For many years, I lived for the human trinity—me, myself, and I.
I did what was right in my own eyes and judged everything by how it would benefit me or someone I wanted to influence. I had no understanding of objective truth, nor did I care how God might view my actions.
I thrived on power and being the center of attention. It helped that I was charismatic because people played right into my manipulative hands—especially women. They were objects to be used for my gain and discarded.
I wasn’t always that way. My mother says I became self-absorbed and reckless around my senior year of college. I saw the world and people as potential conquests. Mom tried to influence me and tell me about God. She had recently come to faith in Jesus Christ through the testimony of a spiritual medium who had become a Christian.
This was a big change for my mother. For years, she had channeled demonic spirits in her quest to help people find answers. She’d started dabbling in witchcraft when our family lived in Cuba. (We subsequently escaped to America to avoid Fidel Castro’s regime.) I’d often assisted Mom during her channeling sessions and had witnessed demonic spirits pass through her. She thought she was doing a good thing and even believed she was drawing close to God through it. She was so deceived.
But then, a medium at the spiritual center that Mom frequented became a believer in Jesus Christ. She and another lady shared their newfound faith with Mom. “We have met the Lord, Jesus Christ!” they said. “You don’t need to go to that center anymore.” Soon, Mom attended church with her friends, where she heard the truth of the Gospel. She responded to God’s gift of salvation immediately.
From that day forward, Mom was a new person. She had peace and a hunger for God’s Word. She began opening our home to share Christ with others. “Jesus found me when I was so very lost in my sin,” she said, “because He is the One who searches for us.”
I didn’t want anything to do with Mom’s faith; I thought she was nuts! If there was a God, I reasoned, it was me. I did attend the worship services she held at our home—but only to meet a certain beautiful brunette.
Her name was Cecilia, and I’d decided I had to have her. Driven by an impulsive nature and the need for immediate gratification, I came up with a plan to get this beauty. I would marry her. I was only a semester away from graduation, but I was already making a lot of money as a life-insurance salesman and driving a Mercedes Benz 380SL. I decided I’d rather be married than have a college degree, and I dropped out.
I was 22 years old and as arrogant as they come.
My fidelity lasted about as long as our honeymoon. I had no idea what a marriage commitment meant. I was a terrible husband and put Cecilia through hell. The following winter, our son, Manny Jr., was born. While I knew nothing about being a father, I was proud to have a son.
My flair for networking paid off, and soon I was making more money than I knew how to spend. But nothing the world offered—not even a Lincoln Town Coupe, an Audi 5000, and a Cadillac Seville—could satisfy me. I always searched for more.
Soon a business opportunity arose in Coral Gables, Florida, that provided both a new conquest and a great excuse to escape the righteous impact my mother was trying to have on me. I moved my family and continued to do my thing in Miami. It wasn’t long before my sin and pride caught up to me.
My sister’s boyfriend had approached me with what appeared to be a sweet deal. All I had to do was cash some bogus checks. I didn’t care that the money belonged to someone else.
With my connections in Miami, I could easily pull off the scam. A friend who worked at a bank helped me open a checking account under a false name. I deposited the checks, waited until they cleared, then emptied the account and closed it. I got fifty thousand bucks for a couple of hours of work. Not bad.
A month later, however, FBI agents were in my office looking for me. My “friend” had ratted me out, and I was facing a possible 55 years in prison. It was my word against his, and at first, I thought I could talk my way out of this situation. I was, after all, a master manipulator. But my fingerprints were on the checks. It wouldn’t take a genius to figure out who was telling the truth.
I was a dead dog if the FBI found me, so I went into survival mode and withdrew what cash I could. “Pack our things,” I told Cecilia. “We’re taking a little vacation.”
Poor Cecelia. She was seven months pregnant with our second child and caring for our four-year-old son. Nonetheless, she did as I asked, and we left for Puerto Rico that very night.
With Puerto Rico being a US territory, we couldn’t stay long, or I’d risk being arrested. We had to keep moving. We needed passports to go further, but with my connections, obtaining them wasn’t a problem. I told Cecilia the truth while we were there. She was furious.
After a few days in Puerto Rico, we flew to the Dominican Republic, and then to Bogotá, and then to Medellín (Colombia). I had no plan, and I wasn’t thinking clearly. Finally, we settled in Caracas, Venezuela.
I opened a restaurant, which took some underhanded scheming and money. I worked fast and hard to find investors and a Venezuelan partner. In no time, I owned the best Cuban restaurant in the country. I used the restaurant and its glamour, not to mention my mad dancing skills and thick dark hair, to get women. Cuban men were very popular with Venezuelan women.
We lived in Caracas for almost two years. But then, the FBI paid a visit to my dad. That night, he and my mom called me. “Manolito,” he said. “I know what you have done. I know you are facing time behind bars. Let me ask you a question. If I died tonight, could you come to my funeral?”
