I was born in Yonkers, New York, near the Bronx. My parents had immigrated from the Dominican Republic, my father in the 1960s and my mother in the 1970s. Both came from a rural community named La Cidra, where people live by subsistence farming. Their drinking water comes from rivers, creeks, and rain. There is no electricity, no sewage system, and many of the residents still ride horses and donkeys.
In Yonkers, my father was a construction worker, while my mother stayed home and cared for my older sister and me. Through hard work they managed to send us children to the nearby Catholic school. We were, after all, Catholic, and our parents raised us in the faith. I recall my mother returning home on Thursday nights after volunteering at Bingo Night at our school and kissing us as we lay in bed half asleep. She volunteered because this work helped to pay our school tuition.
As a child, I didn’t understand what this faith I was being taught was all about, or why it was important. My faith was very simple: I believed in Christ and acknowledged that Mary was my spiritual mother; that was all there was to it.
During the years of our early schooling, the neighborhood changed. Hip hop would blast through the street at all hours, and drug dealers sold their wares in broad daylight. There was an unspoken agreement between the drug dealers and the residents: the people of the community would turn a blind eye to the dealers, and the dealers would leave them alone, even acting pleasantly toward the residents. I recall seeing them helping to carry grocery bags for elderly women and wish them a good night. All this was ordinary fare in my childhood, although now, as an adult, I feel a deep sadness for children who must grow up in such an environment.
As I grew older, I became enamored of hip hop music, and my childhood friends ranged from honors students to drug dealers. My father started traveling back to the Dominican Republic for six months at a time, leaving my mother to earn a living and raise their children alone. The result was that the only male role models I had were the men I saw on television and the drug dealers on the street. My heart told me that what the drug dealers were doing was wrong, and an older neighbor kid, who lived downstairs from us, would urge me to stay upstairs and away from them.
A man by the name of Anthony Fellicisimo, who was once a Franciscan seminarian, took it upon himself to try to help the kids in our community. He started a youth group called the Shepherd’s Place. Tony, as we called him, would go into the worst neighborhoods to teach the youth of God’s love. I cherish that man dearly, because of what he did for us kids. Tony was spit on, had knives pulled on him; he was humiliated and insulted; but he kept trying to help the youth. He was a father figure to many who did not have a father at home.
In 1996, Tony brought two Franciscan (CFR) seminarians to assist him at the youth center. Their names were Brother Juniper and Brother Sylvester. At that time, I was enamored of hip hop music, wanting to be a “tough guy.” The role model shaping my young life wasn’t my father, or Tony. It was Tupac Shakur, the rapper. I recall Brother Juniper, who is now a priest and goes by his birth name, Father Brian Sistare, serving in Rhode Island, was the first person that I felt met me where I was. He personally befriended me and was highly interested in finding out why I was so enamored of Tupac. He sat with me on many occasions and would listen to me speak about how my life in many aspects related to that of Tupac. I felt alone, depressed, so I had to be tough. I don’t recall the stories that he would tell me, but I do remember how he would speak to me about the love of Christ in a way that was understandable and relatable.
Once I turned 18, I left the Shepherd’s Place, and I no longer attended church with my mother. I felt that I was too old for that, and I needed to do things my way. I was lost for two years, without any direction in life, just getting by day to day, and after dropping out of college twice, I eventually made the decision to become a New York State Emergency Medical Technician. In July 2000, I became a qualified EMT. I recall the fear and anxiety that came with a job as serious as that of an EMT, literally having people’s health and lives in your hands. I also pursued a career in music by starting my own record label.
On September 11, 2001, I was in bed, recovering from a shoulder injury from work, and I received a phone call from my cousin telling me to turn on the television, that the World Trade Center had just been attacked. At first, I thought that he was joking, but I saw my mothers panicked face and knew it was true. I immediately called my employer, offering to assist at the World Trade Center, but due to my injury, they did not allow me. Later, I received a call from my best friend, Irving, and his older brother, Ramon, who were also EMTs, and we took it upon ourselves to go and assist. I recall driving up the West Side Highway, seeing the smoke from the buildings at a distance, being cheered on by thousands of New Yorkers. As we approached the scene, the sheer magnitude of the situation weighed on us.
