlando in 2020.
Our family is moving from Michigan to Florida this spring along with our spiritual son and worship leader, Jeremy Delgado, to begin the process of launching Encounter Church. Our dream and our prayer is that Encounter will be a multicultural, multigenerational church. We will have one all-English service and one all-Spanish service, but the church will have one leadership team. Our goal is for Encounter Church to be a hub church that sends people out to reach other ethnicities, just as we have reached people from many ethnicities at My Father’s House Church.
At 32, I am the oldest person on Encounter’s launch team. We are praying for older believers to join this mission, as well, because we also want Encounter to be intergenerational.
I spent most of my life seeking love in all the wrong places. I made false assumptions about love and gratification. Now I know true love and I seek to tell others of what it has done for my life. I know I have a God who heals, as is seen in the ministry of Jesus.
I believe and I pray that many people will find freedom in Christ through my story. That’s why I believe God wants me to share it. I pray you understand my heart is to glorify him who saved me, not myself.
See, I no longer lead a gang, I serve the Most High God. I share the gospel every day. I preach Christ crucified, resurrected, and returning for all to hear. Once I served my own sinful kingdom. Now, my wife and I give our lives over to God’s will wherever it may lead to advance his kingdom.
I once was a gang leader and a convict, marked for death. Now I’m known as “Pastor G.”