My childhood was marked by unspeakable trauma. Long before I even reached double digits, my heart was hard, and my mind was confused. As far as I knew, it was up to me to survive in this harsh world.
I was four when my father abandoned my mother, two sisters, and me. We moved in with an uncle, a man who molested, raped, and tortured me from then until I was nine. His favorite “game” was to hold me under ice-cold water in our bathtub until I passed out. Then, he’d revive me—and do it again. To this day, I’m petrified of water.
For many years, every man I saw reminded me of my father and that uncle, and every woman reminded me of my mother. I hated her for not protecting me. She knew about the torture and sexual abuse yet did nothing to stop it. The collective actions and inactions of my family did a number on me psychologically.
By the time I was 11, I was on the streets looking for blood. Being a gangbanger on Chicago’s South Side gave me an avenue to take down my enemies—and I figured everyone was my enemy.
On the streets, I thought I’d found a family who would have my back. But that wasn’t the case. Gang leaders were just happy to have another broken kid to do their dirty work, and I was eager to do it. It was easy enough to save some money and buy a handgun from a guy on the street.
Like many involved with gang life, I caught multiple arrests and rotated in and out of juvenile delinquent facilities. Those experiences were only slaps on the wrist. Every time I was released, I went right back to my “family” and street life.
Thinking back to those days, I’m sure my willingness to do anything I was asked was my way of trying to die. The pain in my heart and mind was intense; even at 11, I didn’t want to live. I tried to take my life on many occasions.
That willingness to do, however, grew me a reputation of loyalty, and at 16, I was brought into a new family, a drug cartel. My first position was as a mule, trafficking drugs across the Mexican border. But I was quickly promoted to manager, making sure the cars carrying drugs reached their destinations.
As a manager, I was making $60,000 a week. I thought I was the man, hitting Chicago nightclubs wrapped in my chinchilla fur coat and draped in thick gold chains, but I was nothing more than a dog in heat. I had no respect for women.
I found no satisfaction in all that money or those one-night stands. They brought only an insatiable desire for more. And in my greed, I got sloppy and caught the attention of federal officials. I was 17 years old when I was arrested in Mexico for international drug trafficking and sentenced to 15 years in a Mexican prison with no chance of parole. I was in for the shock of my life.
I’ll never forget entering those prison gates holding my two bags of belongings. As the officer shoved me from behind and told me to find a place to live, all eyes were on me—the fresh meat. Seconds later, the scariest dudes I’d ever seen “welcomed” me to the compound.
“What size shoe do you wear?” one of them asked, referring to my shiny, red Air Jordans. But before I could answer, he stabbed me with an icepick and took what he came for.
I quickly learned that the name of the game was survival of the fittest. I wouldn’t have made it out alive if I hadn’t been in the prime of my youth and well-acquainted with violence. It also helped that my boss got word that I was locked up and hooked me up on the inside.
This place was a city within a city with its own rules. I saw more drugs there than I’ve ever seen on the outside. Every night, kilos of coke were spread out on tables; nobody tried to hide what was going on, but I tried to hide to avoid the nightly drug fest. My efforts proved useless, however, because the head man always sent someone to find me, then forced me to participate. I was like his little pet.
It took nearly four years for the US Consulate to rescue me from that violent prison. I was the last American transferred to a US federal facility through an inmate exchange program, and yes, that was a rescue. I thank God for His grace—if I hadn’t gotten out when I did, I’d be dead.
Back in America, I landed in a federal prison, where I completed my 15-year sentence by serving one year. Every year I was in prison in Mexico counted as two years in the United States, and the court gave me an additional seven-year credit for the pain and suffering I had endured.
I wasn’t free five minutes before I was arrested again on a gang-shooting charge from Chicago. The local judge released me on my own recognizance, and I immediately returned to Chicago and appeared before the court. Impressed with my timely appearance, the judge sentenced me to seven years, then put me into a military-style boot-camp program for young gang members. A full prison, however, meant an early release for me.
I was 24 years old when I became a free man. I had spent the majority of my youth behind bars and wondered if I’d ever experience anything other than darkness and pain. I was desperate for a new life but had no idea how to create one. I tried getting a legitimate job, but no one would hire me because of my criminal record.
Countless rejections left me feeling hopeless, and I returned to the only life I knew. The streets and my boss welcomed me with open arms, and just like that, I was back in the game, moving heavy weight. I went from having nothing to owning a restaurant and a house in the suburbs. When I met a girl whose father could expand my drug distribution operation, I married her. Every action I took was a calculated move.