We eventually arrived at ground zero. Our throats were burning from the smoke, our eyes felt like tiny daggers were poking us. We were shocked at the destruction, saddened by the writing to loved ones on the walls with ash from the building’s collapse. I couldn’t believe how a fire truck had flipped upside down and looked like a crushed can. We served the following day, attempting to help save anyone we could, passing bucket after bucket of rubble on a human conveyer belt in the attempt to find survivors.
Even after witnessing the chaos at the World Trade Center and the suffering and loss of life that I saw people enduring on my regular job, I still did not look for God. I felt that I had Him in my heart, and that was good enough. I recall telling people, “The majority of people that I have seen die in my presence did not expect to die that day.” But even through all these situations, I was lost in my ignorance. I had let go of God, but God never let go of me.
While working as an EMT, I met someone who would change my life. She was one of my shift partners, and we quickly fell in love. But there was a huge catch: she was married and had a child. She was unhappy in her marriage and wanted a divorce, but her economic situation did not allow her to leave him. So we began a secret relationship that lasted almost two years. Lust, rather than God, was the center of our relationship. Due to my youth and my naïveté, I was just living in the moment with her.
As we continued our hidden relationship, my life was split between loving her, my family, and my desire to become a music mogul. Because of our situation, we were not able to see each other as often as we wanted, and when we did see each other, my time and thoughts were divided between her and my ambition. She eventually became pregnant, and I recall being overjoyed at the thought of having a family with her. During that time, though, I was still living with my mother, who thought we were just friends. I was also disabled, due to a hernia that I had suffered on the job, trying to save someone’s life who had attempted suicide. I could not provide any sort of financial stability for her, our unborn child, or her child from her marriage, so she decided to abort our baby. I recall our conversation, sitting in her car while I told her that I did not want her to abort the child, but she declared that we had no option. Two weeks later, she did it.
Nothing was the same for us after that. She left me in 2004, a week before Valentine’s day. The breakup damaged parts of my heart that I didn’t know existed, and the abortion wounded me in ways that would haunt me for years. I stopped working as an EMT because my body could no longer handle the wear and tear. I was just 23 and felt completely broken physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
I recall my downward spiral and the countless nights that I would return home at dawn, in a drunken state, with my mother lying on the couch or on her knees, praying the rosary and looking exhausted. Her actions remind me of St. Monica and the love she had for her wayward son, Augustine, who would eventually return to the righteous way and become a saint like her.
I continued to pursue music, with some ups and downs, until I became very tired of being an independently owned entity. At that time, I was approached to manage a Latin artist who was signed to a very well-known and recognized musical imprint owned by Grammy nominated artists, who are perceived as legends within the hip hop community. Even with my broken heart, the attention and notoriety that I gained by my association with this well-known imprint and its artists opened doors into a new world. I began living a life of lust and becoming a playboy. I did not care about the women’s emotional interests. The pain that I had previously endured from my breakup and from what I perceived to be “games” that many of the women would play turned into constant drunken nights. I became egotistical and narcissistic.
I was living alone now, but my mother knew that something was not right with me, that I was not the innocent little boy that she had raised. I became cold hearted and selfish, lustful and unpleasant to be around. Because of my upbringing, witnessing the negative examples of what I perceived to be my role models — the regular glimpses of violence, drugs, death, and general pain — it desensitized me to how others would feel toward me. I began to live only for myself, essentially becoming my own god. I cared more about what the world saw than what God had created, until it reached the point that I completely abandoned the little faith I had left. For a short time, I became an atheist.
As this chapter in my life concluded, I was a broken individual, scarred by a lifetime of bad experiences and situations. I had abandoned lifelong friends, lived with several women, and became an enemy to many people that I grew up loving, such as my sister and cousins. Then God, in His wisdom, would change my life in a way that I could not have anticipated.
In 2008, I traveled to the Dominican Republic to witness my sister get sacramentally married. I spent several weeks in the country, and a short time after the wedding, on my birthday, God introduced me to the woman that would later become my wife, the mother of my children, my personal support, my best friend, and my soulmate. I had not gone to the Dominican Republic with the intention of meeting the woman that I would marry. I was still a womanizer, a drunken partier … but God had plans for me.
