I met God at Disneyland. Crazy, I know.
I was walking around the attractions with my parents when an old-fashioned saloon shooting gallery caught my eye. I was four and loved pretending to be an outlaw, shooting fake rifles, and knocking over bottles, chairs, and dishes.
After a few rounds, my parents were ready to move on, but I wasn’t. “We’re going to leave you behind,” they said, but I was stubborn and called their bluff. I stayed glued to the game as they walked away. I didn’t have any money, though, and when that game ended, I was done. I couldn’t play. So there I stood, a little bit scared, waiting for my parents to come back for me.
And that’s when I met Him. I was just a little boy, and I didn’t know that the powerful feeling I was experiencing was God’s presence. Still, it compelled me to pray and ask Jesus to come into my heart.
My father was a missionary, so I had heard others say similar prayers, but this one was personal to me. I couldn’t wait to tell my parents that I’d asked Jesus into my heart. I tried, but they were tired from the day, and their response lacked enthusiasm. They told me to go to bed. I stood there in tears.
“But it’s for real, Dad,” I cried. “I asked Jesus in my heart.” Realizing what I’d said, my father called me over and we talked about my experience. Over the next decade, I continued to learn about God and travel with my missionary parents. As a teen, however, I began to test the waters of rebellion.
And then, when my parents suddenly divorced, everything I’d learned growing up came into question. I began to wonder if God was even real. Satan seized the chance to gain a foothold in my already rebellious life. I went off the rails fast.
When I wasn’t getting along with Dad, I lived with Mom…and vice versa. I didn’t prefer one over the other; I just stayed with whoever would let me get away with the most. By the time I was in high school, skipping class, smoking weed, and drinking were all I cared about. My fake ID said I was over 21, so I was a big shot with my friends.
My parents were concerned about my behavior but to no avail. I got kicked out of school for disrespecting a teacher and then arrested for shoplifting at the store where my mother worked. At that point, my parents decided I needed a change of scenery and sent me to the New Mexico Military Institute (NMMI), a reputable academy and prep school from which many members of our family had already graduated.
Cadet life at NMMI was strict and structured. The environment worked well for me for a while. I learned how to study and maintained a 4.0 grade average. As an upperclassman, I considered attending the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, but I didn’t stay out of trouble long enough to do so. My senior year, two friends and I were suspended when the police found guns in our car after a fight with some kids from the local high school.
The worst part was calling my dad to break the news. I could hear him crying through the phone. “Why do you keep doing this?” he asked. I had no answer. I could only apologize.
Dad had big dreams and wanted the best for me. It bothered me that I had disappointed him again, but not enough to change my ways. Getting kicked out of NMMI was the first of many failures for me.
I finished high school and was accepted into the University of New Mexico (UNM). I actually had a full scholarship, but I threw it away by hooking up with the wrong crowd.
I craved acceptance and respect, and I loved to party. I supported my lifestyle with a steady cash flow from dealing dope on campus. I went from being at the top of my class to being a hopeless junkie in no time flat.
One night after partying, I gave God an ultimatum. “If You show up right now, I’ll believe in You. If not, I’m going my own way. It’s up to You.”
Part of me was afraid He would show up, and I’d have to give up all the fun I was having, but the rest of me was serious. I waited several minutes for an answer, but there was only silence.
God hadn’t appeared, so I decided He must not care about me. I punched the wall repeatedly until my knuckles bled. I felt utterly alone, and in that moment, I walked away from my faith.
Like the Israelites in the Old Testament, I wandered in unbelief and disobedience (Joshua 5:6). I did whatever was right in my own eyes, and I paid a heavy price for it too. (See Judges 17:6; Proverbs 12:15; 26:16.)
In the drug-induced madness that my life became, there were occasional moments of clarity when I wondered where God had gone. Why had He chosen not to be active in my life?
Of course, the truth was that I had run away from Him. By 1993, I was walking around in a shell of who I used to be. And then God intervened.
While under the influence of psychedelics, I was busted for doing a drug deal. I would have sensed the setup if I had been in my right mind, but I believe the Lord intended it to happen that way.
I had to call my dad again, this time from a jail where I was being held for trafficking cocaine. Dad supported me in the courtroom, and his presence led the judge to grant me a third-party release. Dad asked me to come home, but I had business to take care of back in the hood.