My inner demons grew to new proportions during this season of my life, as did the madness. Things were going south, and I lived in constant anxiety, always looking over my shoulder. I’d been stabbed, beaten, shot at, tied up, and gagged more times than I could count. And now, my boys were trying to kill me. After escaping eight attempts on my life in one day, I decided it was time to move west—to Phoenix—alone.
I thought that getting out of Chicago would fix everything, but it didn’t. My inner demons made the move with me, and they tortured me day and night. I was lonely and afraid, so I turned to drugs.
In Chicago, using drugs was strictly prohibited by the cartel leaders. But I was no longer under the eyes of the cartel, so I ran wild, drinking and drugging and hitting the strip clubs on every corner.
Immediate gratification was my only goal. But with every attempt to escape, I widened the door for more demons, and the demon of addiction took me captive. Meth, heroin, and crack dug their claws deep into me, and before long, I was a hopeless junkie who would do anything for his next fix.
My criminal ways kept me rotating in and out of Arizona prisons. The system offered everything it had to fix me—prison, shock treatments, drug rehabilitation programs, addiction meetings, and meds. The drugs they gave me kept me down, sideways, and flat. I could only stay straight for a few months and felt more hopeless with each failure.
The only time I found tranquility was while working out. Physical fitness empowered me, provided a mental and emotional escape, and increased my desire to be physically healthy. I worked out two or three times a day in prison, and I still do today.
I was released in 2013, and I really wanted to stay straight, so I focused on fitness, became a personal trainer, and eventually opened a gym. People in the fitness industry took notice of my strength and story, and 5% Nutrition took me on as a sponsored athlete. Currently, I hold state records in Arizona and Illinois for powerlifting.
My success, however, fed my ego, and I began playing cat-and-mouse games with my parole officer. I ended up serving a one-year sentence for violating parole…in a violent federal prison. The lifers I was locked up with there had nothing to lose, and they lived like it.
One day, I watched a man get stabbed 30 times over a piece of chicken. Bloody handprints streaked the walls from where he tried to escape his attackers. Sitting there watching the scene and eating a chicken leg myself, I thought, “What in the world are you doing here, JC? You’re 40 years old. Is this all your life will ever be?”
I’d seen many prisoners turn to God for a life change, but I’d always made fun of them. Bible thumpers, I said, only wanted God because they were in prison and scared. Jail-house religion was a sign of weakness. And I wasn’t weak.
So, instead of turning to God after my release, I turned to the internet. I sat at a computer and Googled, “How can I change my life?” The top answer? Get a college education. So I set out to do just that.
I visited the local community college and met with an academic counselor who encouraged me to attend a criminal justice class led by a former cop of 30 years. No, thank you! I was an ex-felon who hated cops. Yet, the lady persisted, and something in her voice led me to register for the cop’s class.
I didn’t know it yet, but God was setting me up for a fall—His love was about to take me down.
On the first day, I got to class early, intending to intimidate the teacher so he wouldn’t call on me. He didn’t scare easily, though. In fact, he found a way to engage with me during every class. It didn’t take me long to understand that John Humphreys was a man of sincere faith who genuinely cared about me. He was the first white person I ever really trusted.
At about the same time, I met a beautiful woman, Bethany, at the gym. She’d approach me while I was on the treadmill and tell me I needed Jesus. I’d think to myself, “Woman, I don’t care how pretty you are… You talk about Jesus too much!”
Yet, somehow, I found myself being drawn to her and telling her about my past. I shared things with her I’d never told anyone else—I even told her about my uncle. This was the first pure relationship I’d ever had.
Life was going well—I made a good living as a physical trainer and even had a successful YouTube channel I called Wrong to Strong. But each night, I’d go home to my empty house and ask myself, “Is this it? Is there nothing else?”
One night, overwhelmed with despair, I decided to end my misery. But before I went through with my plan, I called Bethany. She could tell something was wrong, and she stayed on the phone with me all night. I am alive today because of her unconditional love.
The next day at the gym, she hugged me. It was my first hug without sexual strings attached, and it freaked me out. I felt vulnerable, and that made me angry. Over the next few weeks, however, we continued conversing until one morning, I called and said, “I think I love you.”
I’d never known what it felt like to love someone or to be loved. Bethany told me she loved me too, and I asked her to be my girlfriend. It wasn’t long before Bethany met the jealous and controlling monster who lived inside me. The phrase “hurt people, hurt people” is true. This beautiful woman paid quite a price.