Within a few months of meeting my future wife, I proposed to her. But a month before our scheduled wedding, I lost my eyesight. The diagnosis was severe optic neuritis. Little did I know then that this would be a sign of the battle I would have to endure for the rest of my life, because a few years later, I would be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. This would be a cross that I would have to embrace, offer up, and carry.
During this time of uncertainty, my soul must have been crying out, because I kept thinking, “Call Tony! You need to speak to Brother Juniper.” Beneath the surface, I wanted to be healed spiritually. My old friend Tony did assist me in contacting Brother Juniper, now Father Brian, and as we spoke, he told me that he did not remember my face, but he remembered me as a person, and 13 years later, he still had those song lyrics from Tupac in his closet — something which meant the world to me in that moment. Although my soul was thirsting for God, my flesh was not prepared. After receiving treatment for several weeks, I returned to the Dominican Republic and legally married my wife. I recall her pleading to get married sacramentally in the Church, but I refused to take the Pre-Cana course, and her priest, acting responsibly, would not allow me to marry her without the proper formation and sacramental preparation.
In May of the following year, my wife finally arrived in New York, but a few months later, my family’s life was again thrown into chaos. In October 2010, my younger cousin, Robert “Kenny” Areizaga, was brutally murdered while attending a Halloween party. I recall the anger I felt, the evil thoughts of rage and wanting revenge. He was only 19, a good, quiet kid. He was not a troublemaker, just an average teenager trying to make his way through life. During his wake, I met a priest that God would use to save me from myself and bring me back home. His name is Father Joseph Espailliat, the former director of youth ministry for the Archdiocese of New York and current pastor at St. Anthony de Padua parish and the director of the Catholic Charismatic Center of New York. I recall this priest giving a powerful sermon during my cousin’s wake that met people where they were. He made that horrible day somewhat better.
After a few months, my wife became pregnant with our first child, and I received the news that one of my oldest friends, Jesús “Chuito” Encarnacion (his intimates called him “Chewie”), was diagnosed with cancer. I recall the feeling of shock, because I had never known anyone so close to me to be stricken with cancer. Once again, I had a front row seat to misery. As his diagnosis began to worsen, I remembered Father Joseph and his unique gift to relate to people and bring the Gospel to people in a meaningful way. He reminded me of Brother Juniper, and something in my heart kept telling me to call him.
I finally called St. Peter’s parish in Yonkers, NY, where Fr. Joseph was positioned as the pastor, but he was unavailable at the time. I kept calling on a regular basis; I was relentless. Chuito was one of my childhood friends and was a great father, son, and friend. But he did not have his father, so he ended up very flawed and had made many terrible choices along the way.
I was divided between an agnosticism and an atheism at this time, but I kept thinking to myself, “If what I learned growing up is true, and hell is real, I don’t want my friend going there.” That thought just kept repeating in my mind. I then thought to myself, “All the church ever wants is money, so I will offer Father Joseph $10,000, and if I call and he answers, then I will know that this is why he decided to call me back.” I had also thought to myself that if I saw him and offered him the money, and he were to try to take it or ask for it, even though I didn’t have that kind of money in my possession, I would punch him in the face for being a fraud. Even when God was trying to work through me to help my friend, the devil was finding ways to push negative thoughts into my mind.
I eventually made contact with Father Joseph and took him to see Chuito. He stayed with Chuito for five hours. Once he came out, I asked him if he had eaten anything. He said he hadn’t, so my wife and I treated him to a meal at a Chinese restaurant near his parish. On the way over, he asked my wife and me if we were sacramentally married and noticed that she was pregnant. He offered us a “two for one deal.” He stated that he would marry us and baptize our child on the same day, and that he would not ask us for a donation, that he just wanted us to return back to the Catholic Church and live a truly Christian life. My wife became ecstatic with the thought, and I finally agreed to make her happy. I then asked him if he was willing to accept my $10,000. He told me that he would not, that he does not do God’s work for money, that he does it to try to bring souls back to Christ.
