“I was a slave to it,” Melky said in Spanish. “It was my first thought every morning and my last every night.”
Clad in the red garb Elim’s missionaries wore to differentiate themselves from those to which they were ministering, the Guatemalan emigre who preferred his last name not be used as he entered the country illegally, described his life before conversion.
“I spent my days drinking,” he solemnly told the group of interracial homeless people sitting in the chairs he and his fellow “evangelistas,” or missionaries, had set up for them.
They had congregated to eat the hot scrambled eggs, beans, rice, donuts, coffee and juice breakfast the missionaries prepared every Sunday morning, and this Sunday morning in July, at a south L.A. park—the same spot where Jorge had met and converted Rafael on another day.
“I woke up and would go straight to the liquor stores—waiting outside until they opened if I got there too early,” he said, while a fellow missionary translated. “My family and friends tried to help me, but every time they said I should go somewhere, like rehab, I resisted.”
The slight 32-year-old with a pale complexion and dark hair originally accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior, as Pentecostals call conversion, nine years ago in his home within Guatemala’s capital.
But three months later, he fell back into drinking and would steal to support himself. He stopped stealing a few years later and took a job as a doctor’s assistant but would drink “at any possible opportunity” and had no qualms with downing “whatever was in front of [him].”
After his alcoholism cost him his job and caused his family to sever ties with him, as their repeated attempts to free him from habit showed no signs of discouraging him from drinking, he decided he would be better served beginning again in a new country.
He left Guatemala three years ago, trekked through Mexico and reached the United States, encountering few problems in the process. But as he and his companions were walking through Arizona’s scorching desert, they ran out of water and lost their way.
Certain this “was it,” that they would die anonymously in an alien wasteland, all but one member of the group succumbed to despair. “‘You will see,’” he remembered the man saying. “‘God will save us.’”
The man told Melky he was a “Christian”—the word Latin Americans use to describe Protestants—and that he had accepted Jesus as his Savior, so he knew the Lord would save him.
“And He did,” he said. “He saved us, and we didn’t have to go ask the Border Patrol for help and have them send us back to our countries.”
The men found a city with pre-arranged contacts and food and water, eventually making their way to Los Angeles. Watching TV one night, he turned to channel 57 and came across a show titled “La Puerta Abierta,” or “The Open Door.” A Pentecostal program, it mentioned Elim Central church on south LA’s Hoover and Manchester Avenues.
Struck by the desire to wipe the slate fully clean, he took the bus from his MacArthur Park apartment the next morning and stepped off at a random spot of Vermont Ave., asking strangers on the street and at gas stations if they knew where to find the church.
Once he’d reached the church, the members welcomed him, making him feel that God would love him no matter what his previous transgressions had been.
“The heart is hard,” he said. “But God will soften it and change your life.”
He accepted the Lord in earnest, saying he felt Jesus enter his heart and erase his addiction, was baptized both in water and in the Holy Spirit and experienced a second “birth.” From that point forward, he became an ardent Pentecostal, exchanged alcohol for religion and community and felt impelled to help others find Christ, the Redeemer as he once had.
Donald Miller explained that Pentecostalism often appeals to addicts and the down-and-out, frequently helping them kick a habit in a warm, safe environment in which they could heal without risk of judgment or relapse.
He clarified the ways that person’s recovery could lead to an improvement of one’s economic situation as well as to others’ conversions and, in turn, the betterment of the converted.
“There’s no drinking, alcohol, gambling, cigarettes or womanizing in Pentecostalism,” Miller said.
“So when people give up these habits, they have surplus capital for education or businesses, and the [conversion] becomes a building block for upward social mobility,” he concluded.
That pleasant byproduct of Pentecostalism further feeds the mass conversion as those watching neighbors’ lives improve see the correlation between that improvement and the Movement and wish the same for themselves.
Miller also mentioned that the church pastors often guide their members toward prosperity through their sermons—ones that made the churches like “business school but in a local way” because they encouraged saving and responsible living.