For years, Lila Torres had held onto the conviction that the God she believed in could save anyone, as long as they were alive. But when her son, Victor, lay crying and screaming on the floor next to her, with a needle stuck in his arm, Lila feared that he had reached the point of no return.
Manuel and Lila Torres led a modest, quiet life in Puerto Rico. Manuel had a small business that helped him support his family, but all of his success paled in comparison to the success stories of their neighbours and friends, who had left for the States. The thought of leaving had been on his mind for a long time, and he eventually made the decision, together with Lila, to travel to the States too. They dreamed of a prosperous life, of better schools for their three children, of better prospects for them.
After a few months of working in New York, Manuel went to fetch his family and take them back with him. They left sunny Puerto Rico in tears, but the hope for a better future chased away any regrets. Victor was 7 years old when he reached New York and he soon discovered that he was entering a whole new world. In this world, you could barely see the sky because of all the buildings, the noise made by the cars was deafening, and you could easily lose yourself in the crowded streets.
The apartment that Manuel had found to rent was a disappointment to everyone. The paint was peeling off the walls, there was no fridge, no central heating. It was cold, the harsh New York winter was near, and they were keeping themselves warm with the heat from a gas cooker. To make matters worse, their apartment was located in Brownsville, one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Cockroaches, mice, and rats were roaming all over the place, and at night one could hear shouting and gunshots on the street. One night, Manuel had to go and take care of a neighbour’s baby, who was in shock after a rat climbed into the baby’s cradle and started biting her.
Manuel would work night shifts, and he regularly got home at 3 am. Lila and the kids would stay awake and wait for him, fearing that something might happen to him on those dangerous streets. It was only after he got home, and locked the door with a few sturdy locks, that they could all go to sleep. Fear had become their everyday lifestyle, but they were all hoping that they would soon leave that apartment.
If life was rough for the hardworking parents, it was even harder for the kids. They would go to school and try to be good, but everything looked more like a war scene than a school. “I had to fight to get to school and fight to get out of school,” said Victor. Fights and threats were part of everyday life in the classroom, in the hallway or in the bathroom. Teachers wouldn’t stay at school for too long. Police would rarely attend to problems, except in serious cases, so the feeling that nobody cared prevailed.
Deprived of a feeling of safety, either at home or in school, Victor soon discovered that the secret to success was to be found on the streets. Back in the 60s, Brooklyn kids could earn money by polishing shoes, so he started doing that. He would sometimes get beaten by the older kids, but he got used to it. Even though he was short and thin, he would get into fights to prove his courage. He was 12 when an angry driver threatened him on the street because Victor had gotten a client to lean against the driver’s parked car, while he was polishing his shoes. Because he had a knife on him, Victor stabbed the driver in the chest, out of fear and anger. Luckily, the wound was not deadly, and Victor escaped correctional school, but he was placed under surveillance for an indefinite period of time.
Disillusionment and fear kept growing inside of him during those years of misery and danger. He wanted a different kind of life, but he couldn’t see a way out. His parents were working hard, but moving out of that place was just not possible. At the age of 14, Victor was invited to a party by a feared gang member, Big Ray. Honoured by the invitation, he attended the party. The following day he underwent the initiation process, a fight, in order to be accepted into the “Roman Lords” gang. He had finally found a group to belong to, with friends who would make him feel important and protected.
At first, he only took part in fights with other gangs, but soon he rose in the ranks. He was responsible for procuring weapons for the gang, and he started selling drugs. He would come home with more and more money, which is when Manuel and Lila started to worry. They initially thought that he stole things from people’s homes, so they confronted him. It was when he got arrested the first time that they finally found out what their son had been up to.
Lila tried everything, desperately searching for a solution to her son’s situation. She even reached out to a witch. Nothing worked. Then a neighbour told her about a newly opened church in the neighbourhood. She didn’t believe in God, but she was willing to try anything. Slowly, her scepticism turned into faith, and faith brought her the certainty that her son could be saved. She started praying. Sometimes, when he’d come home late at night after some “gang action”, Victor would find her praying in a small cupboard so that she wouldn’t wake up everyone else. He would tell her she was crazy, and yell at her to leave him alone.