I was silent. I knew the answer was no. I broke down and cried. Then, my mom began to speak. She reminded me that I had sinned against a holy God, and she pleaded with me to repent of my sins—to turn from my ways.
“To repent is to live,” she said. “You need to trust in Jesus Christ and make Him Lord and Savior of your life. He will forgive you for your sins, Manny, if you ask Him.”
Mom started praying for me on the phone. “Oh, God, save my son. Make him see how lost he is, how far he is from You. He’s on his way to hell. He needs You, God! Help him see he cannot run from You. Father, You promised to forgive him. I pray my son will ask for Your forgiveness and follow Jesus.”
I sobbed as the Holy Spirit quickened my spirit and opened the eyes of my heart to see what I could not see before—that I was lost and in desperate need of a Savior.
I prayed out loud, repeating the words of my mom, “Oh, God, please forgive me for all I have done; I have sinned against You. I’m guilty and ashamed, and I don’t want to run anymore. Lord, save me. Come into my heart and change my life. God, I need Your help. Give me the courage to face what I’ve done and make it right. Give me the courage to face my family and the world with the truth.”
My mom started praising God and thanking Him for what He had done. I felt like God had lifted the whole world off my back until Mom asked, “When are you coming back to America to face the music? You must surrender to the FBI and do what is right.”
The world ground to a halt. Sure, I had prayed for courage and a way to make things right, but surrendering to the FBI was not what I had in mind! That wasn’t part of the deal.
Mom noticed my hesitation and said, “Manolito, God promises in Hebrews 13:5 that He will never leave you or forsake you. He will not fail you. You have invited Jesus into your heart, and He will be with you from now on—even if you have to go to prison.”
Tears flowed from my eyes as I bowed in total surrender to the God of the universe, to His Son, and to His Holy Spirit. I would now serve a new Trinity. My mind was set, and there was no going back.
What I did not realize at the time was that my dad had become a Christian on the telephone right along with me. Just like Nicodemus in John 3, we were both born again. Dad had been observing the unmistakable change in my mom’s way of life and that night, he surrendered to the one true God too. My father, Manolo, was a mighty man of God from that day forward.
God answered my prayer, and His Holy Spirit gave me the courage to fly home to New York with my family and take responsibility for the crimes I had committed. FBI agents were waiting for me when I deplaned at Kennedy International Airport, and they took me into custody.
They escorted me to a regional office in Newark, New Jersey, where other FBI agents booked and fingerprinted me and confiscated my US passport. Then, I was released on bond.
Because I had pleaded guilty, there was no trial. Incredibly, the judge sentenced me to only three years at Allenwood Federal Prison in Montgomery, Pennsylvania. God’s amazing grace was on full display. And soon there would be more.
Typically, incarceration begins immediately after sentencing, but I did not go to prison right away. The judge allowed me to go home for three more months and then to report to prison on my own, unescorted. I treasured this time with my family and appreciated the opportunity to set my things in order.
When the time came, my family drove with me to prison. Once I was processed, a correctional officer came to take me away. Tears flowed as I hugged Cecilia, my parents, and my children goodbye. Leaving them was very hard as my future felt so uncertain. We put everything in God’s hands.
I changed into prison clothes, and then I was fingerprinted again and checked in. My ID card proclaimed that I was prisoner #07592-050. Humiliation does not begin to describe the experience. My boots and pants didn’t fit, and for the first two weeks, I had no pillow. My top bunk was in a dormitory with 74 other men. What a change in lifestyle! But God was faithful to me.
Before prison, I had never in my life cleaned a room or even made my bed, so my first work assignment was a rude awakening. I would be cleaning the bathrooms. Now, I didn’t know how to clean a bathroom, but I had traveled in high-class circles, so I knew what one should look like. So I set my expectations accordingly.
Colossians 3:23 says that whatever we do, we should do it unto God. It seemed to me that, as a Christian, my actions should reveal my love for God. He deserved my best efforts. I was His ambassador and wanted to reflect Him positively everywhere and in every way.
I quickly learned about work ethic and principles like “hitting the corners.” A superficial clean wasn’t good enough; I wanted those bathrooms to be clean from top to bottom, just like I wanted my life to be pure before God.
It never failed though—just as I finished cleaning, some guy would come in and mess it all up. Nevertheless, I cleaned to the best of my ability for eight hours a day, and I did it for the glory of God. He had ordained this work to humble me. What I didn’t know was that God was preparing me for a ministry of “getting dirty.” He was about to call me to an up-close-and-personal ministry with people the world didn’t want to touch.
I knew my salvation was real because this unpleasant work didn’t produce a complaining attitude, not even hidden in my heart. Only the Holy Spirit could have brought about that transformation.
