By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night."
"Opening a church is not easy," says Pastor Daniel Gonzalez. "It's groundbreaking. A lot of tears, a lot of sweat, but I wouldn't give it up for the world."
Daniel is the pastor of Pillar of Fire Church in San Diego. Painted on the wall of the church is a verse from Psalms: "The righteous will flourish like a palm tree" (92:12). Daniel and others from Pillar of Fire Church are living proof of that truth: Once incarcerated, these men are now faithful, flourishing followers of Christ.
"We might be a small church," Daniel says, "but we lack nothing."
DANIEL—A BURNING SOUL
God first called Daniel to be a pastor and church planter behind bars. Incarcerated for committing murder, Daniel was once addicted to drugs and actively involved in a gang. As a young child, his life was shaken when his father abandoned their family. Daniel found stability and identity on the streets, but his chosen lifestyle was destructive.
In the 1990s, Daniel arrived at a high-security prison to serve his sentence for murder. A fellow gang member welcomed him to the facility, saying, "You [had] better get used to this place because you're never going to get out."
Amid the chaos and violence of his life, Daniel says a voice spoke to his heart. "That's not right," it said. That small voice shattered what identity and security Daniel had built for himself. "I didn't want to live no more. I hated myself, and I just didn't like who I had become." On November 12, 1995, Daniel cried out, "God, if you're for real, take this [self-hatred] away from me."
A peace that surpassed all understanding washed over Daniel. He began crying and confessing his sins to Jesus. His old identity as a gang member and murderer was washed away, and a new identity in Jesus Christ began to take root. "In prison, you have to be who you are. You can't be fake," Daniel explains. "I had to make a stand for what I believed. … There was a burning in my soul that I wanted to better myself."
Daniel left his old ways. God protected him in prison and spoke purpose into his life. After serving time in a difficult facility, Daniel transferred to Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, a minimum-security prison. There he found an "inmate church" of prisoners who met on a rough yard filled with drugs and violence, the original Pillar of Fire Church.
"If you're faithful, wherever you go, [God] will be faithful," Daniel says. After his release, Daniel planted Pillar of Fire on the outside. A year later, friend and former prisoner Carlos joined Daniel on the other side of the prison walls.
CARLOS—FROM A HEART OF STONE TO A HEART OF FLESH
Daniel and Carlos had met in prison. Together, they would walk the yard and share their dreams and hopes of what the Lord would do in their lives. Now, they can see the fulfillment of those conversations and prayers.
"When the Lord opens up doors, no man can shut them," Carlos says. "It's only through the grace of God that I am out [of prison], and it is to proclaim His glory."
Carlos was 19 years old when he was first incarcerated. He was 40 when he was finally released. "When I first got locked up, I had a lot of anger and a lot of hatred," he says. "Being in that type of environment … I established myself to violence." But that anger, that hatred, ate away at him.
Like Daniel, Carlos cried out to God: "Show me that You're for real, and I will serve You the rest of my life."
"I actually felt something leave my body," he says. "I felt tears coming down. 'God, I'm a liar, I'm a murderer, I'm a thief.' I was being baptized [by my tears] … from that time, my whole life changed."
God called Carlos to follow Him faithfully, and that's what Carlos has done since his conversion. Carlos started reading his Bible and began to learn more about who God is. As he learned, he shared the Gospel with those around him, leading many prisoners to Christ.
A year after Daniel was released, Carlos followed. Today, Carlos is a valued part of Pillar of Fire on the outside, where he sometimes shares his gift for teaching.
GREGORY—A LIFE OF LESSONS
Like Daniel's and Carlos', Gregory's journey to prison began with drugs and led to murder. "I spent 20 years in prison," he shares. "I've been out of prison for eight or nine months and have made a home here at Pillar of Fire Church."
Gregory's crimes left him "utterly broken." As he searched for truth, he discovered that there were other prisoners around him who were doing the same thing, and he reached out to them for help and discipleship. In 1999, Gregory committed his life to Christ, and since then he has continued to serve God. "It’s been a life of lessons," he says, "of really understanding who God is, and who I am in His eyes. … I'm a product of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."
During his 20 years behind bars, Gregory had spent a lot of time on different prison yards, but never had he experienced anything like Pillar of Fire Church. The Christians who met behind bars in Chuckawalla shared accountability with each other, and there was a sense of spiritual freedom regardless of their physical imprisonment.
"It's a great blessing to see all the miracles that God has done in all of our lives, and for taking the life sentences from us and allowing us to come out here into society," Gregory says. "Through His faithfulness in our lives, we're allowed to serve Him out here."
MAKING DREAMS COME TRUE
Pillar of Fire Church continues to grow, both on the outside and on the inside of Chuckawalla prison. God has opened doors for Daniel and others to return to prison as volunteers.
"God told me, 'This is where I brought you out of, and now you're coming in triumph to give hope to these men that had no hope at one time,'" Daniel shares. "'When they see you, they are going to see that the Lord did a good thing.' … God is into dream making—He makes the dreams come true."
EQUIPPING PRISONERS FOR REENTRY
While in prison, Daniel, Carlos, and Gregory were students of The Urban Ministry Institute (TUMI). TUMI is an intensive biblical training course, offered by Prison Fellowship® in conjunction with World Impact, that teaches and equips prisoners to become Christian leaders in prisons and in the urban communities to which many of them will return. Launched in prisons in 2007, TUMI is currently active in 10 states and 41 prisons, serving both men and women, with more than 1,020 prisoners currently participating. Graduates of the program have both been recognized as leaders in their respective institutions and have made positive transitions back into their communities as spouses, parents, and employees who live out their faith.
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