As the months passed, Chuito continued his battle with cancer. On October 6th, 2011, our son Elian was born. I was now a married man and a father, with one of my dearest friends dying. Finally, on December 7th, 2011, my friend, my brother, Jesus “Chuito” Encarnacion lost his battle with cancer.
Father Joseph was there the day before he passed, and I remember vividly the moments when we were in Calvary hospital in the Bronx, which is a hospice. Father Joseph was speaking to him, saying, “Don’t be afraid Chuito. Allow God to take you. Don’t worry about your family. They are in the Lord’s hands.” I remember leaving the room, because although I had seen many people die during my tenure as an EMT, I had never seen someone so close to me die, and I couldn’t deal with that. While we were in the hallway, before I left, Father Joseph invited me to attend a retreat he had planned. I did not want to go, but he told me to just give it a try. I felt indebted to Father Joseph on a personal level, because I had called him on three separate occasions and informed him that Chuito was about to die, and he showed up each time, gave him the anointing of the sick, and consoled his family.
One night before the retreat, I had a dream. I saw Chuito, and I got up out of my bed, hearing his voice clearly telling me to follow him. I did so and found the floor filthy. There were strange creatures all over the floor. Behind me were silhouettes of people, but I couldn’t identify who they were. After I took my eyes off of Chuito, he was no longer there, but I felt him still walking by my side through my home’s hallway, which had become very long and dark. He told me, “You are about to walk into the light. Please don’t forget about those I love.” Then there was an intense white light which illumined the hallway. I didn’t understand what Chuito meant, but I woke my wife and told her the dream.
At the retreat, I felt isolated, since the other retreatants stayed with their groups, while I had come alone. At the time, I did not understand that this was a lesson from God, that salvation is an individual thing. The man who bunked in my dorm, Juan, was a revert. He grew up Catholic, but lost his life to the streets, where he became a gang leader. He had been shot, stabbed, in a coma following a fight, and served five years in prison for interstate trafficking. Other than Father Joseph himself, Juan was the only other person who attempted to meet me where I was.
This was a silent retreat, and while I had my doubts about the arrangement, I later understood that this approach helped me to cope with the loss of my friend, along with the other stresses of life.
During that weekend, I brought up the story of Chuito to two women who were willing to listen. Out of nowhere, Juan’s wife, who was attending the retreat with him, said something that I will never forget: “This entire time, you thought that you were working to save your friend’s soul but never noticed that God was using him to help save yours.” That statement left me shocked and wordless.
Throughout the retreat, Father Joseph had exposed Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament for adoration. We took turns in the room with Christ. When it was Juan’s turn, I decided to join him. Juan got on his hands and knees and bowed his head to the floor in worship. I couldn’t comprehend what he was doing or why he was doing it. I recall asking him, “Why are you doing that? Isn’t this just a piece of bread that you can pick up from a store and the wine just something you can purchase in a supermarket?” Juan replied, “Before, it was, but if God is God, He can do whatever He wants. He makes Himself present when the bread becomes His Body and the wine becomes His Blood.”
When the retreat concluded, I returned home. My mother kept asking me if I had had an encounter with Christ. I told her that it was OK, but I didn’t really feel anything.
Father Joseph was persistent. He invited me to his weekly youth group to help volunteer. I didn’t know why, but I went. I saw how they treated the youth, and it reminded me of my experiences at the Shepherd’s Place. Father Joseph had placed his spiritual son and one of his most trusted helpers side by side. That fellow’s name was Carlos Gutierrez. I was amused at the coincidence of our last names.
Whereas I felt shunned by everyone else in the church community, Carlos and his family opened their arms to me and my family. They showed us a love that I couldn’t understand. I saw the love of Christ in their behavior; I saw the face of Jesus and the Holy family in their actions. I would occasionally tell my wife that I felt more appreciation from those in the streets than from those within the church, but God kept this family close to mine, to show me what His love is supposed to look like.
A month later, Father Joseph invited me to another retreat, telling me that he would not invite me to any more if I objected, but to please consider going to this one last retreat. I reluctantly accepted, little knowing that my life would change forever in that short time with the Lord. He had invited me to help volunteer at a youth retreat. He kept me very close to Him the entire time, and when he was not around, Juan and Carlos were there. Father Joseph gave me small tasks: serving sandwiches and juice, a small role in a play. That Saturday night, we had a very powerful night of worship, unlike anything I had ever experienced. Writing about it will not be enough to adequately explain how God worked on me that evening.