Apart from Jesus, I had nothing to bring to the table. God was the only One who could change my life; my task was to submit, surrender, and let God have His way. Sometimes I failed miserably because my stubborn, sinful human nature resisted change. But God, so rich in mercy, always forgave me and helped me move forward better (Ephesians 2:4–5; 1 John 1:9).
I was developing into a new person, and I knew I did not want to go back to the man I had been. I didn’t like him, so I aimed to draw closer to Jesus. Only He could help me develop godly traits and bear lasting fruit in my life (John 15:1–5). I didn’t know God very well yet, but I knew He was for real, and that authenticity attracted me like a magnet.
Several godly inmates and I began holding daily prayer meetings to help other inmates know God. Not long after, God brought a new chaplain to our prison. We worked together to organize the church body, and the church began to grow.
Chaplain Cordero and I planned a weekend marriage seminar sponsored by Prison Fellowship. The men and I were excited to encounter God in a new way with our spouses. What a treasured opportunity! When the time came, the chaplain and I were at the door, welcoming the wives. I was so excited…but grew concerned when Cecelia didn’t arrive.
A phone call to my mother-in-law revealed that Cecelia had left New Jersey and gone to Miami with our children. I felt like a bucket of cold water had been dumped on my head. Divorce papers arrived a few weeks later.
I don’t blame Cecelia for our marriage ending; I blame myself. The consequences of my actions made life difficult for her and our children. Thankfully, the Lord has helped me learn from my mistakes so I could be a better husband and father in the future.
I attended a Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM) banquet with five other inmates in my final year of incarceration. Billy Graham was the keynote speaker. By God’s providence, I sat next to a member of PFM’s executive board. He asked about my post-incarceration plans.
“Sir, by faith, I am going to Wheaton Bible College. I just applied for a scholarship there,” I replied. I said “in faith” because the admission date for college was August of 1988, and my release date wasn’t until January 1989. I was trusting God to work out my release if He wanted me to go.
As we talked, I could tell this man was genuinely interested in my desire to attend Wheaton. Then the man introduced himself. “Manny,” he said, “my name is Kenneth Wessner. I am the chairman of the board of Wheaton College.” My jaw about hit the table! Clearly, God had ordained this meeting for me.
Dr. Wessner took a chance on me and championed my cause. Talk about godly love; this man didn’t even know me. God worked out every detail, and I started my studies at Wheaton College on the Charles W. Colson Scholarship.
I studied hard to receive a bachelor of arts degree in biblical studies. Then I attended graduate school and pursued my master’s in theological studies. While there, and in collaboration with several people, I developed the concept of a Koinonia House, a family home where prisoners could live after their release, witness a healthy family life, and receive help integrating back into society. Dr. Wessner helped me develop the Koinonia House, and our doors opened to inmates in late 1991.
Not long after, the Lord blessed me with a most beautiful gift—my wife, Barbara. We met while I was on an internship in Israel as a student with Wheaton College. She had just arrived and was leading a group of students from Philadelphia Bible College. She was pursuing a master’s degree in Bible geography. We met on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem on what happened to be my last day of parole. (I had received special permission to go abroad.)
I was instantly attracted to Barbara, but we both knew we’d need to be careful in establishing a relationship. We wanted godly discernment, not man’s approval. We both sought wise counsel, and God worked through His people to affirm direction from the Holy Spirit.
After much prayer and consideration, Barbara and I felt released to be married. For the last 32 years, we have served the Lord in our national prison ministry, Koinonia House Ministries, and shared the Gospel of Jesus Christ around the world. Not only is she my wife, she is my best friend and ministry partner too.
Barbara has also been instrumental in restoring my relationships with my children, Manny Jr. and Cesia. Today, we have a healthy relationship. Not only that, God blessed Barbara and me with two sons, Howard and Kenneth, and even brought my daughter Sasha, from another relationship, into my life. God’s grace and love have restored my life beyond my wildest expectations (Ephesians 3:20). Today, I am the proud grandfather of seven grandchildren and a great-grandson.
I am so glad that God arrested me with His love and confronted me with His truth years ago. His goodness chased me down and led me to repentance (Romans 2:4). Because of Him, I have hope (Ephesians 2:12–13). God resurrected my life from the dead, and He made me a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). I have been born again into His family. Alleluia!
My wise mother once told me that “to repent is to live.” Today, I tell you the same.
Are you ready to live? To quit running and find rest? Then turn from serving the trinity of self and live for God. Surrender your heart and mind to Him and trust His love for you. God will never leave you or forsake you. It’s time to repent so you can live.
Pray with me: “God, forgive me for sinning against You. I’m guilty and ashamed. I don’t want to run anymore. Lord, save me. Come into my heart and change my life. I need Your help. Give me the courage to face what I’ve done and make it right. Strengthen me to face my family and the world with Your truth. Amen.”