by Ariel Dela Pena with Dave Franco | November 19, 2020

In the years that I ran with one of the most notorious gangs in Southern California, the highs were unbelievable. I had the world by the tail. I took cocaine, sold cocaine, and was raking in tons of money. I was covered in menacing tattoos and felt the power of my ability to intimidate. I’d rule over other dudes with might and money and would have no problem beating down somebody who was willing to stand up against me, or think they could step into my world and not pay for it. 

The money and power brought lots of women—I had my choice of them. What was not to love about where I stood in life? I had money in my pocket, cocaine in my car, a girl waiting in an apartment, and tough guys who showed me respect. It was everything I wanted. Except for one thing.

It was everything I wanted. Except for one thing.

None of the highs lasted very long.

My whole life I angled for everything I now had. It’s a strange realization that comes over a person because one wonders what else is there, then? Aren’t those things the keys to lasting happiness? And yet the more I got, the less happy I felt. I was starting to feel miserable.

But then it got worse.

My wife (yes, I was married) decided she couldn’t take my lifestyle anymore and filed for divorce. I was devastated. Then someone told me that the Bible said that God hates divorce. I had gone grown up in the Catholic church so  I grabbed a Bible and went to a nearby church—it happened to be Rock East County—to find an answer to this question: God, if you hate divorce, then why are you allowing it in my life? Of course, the answer is God will allow me to be divorce if I am doing everything to cause a divorce. The fact that I didn’t figure that out will show you how much I didn’t know about the Scriptures back then.

But an interesting thing began to happen. I began to enjoy myself. I loved the music and even started raising my hands. Pastor Miles was funny and his messages were speaking to me right where I was. It felt good to be at church and began to look forward to returning. Yet, no matter how much tugging my heart would experience when the altar call was given, I simply couldn’t get myself to go down. How I wanted to. I just couldn’t get out of my seat.

One day I was at my niece’s birthday party when my cousin introduced me to a guy named Travis who, at the time, was the campus pastor for Rock Church San Ysidro. He was a cool dude and as I learned what he did for a living I told him that I was attending the Rock’s East County campus. 

“Great! How do you like it?” Travis asked.

“I like it,” I replied. “It’s great and all. It makes me feel good, but I wish I could feel like that every day.”

“You want to feel that way every day?” he asked. “Well, let me ask you this. Have you received Jesus in your heart?”

“No, man. I haven’t.”

“Would you like to—and feel that way every day?”

I said yes to Pastor Travis and as soon as I bowed my head and he began to pray I lost it. People were all around having a great time, yet all of a sudden I broke into a sorrowful weeping. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for everyone there. There was this tattooed dude with a beer in one hand, crying like a baby and snot running down his face. I cried for all that I had done and for the hope of becoming clean of all my sins in Jesus.

I cried for all that I had done and for the hope of becoming clean of all my sins in Jesus.

As soon as I could, I began to attend Pastor Travis’ church and I started to serve the very first day. Then with all the opportunities to attend different events, men’s groups, and Bible studies throughout the week, I was filled with the joy of Jesus every day of the week. I couldn’t get enough of my new life in Christ. I may have been in the process of losing my wife, but Jesus and the church had become my new spouse. I just wanted to be in His presence and lap up the love and excitement He was offering me.

A few years later, as I was working as an apprentice plumber and studying to get a certification, I heard that the Rock was looking for a new Associate Campus Pastor—so I applied. Of course, I knew I had no experience and that the Rock had many qualified candidates for the position, but somehow, I just knew that God had something great in mind for me—and that the job would be mine. I felt so sure about it, in fact, that I quit my job as an apprentice plumber. “You don’t have another job! What are you doing?” my friends on the job site would ask, outraged when I told them I was turning in my wrench.

But deep in my heart, and against all conventional wisdom, I just knew God was teeing me up for this. And that is what has happened.

I now live the dream every day as I read the Word, stay in God’s presence, and serve His people as associate campus pastor of Rock Church San Ysidro. It is so exciting, rewarding, and fulfilling to reach others with the love of Jesus, that the truth is I would do this job for free.

Best of all, I get to tell people with empathy and understanding that while all of their pursuits may seem like they will bring happiness, only Jesus’ love will never fade with time.  Finally, something that lasts.

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