On Sunday, Father Joseph took us out to the woods for an activity that ended with him exposing the Blessed Sacrament. As we were there in the wilderness, we formed a large circle while he prayed for each of the retreatants individually, holding Jesus before us. The closer he came towards me, the more I lost control of my emotions. By the time that Father Joseph brought Jesus to me, I was openly weeping, recognizing that it was God truly present in front of me. My soul was crying out in my need for the Lord.
As we returned to the retreat house, I was asked to help write some notes of encouragement in some “rainy day” bags, which are small brown bags with nice messages to remind the youth of the retreat and that God loves them when they feel “down.” I had arrived late to assist in writing the messages for the kids, so I was only given three bags. When I got to the final bag, I was shocked at the child’s name and began to cry. There was only one other person in the lunchroom with me writing letters, and she asked me if I was OK. I couldn’t speak; my throat was paralyzed with emotion, my face flooded with tears. Finally I croaked, “I am here because of him, it’s my friend.” She didn’t understand what I meant, but I was able to sob his name, Jesús, “Chewie,” the same exact name of my friend and brother that I had lost. I had never met another person with that name, especially with the nickname of Chuito, whom people called Chewie.
My tears soaking the brown bag, I looked up and said, “That’s it, I give up. I SURRENDER! Do with me whatever you want, because you win, I am through fighting you.” After I calmed down, I still couldn’t believe how God had fashioned my journey back to my true home. It had taken over a year, during which I didn’t know that I was lost. But God found me and kept leading me back to Him. He was restoring my brokenness, even when I couldn’t see His healing process.
I asked who had brought me the bag. God had one more surprise for me. The volunteer answered, “Oh, that is Maria — Maria Gutierrez.” I was in shock once again. That was my mother’s name. As I probed more deeply into that revelation, I noticed what God did in that moment. Maria is the Hispanic version of the name Mary. I thought to myself, Mary brought Jesus to me. I felt like the prodigal son, returned home to his father; the blind man, whose sight Jesus had restored after a lifetime of blindness and suffering; the leper that no one cared to pay attention to, who was shunned by society, but Jesus embraced him, healed and restored him.
I then asked Father Joseph why he took the chance to invite me to volunteer at a youth retreat. He replied in a simple but powerful way: “You lost your faith as a child, so I had to bring you around kids to restore your faith where you left it. You may be older, but your faith was the faith of a child. Now you have it back. Welcome home!”
After I returned home, my long journey to serve God began. I sacrificed everything I knew, because I needed to give my all to Christ. I no longer spoke to old friends who would negatively influence my life. I could not listen to the music or TV shows that I had previously enjoyed. I felt too weak to bring myself anywhere near those things. I was like a man that was lost at sea. God had allowed me to survive and make it back to shore, but it was up to me to continue the journey. I was bruised and battered, but I had to make it to the hospital to continue the healing. That hospital was His Church.
Once I gave my life to God, He opened up doors that I could never have imagined. Father Joseph kept his word and gave us the “two for one special.” He married us and arranged for our son to be baptized on the same day. He even became our son’s godfather. I continued in youth ministry and was eventually asked to become a catechist. I began teaching first year confirmation classes, and within a year, the new pastor of the parish put me in charge of the confirmation program. Soon afterwards, God blessed my wife and me with a second child.
I returned to college to obtain my bachelor’s degree. I then trusted God to help me obtain my Master of Arts in Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Where I used to follow negative role models and look up to Tupac, God gave me Patrick Madrid and Scott Hahn. God blessed me with the opportunity to have Patrick Madrid as my professor of apologetics, to meet and speak with Scott Hahn. God granted me the opportunity to become a full time theology teacher at Mount St. Michael Academy in the Bronx, NY. I published a basic apologetics book for teenagers, so that they can better understand and defend their faith.
I don’t know how many seeds I may have planted, how many people that I may have helped through my surrender to God. My road back home was a long and difficult one, but I can now see that, through it all, God never abandoned me. His grace has overflowed in my life.