From Serving Time to Serving God

January 30, 2017 • Mexico
Román still has the Bible he received 17 years ago in prison. Roman now works in an auto repair garage and is involved in ministry through a local church.
Román still has the Bible he received 17 years ago in prison. Román now works in an auto repair garage and is involved in ministry through a local church.

Operation Christmas Child is key to how former prisoners are reaching their communities in Mexico.

Román Mayorga wasn’t looking for trouble; it found him.

A gang in his neighborhood in Mexico beat him up at age 16. He sought revenge by joining their rival gang.

“I started beating up people and in turn they beat up on me,” Román said. “It was a chain that just wouldn’t stop.”

At age 19, Román was sentenced to six months in prison for helping his gang rob businesses. A preacher at the prison told him about Jesus Christ, but once Román completed his sentence he went back to his old ways.

Instead of joining his family’s business of refurbishing cars, he began stealing them, which led to his second prison term.

There, he met another preacher who visited the prisoners. This time, Román was ready to listen.

“I studied the whole Bible in prison, reading every word.”

“I had gone from mistake to mistake, from disappointment to disappointment,” Román said. “I asked myself, ‘What am I doing with my life? I’m wasting it.’

“I came to realize that Jesus came to this world to serve and if you’re not serving Him and serving others in His Name, you’re not doing a thing with your life.”

The preacher, Carlos Mariñelarena, gave Román a Bible and began to disciple him.

“I studied the whole Bible in prison, reading every word,” Román said.

Well-worn Bible Shows the Way

Seventeen years later, Román still keeps that Bible close at hand in his auto repair garage. He started the business so he could set his work schedule around his “first priority—working for the Lord.”

Román teaches a Bible lesson at the feeding center.

The first seven years after being released from prison, Román prayed for his wife, Dulce, to also receive Jesus Christ as Lord. She did, and now they are both members of Amistad Familiar de Sinaloa Church in Mazatlán, Mexico, where Carlos is pastor. Román participates in the church’s prison ministry, sharing his testimony during worship services the church holds in prison and discipling those who also have come to faith in Christ there.

“I know God wants me to tell them that God can change their lives like He did mine for His glory,” Román said.

Román and Dulce also operate one of the church’s 10 children’s feeding centers in and around Mazatlán. The volunteer ministry began more than 20 years ago, birthed from the desire of Carlos and his wife, Marilu, to continue to minister to former inmates in their communities.

Carlos and Marilu brought dinner to a former inmate and his family, inviting people from the neighborhood to the meal as well. Only children showed up. The couple realized how many children in neighborhoods like this were hungry—for food and for someone to show them the love of Christ in tangible ways. With the help of a restaurant that donates food staples, the church began opening children’s feeding centers.

The Journey Leads to Families

Carlos, wanting to attract children to the centers and bring the Gospel to them as well, thought of a perfect outreach tool. Six of the 10 feeding centers orchestrated an Operation Christmas Child shoebox distribution to kick off their ministries, followed by teaching The Greatest Journey discipleship classes. The other centers offered Operation Christmas Child events after they opened.

Three years ago, more than 30 children at Román’s center completed The Greatest Journey course after receiving Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes there. Since then, Román teaches the children a Bible lesson each weekday morning.

Román has learned the names of as many as 80 children who come to the feeding center so he can pray for them and their families one by one. Dulce loves cooking breakfast for the children, even if it means getting up at 4 a.m. to start mixing pancake batter. “I’m getting to know the moms through the children,” Dulce said.

Some of the mothers help Dulce and Román serve breakfast to the children before school. Alma began bringing her oldest daughter, now age 10, to the center after the Operation Christmas Child outreach event. Then, Alma decided she wanted her other two children, ages 5 and 3, to attend the center’s activities as well.

They, like many of the families, do not attend church. The only Gospel message they hear is at the feeding center.

The Gift of a Restored Life

Along with Román, Pastor Carlos discipled Jesús Valdez in prison. Jesús’ son, Yuzeth, received an Operation Christmas Child shoebox gift during an outreach event held in prison for the children of inmates. Jesús helped distribute the shoeboxes.

Mothers help serve breakfast at the center.

The day after Jesús was released from prison, Pastor Carlos asked him to return to the prison the next day to share his testimony. Jesús and his wife, Lucero, then joined the Amistad Familiar de Sinaloa congregation led by Pastor Carlos. Jesús and Lucero operate another of the church’s feeding centers, one that opened with an Operation Christmas Child outreach event two years ago.

“Román is very wise,” said Jesús, about Román’s counsel regarding how to operate a feeding center. “He gives me good advice.”

Román also mentors a young man who attended a feeding center as a boy. He hired him to work in his auto repair shop. Román takes pride in showing him how to repair cars well, treat customers fairly, and most importantly, appreciate the God-given gift of a life restored to fellowship with Him.

Jesús Valdez serves breakfast at the feeding center that he and his wife, Lucero (back, left), operate.

Jesús Valdez serves breakfast at the feeding center that he and his wife, Lucero (back, left), operate.

As with a heart that’s been damaged by sin, “With a car that’s been damaged, you have to peel back the layers and get rid of everything and start new,” Román said.

“Before I knew Christ, I would do cover-up jobs, make a car nice in appearance but underneath it still had damaged parts,” Román said. “Cars like that won’t last because what’s underneath is still bad. It’s a superficial fix. Now, I get down to the root of the problem and fix it right.

“Rebuilding a car is like rebuilding someone’s life—it takes time.”