One day, we watched a movie together about a man who’d lost his daughter to rape and murder. God told the man to forgive the person who had violated his daughter. Memories of the abuse I’d suffered as a kid hit me like a ton of bricks.
Forgive? Why? How? There was no way, but Bethany assured me that Jesus could help me.
“JC,” she said, “Jesus wants to free you from your pain, and the only way to be free is to forgive those who have hurt you and forgive yourself. You won’t find the peace you want till you do.”
I thought about my mom and sisters. I hadn’t talked to them for years; I hated them and blamed them for my pain. The Holy Spirit tugged at my heart, but I resisted. I was also angry with Him. Where was He when I was being drowned, raped, and beaten as a child?
But God is patient. and He kept moving in my life despite my failures. Over the following months, the Spirit’s tug on me grew stronger until one day, I fell to my knees with an incredible urge to confess everything I’d ever done. I couldn’t stop the words from flowing as I wept and sweat, and I told God everything. I listed the people I hated and confessed what I wanted to do to them. When it was over, I felt clean, like I’d had a heavenly shower.
I headed out to my garage to work out when suddenly, it happened again. I fell to my knees, only this time, I heard a voice say, “JC, you’re not going to focus on your past anymore. You’re going to tell people about Me.”
Since the launch of my social media platform in 2016, I had used it to talk only about my violent past. But on November 6, 2021, I surrendered my life and platform to Christ. Since then, my videos have presented a new message—first of faith, then family, and then fitness.
I didn’t know a lot about God, so I figured I’d better learn. I reached out to John, my teacher and mentor, and asked him to school me to be a follower of Jesus. John has faithfully poured into my life, answering my questions and showing me the blueprint for living according to God’s Word. I had seen the Bible as nothing more than a bunch of rules, but John explained that God’s commandments are His way of keeping us safe. (See Psalm 119.)
I’d been taught that real men didn’t cry, but over the next few months, as God took me back to my past and mended my broken heart, I found myself an emotional mess. I can tell you though, if I hadn’t let out those feelings, I would never have found healing.
I began telling people about God’s love every chance I got. The first time I shared my story, the gang members I spoke to gave their hearts to Jesus. They said, “Man, JC, we can see it’s real. We want what you got!” Today, I’m a gangster for Jesus.
But I’ve got to keep it real: All those years of abuse and trauma and running the streets have taken a toll on my mind. Every day, I have to learn how to think new thoughts and to speak and react in new ways. (See Romans 6:12–13, 12:2; Ephesians 4:22–32.) I’m overwhelmed by God’s goodness, especially by how He is restoring the relationships I destroyed.
My whole life, I’ve been a thug on the streets; now, I am a man of morals. Even I can hardly believe it. God’s Spirit gives me the self-control and strength I need to not give in to my sinful, sexual, and prideful urges. God, who is rich in mercy, has helped me forgive those who’ve hurt me, and He is helping me become the father and husband my loved ones deserve. God is stopping the cycle of abuse and trauma in my family with me.
As I continue to yield to the leading of His Spirit, I am no longer controlled by my emotions. Today, I’m happy and smiling. Instead of trying to kill the people around me, I hug them. Instead of tearing them down, I encourage them. The old JC is dead, and a new JC has been born. All because of Christ.
If God did this for me, a former career criminal and convict, He can do it for anybody. Even you. You might feel like there’s no hope for change in your life, but I’m here to tell you, there is hope in Jesus. Jesus loves you.
Isaiah 61:1 says that He was sent “to comfort the brokenhearted and to proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed” (NLT). He can take you from feeling lost to finding strength. But you can’t be free to experience a new life until your heart is healed, and only God can heal a person’s heart. It’s through the power of the Holy Spirit that you are able to leave that sin alone and walk free. (See Romans 6:4; Philippians 2:13.)
My whole life, I thought Christians were weak and only used their faith in Jesus as a crutch. I was wrong. There’s nothing more courageous than surrendering your life to Christ. In Him, I’m strong and have the power to overcome anything. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I’m determined now, with Jesus as my guide, to learn from my past and become a better, stronger person.
God can give you a brand-new start too. With His help, you can experience a changed life and circumstance. It’s not always easy, but if you commit to the journey, you’ll find the peace you’re looking for. Romans 10:11 says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be disgraced” (NLT).
Open your heart to Him today. Let Him restore your life. What do you have to lose?
JULIO (JC) ALMANZA is on a journey of learning and growing, experiencing mental, emotional, and physical healing along the way. He shares Jesus at every opportunity he has and is committed to helping others find the peace and joy that transformed his life.