When Dad refused to take me there, I asked him to pull over. I thanked him for his help, exited the car, and walked right back into the chaos.
I ended up getting probation instead of prison for the trafficking charge, but by this time, I was addicted to heroin. My probation officer sent me to rehab, but I didn’t stay long. Heroin had a death grip on me, and the streets called my name.
After catching a new burglary charge and stabbing a guy in the chest in a fight outside a convenience store, I was on the run. I drove to Phoenix, intending to head for the Mexican border, but something happened on the way.
God’s grace stepped into my madness and led me to Victory Outreach, a Christian rehab facility in Phoenix. I checked in there under an alias. I didn’t plan to stay long, but God had other plans. After a few months there, I surrendered my life to Jesus Christ.
Everything inside me changed. My addictions subsided. I no longer wanted to commit crimes or do drugs. I had internal peace. It felt good, and I wanted more of it.
The closer I got to the Lord, the stronger my desire to serve Him and others became. I began attending the Victory Outreach School of Ministry in Los Angeles. One night while sharing the gospel on the Santa Monica Pier, I saw a little shooting gallery like the one at Disneyland when I was four. The Lord spoke to my heart. Do you remember when we first met? I was overcome.
God had remembered me even though I had forsaken Him. He had pursued me through the darkest times of my life, and I was on fire for Him. But there was one problem: I was still a fugitive.
How could I pour out my life for God if I was living a lie?
The solution to my dilemma came swiftly. In 2007, as I reentered the United States from a mission trip to the Philippines, customs officers were waiting to arrest me for all those outstanding warrants. My face was all over the evening news. I was sentenced to eight years in prison—and with that failure, I felt far from God again.
I was in solitary confinement for five months, where I was allowed only a Bible and letters. My dad sent me inspirational letters about a young man, a former addict, that God was using mightily. I felt the presence of God in my dad’s letters. Mom, too, was a prayer warrior for me, reminding me often that I was a chosen child of God.
One day in my solitary cell, I fell to my knees and cried out, “Lord Jesus, I need You. If You are still there, would You please come back into my life and forgive me?” I didn’t want Him to do anything for me. I just wanted the peace and joy I had experienced when He’d controlled my life (Psalm 51:12).
God enveloped me with His presence. I am so thankful for His quick response. Repenting of my doubts, I returned to Him with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength (Matthew 22:37). I vowed to serve the Lord not only for the rest of my time in prison, but for the rest of my life. From that day on, my prison felt like a palace.
When I was released from solitary, I became an inmate pastor and led prayer meetings. I took undergraduate correspondence courses through the Global University of the Assemblies of God, and led the Scared Straight program for young men who were on the wrong road.
In May 2010, I walked out of prison a resurrected man, brought to life by the redemptive power of Jesus Christ. Since then, I have not put a single needle in my arm, nor have I had a craving for any drug. God healed me—mentally, emotionally, and physically—in addition to forgiving my sins and clothing me in a robe of righteousness. (See Isaiah 61.)
I have graduated from seminary and am now a pastor. God blessed me with the gift of Hannah, my beautiful wife and closest friend. I am also a proud father.
In 2015, we planted Freedom City Church in Springfield, Missouri, and opened men’s and women’s Hope Homes. These residential discipleship homes provide freedom and hope to those struggling with life-controlling issues such as addiction, homelessness, and reentry/reintegration to free society.
At first, the surrounding community of Springfield was skeptical of our mission, but they have seen the fruits of our labor in the changed lives of those who have experienced the healing touch from Jesus. We have received support and provision from the hand of God through our local community. Through donations, we have been able to pay off the building where we run all aspects of our ministry.
Every day, revival happens all around us. A movement is taking place as God raises up an army of outcasts, prodigals, ex-cons, and ex-junkies whose lives He has restored.
He is giving them new lives full of meaning and purpose and putting them on the front lines. He’s using their testimonies as weapons against the enemy. He is redeeming their lives, just like He did for me. You can view our services on the Pando App under “Freedom City Church.”
You can be a part of this movement too. Give God control of your life. Let go and let Him change you from the inside out.
JOHN ALARID overcame his personal battles with addiction and incarceration by God’s grace. He has founded reentry and recovery homes (Straight Street and Hope Homes of the Ozarks) to help returning citizens become successful members of society. Visit freedomcitychurch.org for more information.