My parents separated when I was 12 years old. Sud­denly our family unit was dismantled, and ev­erything in my home life changed. As a preteen, I found myself lost and confused, so I rebelled. Searching for freedom, I took to the streets and joined a gang, going against everything I had ever known to be good and everything my parents had ever taught me.

At 16, I had my first run-in with the law. I was tried as an adult and sentenced to three months in jail with three years’ probation. Two months after my release, an invitation to step out of this dangerous lifestyle came knocking on my door through a man named Sam.

Sam was a tree removal specialist who came by our home to give my mom an estimate for cutting down a tree in our yard. Somehow he transitioned the conversation from tree removal to Jesus and asked me if my mom, siblings, and I would like to join him at his home for a small group Bible study. He called it a life group, which just sounded weird. Since nobody in our home attended church anymore, I didn’t even mention it to anyone.

But Sam was persistent. Not wanting to be rude, I decided to avoid him so I wouldn’t have to say no to his face. The night before he was scheduled to come by the house again, I called my friend and told him, “Man, you gotta come pick me up and get me outta here! This guy keeps trying to get me to go to church.”

It was a decision that almost cost me my life.

It just so happened that when I ran from Sam’s invitation to grow in my relationship with God, I stepped straight into a gang-related setup where I was shot twice. When the paramedics arrived, I had no pulse. The homicide detective was called to the scene. My parents were told I had no chance of survival.

Miraculously, however, on the way to the hos­pital, the EMTs revived me. In the emergency room, I was given a transfusion to replace the large amount of blood I had lost. Thankfully, sur­gery wasn’t required. I was 17.

As soon as I was healthy enough, I went straight back to the streets. It wasn’t long before I was arrested again. This time I faced a possible 15-year sentence for burglary.

One would think that someone who had just had a brush with death would choose a differ­ent life path, but I didn’t. The excitement of the streets was just too enticing. Selling drugs and turf wars provided an addictive adrenaline rush. There was something so inherently exciting about doing the things I had always been told not to do, the things my peers talked about at school. It gave me a physical high.

I never liked the way drugs made me feel, but I did like the way selling drugs, participating in gang activity, and doing whatever my flesh de­sired made me feel. I felt freedom. But the truth was, I didn’t have freedom at all. I was totally enslaved, a prison­er in my own skin.

During this time, the Spirit of God continued to pursue me, but I hardened my heart and ran from His love. I pushed aside any conviction and focused instead on the lie that a life free of rules was what I needed. I no longer cared if what I did was right or wrong.

I was fortunate to receive only one year of prison time for my burglary arrest. Once again, you’d think I’d wake up and count my blessings, but I didn’t. Instead, I ran right back to the streets and deep­er into sin. This cycle continued many more times until one day I finally realized enough was enough.

Ironically, my own death experience made little difference to the trajectory of my life. It took the murder of a good friend to do that. I learned about his death right before my incarceration after my fifth ar­rest. It forced me to take a good, hard in­ventory of my life and helped me realize what a terrible role model I had been to my younger siblings, niece, and nephews. They needed me to set a better example, to live differently. I didn’t want them to step into this street life and end up a criminal like me or murdered like my friend.

So I left the streets and started my own landscaping company. I worked seven days a week, fourteen hours a day. I want­ed to be seen as a hard-working person rather than a thug. Seeing my exhaustion, my father encouraged me to take one day off a week to rest. Sunday seemed the most logical day.

One Sunday, a friend invited me to her church, and I went. The service was very different from what I remembered about church. While it made me uncomfortable, it also made me realize the freedom that I had been missing all those years on the streets. I’d been missing God! I finally realized He was what I needed most in my life, even more than a successful business.

Our family had attended church faith­fully before my parents divorced. I had loved Sunday School as a kid. After visit­ing my friend’s church, I suddenly longed to be a part of the church body I had en­joyed as a child. I reached out to my fami­ly and asked if we could all return to First Baptist Orlando, the church we had at­tended in the past.

Once in church, I started serving. It gave me great purpose and filled me with joy. But church activity couldn’t serve as a substitute for a relationship with God and His people. I needed intimacy with God and others to help me walk out my faith and live a godly life.

From the outside, I looked like a young man who was living an admirable Chris­tian life. I had left the streets, quit selling drugs, worked hard, attended church, and served people well. But the truth was, I was controlled by a secret—a shameful ad­diction to sex and pornography.

How could I tell anyone at the church that I struggled with watching porn and having random sex with strang­ers? Wouldn’t they judge me or ask me to leave? So I kept attending church and serving, and I told no one. As a result, I re­mained enslaved to my secret addiction.

It wasn’t until a couple from the church, Tim and Tamar Burch, entered my life that I found freedom from this addiction. They asked me to join their life group. (Seeing that the last time I’d run from a similar in­vitation, I’d been shot, I decided I’d better go. Plus, they seemed cool.)

And that’s when God’s grace erupted in my life.

For years I had heard about the grace of God—how God had freely given His Son, Jesus, to die for my sin so that I have freedom through Him and have eternal life (John 3:16). I accepted it as truth, but I didn’t understand how His grace could help me in my daily life or give me freedom from the sin that held me hostage.

Through the intimate setting of this life group experience, however, I discovered the importance of doing life with other be­lievers. It’s so easy to go to church, sit on a pew, and even serve without ever build­ing real relationships with other believers. Many people in the church do this, and they struggle daily in their lives. I know–I did it!