After a short while, Victor started using the drugs he was selling. Beginning with lighter drugs, he eventually ended up using heroin. He would shoot up in the morning, at lunchtime and in the evening. He always had his kit nearby. If he didn’t do it, his muscles would tense up—hurting him terribly—and his brain would scream for another dose. He carried on with the street fights, as well as the drug use and trafficking for for years on end. He had been arrested three times and sent to rehab fourteen different times, all before the age of 20. The last time he went to rehab was one of the most difficult times in his life—he realized that he couldn’t escape the nightmare that his life had become and his mental health issues were so great that he wanted to commit suicide.
When she found him unconscious on the bathroom floor, having overdosed on heroin, with the syringe stuck in his arm, his mother thought she had definitely lost him. After she cried out in despair, Victor opened his eyes to see some of his family members standing beside him. Lila and Victor’s younger brother, Ricky, carried him out of the bathroom. He asked them to let him be, he would recover. It wasn’t the first time he had survived an overdose.
On the same day, Lila told him about a new addiction treatment clinic where the chances were good that he could find help for his substance abuse struggles. She hid the truth from him, not telling him that it was a Christian clinic, because she knew he despised her faith. He couldn’t say no to her. He took pity on her pain, and so went with her to the clinic’s residential rehabilitation program. The first person he saw at the door was Nicky Cruz, the leader of a rival gang, and he couldn’t believe that he too had come to ask for help.
Though Victor could not figure out how it happened, he managed to live through that day in the clinic without heroin. In the evening, however, he felt very sick. He felt cold chills and terrible nausea. It took all the strength he could muster to stay on for the following day. On the third day, however, he could no longer bear it. The drug withdrawal symptoms were so great that he gathered his things and attempted to leave in search of heroin.
At the gate he was stopped by a young man from the clinic who told him, “Victor, you’ve tried everything in this life. But you have never given God a chance. Give Him a chance!” Victor wouldn’t have it, but in spite of himself, he turned around and went into the clinic’s small chapel. He didn’t know any prayers, or how to address God. He only asked that, if God really did exist, that he would take his life in His hands and turn it around, because he could not do it, and he didn’t want to die out on the streets. He then remembered all of his friends who had died throughout the years, those who had recruited him into the gang, and many, many others. He begged God for the strength to defeat his substance misuse.
It was then that he felt a presence around him, and was convinced that the One he was praying to was there by his side. Pleading for forgiveness for all his mistakes, and for all the harm he had caused for so long, he finally felt relief. He got off his knees, he says, not with the will to defeat his drug problems (because he had had that many times before) but with the actual strength to do it.
After another six tough months in the clinic, Victor came out clean, and Lila was overjoyed. Pastor Don Wilkerson asked Victor to go with him to Boston, where a new clinic was going to be set up. Victor accepted—he had to get away from Brownsville. After he helped Don, he realized he too wanted to become a pastor. He packed his bags to go to a Bible College in California, and in due time, graduated. He also met his wife, Carmen, at college.
He started his mission traveling with Carmen throughout the country and talking about the forgiveness that God grants, and about his own transformation. In Richmond, Virginia, after a sermon he preached close to a bad neighbourhood, a young man came up to him to ask for help. They took him in. Victor and Carmen bought a house in Richmond, believing that they were meant to settle there, as there was plenty of ministering to be done. Their house slowly filled up with young people who needed help, so they needed a larger space. On the site of an old farm, they opened up the New Life for Youth Centre, a 200-bed facility for young people seeking drug treatment services to help with their substance addiction.
Almost 50 years later, Victor continues to carry out his mission, which he says he was entrusted with, and which his mom had told him about back in the day when he was a violent drug addict: helping young people find forgiveness in Jesus Christ and the strength to change. He also opened up a centre for single moms. One of his daughters, Rosalinda, is of great help to him now, since Victor no longer has as much strength as he did in the past. In 2017, a movie based on his autobiography was released, and his testimony reached even more people. Hundreds of lives were changed through the story of his personal experience, and he considers himself greatly privileged to have been given the chance to give others what he himself has been given.
Those who suffer the way his mom did are encouraged by Victor to not give up. Teachers would tell Lila that her son would end up in the electric chair, but nothing could convince her that Victor could not be saved. “Remember that Christ died on the cross for those you love,” says Victor. “My story is proof that, no matter the circumstance, no matter how you feel and how bad the situation may seem, redemption is possible. I want people to know that whatever they may be facing, be it drugs, or any kind of addiction, nothing is too difficult for God.”
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