Raúl fled Communism and then arrest. To build a new life, he would have to face his consequences.
Raúl Escariz says he wasn't brave for fleeing Cuba—he was simply unaware of the risks.
"We had no idea what we were getting into, what we were going to face," he admits.
In 1992, Raúl and three friends launched a raft, propelled by a 25-horsepower motor, into the ocean. They were determined to build a new life in America. What they didn't know was that to their east, a terrible storm was gaining momentum.
After three days at sea, the men were picked up by a ship that delivered them to safety in Florida. Seven hours later, Hurricane Andrew hit southern Miami.
Looking back, Raúl now realizes, "It was the hand of God that picked us out of the ocean." The son of an atheistic Communist father and a closeted Catholic mother, Raúl had the sense that something "greater and higher" was out there—but he had no idea what.
BUILDING A NEW LIFE IN AMERICA
Eager to bring his wife and 5-year-old son to Florida, Raúl found a job as a bodyguard for a business owner. He made enough money to secure their passage and provide a comfortable life. But soon, he felt like what he had was never enough.
"It happened that the love of money—avarice—the need to possess things, darkened my eyes," Raúl says.
Raúl committed health insurance fraud, stealing tens of thousands of dollars. Then he became a bodyguard for a famous Mexican pop singer. Raúl traveled the world providing security for his new boss.
But Raúl's crimes eventually caught up with him.
'HOW CAN I START AGAIN?'
In 1998, he was indicted on 33 counts of insurance fraud and 33 counts of grand theft. Raúl panicked and fled to Costa Rica with his family, which now included a second son.
Raúl tried to start a new life. He avoided being photographed and cut off contact with friends and family. The family's living conditions were poor, and Raúl was constantly on edge. He struggled to sleep.
"I was feeling really depressed, just really destroyed, and I said to myself, 'How can I start again, really?'" Raúl recalls.
One day, a family friend named Conchita invited him to church. The words of the pastor pierced his heart so precisely that Raúl assumed his friend had relayed his life story in advance. Raúl says he was "captivated." A week later, he attended church again and gave his life to Christ.
Several month later, Raúl was asleep when he heard what he believes was the voice of God telling him to return to the U.S.
"[God said] that He had plans for me that I could not fulfill while I was running from the American authorities," Raúl says.
Despite his wife's nervousness, Raúl obeyed, returning to the U.S. with his family. Soon after his arrival, he was arrested and sentenced to eight years at Okeechobee Correctional Institution in Okeechobee, Florida.
Raúl says he was a "baby Christian" at the time. In prison, he began to mature, attending Bible studies and church services on the yard.
"I tell people that it was one of the most blessed periods of my life," Raúl says. "It was a time I could find Jesus for myself."
Raúl's years of incarceration brought spiritual benefits to his family as well.
"My wife learned to stand strong on her own, and my kids started to see a reality that they had never known," Raúl says. "Yes, [before I was incarcerated] they had a lot of money and everything was fine … but dad was never home."
Now, when his sons came to visit him in prison, Raúl talked to them about God and "things that mattered." Their relationships blossomed.
But financially, life was now difficult for the Escariz family. Raúl's wife worked every day of the week, holding down three jobs to make ends meet. His eldest son, now a teenager, worked at McDonald's and washed cars to help out.
"Everything that was happening was my fault," Raúl says. "I felt awful."
When Raúl learned about Prison Fellowship Angel Tree™, he was overwhelmed with joy and disbelief. Angel Tree® is a program of Prison Fellowship® that gives incarcerated parents a way to provide their children a Christmas gift and a personal message, delivered by local volunteers.
"I received the catalog that would allow me to choose the type of gift my sons would receive for Christmas, and this made such an impression on me," he recalls. "There are a lot of programs where kids get gifts … but this was something personalized, almost as if we were face to face, like I could reach out and touch them. I could not believe that."
Raúl indicated on the form that his younger son would like a pair of tennis shoes. But 6-year-old Christian had a specific, popular brand in mind. When an Angel Tree volunteer called to confirm the family's information, Christian told her about his wish. Raúl's wife was mortified.
"Why would Christian ask that?" she asked Raúl. "These people are volunteers!"
But to the surprise of his parents, Christian received exactly what he had been hoping for.
For years, Raúl's sons received gifts he chose for them, from basketballs to sports jerseys. Raúl says the program impacted their lives deeply.
"'Man, how can there be people who have so much love in their hearts as to do this for my child?'" Raúl remembers wondering. "Because I don't deserve it. I committed a crime. I'm serving my time for what I did … but there are people with such great love that they give their time, the money out of their pockets, to be able to give a smile to a child who needs it so much at Christmastime."
KEEP MOVING FORWARD
Today, Raúl is free, and he loves to return to prison as a volunteer. At a recent Prison Fellowship Hope Event™, Raúl shared the Gospel message in Spanish.
"I want to say to everyone that there is a second chance," Raúl says. "Trust in God and keep moving forward."
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