Herman Mendoza: There’s hope in Jesus Christ. God is amazing, and when you seek Him, you will find Him, and He will change your life forever.
The Power of Our Choices Toward a New Start: Herman Mendoza & Stephen Arterburn – Episode #382
Narrator: Welcome to the Jesus Calling Podcast. Do you ever wish you could simply start over, or that you had a second chance? Maybe you feel like your life is “too far gone,” that there’s no hope of ever going back to what could’ve been. But there is good news to be found in 2 Corinthians 5:16-17, which says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old is gone, the new is here!” There is always a chance for a fresh start, as our God meets you with compassion, grace, and beautiful mercy.
Pastor Herman Mendoza came up through some tough years growing up in Queens, New York, enduring abuse from his father, and finding it hard to find connection from his peers. He ultimately chose to get involved in gang activity and drug trafficking, which brought him the power and sense of connection he had always wanted, but also ended up with run-ins with authorities, and ultimately jail time that he couldn’t negotiate his way out of. He shares how God changed his path to become a force for good in a place where goodness isn’t easily found.
Herman: My name is Herman Mendoza. I am a lead pastor at Promise Ministries International. I also am the director of a children’s program dubbed Powerhouse Kids in New York City. I’m the father of three grown adults, and I have four grandchildren.
I’m the youngest of five boys. We were brought up in Queens, New York, a town called Corona, which is extremely diverse. We have over 138 languages throughout the borough. My parents are originally from the Dominican Republic and they migrated to the United States back in the 1960s.
Looking for a Place to Fit In, Finding Trouble
I tried to find my identity in the community, trying to connect with other kids, local kids, and thinking that by hanging out with them that I could try to find, in a sense, myself—my true self—and got lost in that whole culture thing of the 1980s. It started off with just weed, marijuana. I was introduced to marijuana at the age of thirteen years old. And then from there it just escalated to more hardcore drugs, cocaine and heroin.
And that’s when I started to get involved with gang activity in the community, thinking that these people are going to shape me, not my parents and not my culture in terms of my household and where my parents come from, but it was more the streets and I was gravitating to that style. It was something I thought it was like a fad or a style or the local kids were also involved in gang activity and gang life.
It became obvious that I was a troubled youth when I was going home intoxicated. I was high at times. My mom noticed my behavior. My father worked pretty much long hours. And every time he would come home, it would be like three times, four times out of the week—he would listen to the stories that my mom would share with him about my behavior and two of my siblings. His reaction was, “Okay, I’m going to discipline him.” And discipline him is pretty much by force in a sense. I used to get beatings from my dad and that was a part of it, I guess, for me to rebel and to be sort of isolated.
One day I was hanging out in the park, you know, having supposedly a good time smoking weed, and an assailant came, some individual came from another rival gang, and pulled out a gun and shot the leader of the gang. And it was right before my eyes. I almost got killed. I thought that that was going to shape me and change my life around. Unfortunately, it did not.
Eventually I got involved with this gang, with other kids, and we committed a robbery by stealing a car radio, and it really—I just wanted to sustain the addictions that I had, which was cocaine. So I started to sell small quantities of cocaine to sort of relieve this desire for it, and so I was then arrested.
I think a lot of young people, they tend to want to belong to a group of people because they feel isolated, alone, and they gravitate to the desires of the flesh. I think in my case all these things, thinking that those things, the pleasures of the world, will fulfill one’s life. Unfortunately, these are the things that are really destroying us as young people.
Negotiating with God While Not Willing to Change
Right after I was incarcerated because of the robbery, my parents concocted a plan to send me to the Dominican Republic. My grandparents decided to—and this was all prearranged with my parents—enlist me in a private school, thinking that that would change my behavior and that would bring this new man, this new person, but I rebelled against my grandparents. I rebelled against my teachers. I just wanted to leave the school because I felt that I didn’t fit in with the other kids. So that really brought a lot of problems with my grandparents. I started to consume alcohol, and after about a year and a half on the island, my grandparents called my mom and said, “Enough is enough. I’m sending him back to New York.”
I came back to the States and got involved fully with my brothers in distributing cocaine—this was in the mid nineties, and Mayor Giuliani, in his tenure year of being the mayor of the city of New York, he was cracking down on drug traffickers. I was then arrested and it made the news—$3.8 million seized of cocaine, two brothers incarcerated, facing life in prison.
And I was eventually sent to the notorious jail Rikers Island, where there’s ten jails within the island, over 14,000 inmates incarcerated, and I was eventually sent to a penitentiary and then to a drug program, which would get my sentence reduced from three to nine years to basically six months. They sent me to this military style camp.
One of my experiences was that I had former Marines in my face screaming at me, you know, “Give me parade rest,” you know, “Give me a hundred pushups.” And I was like, “What in the world did I sign myself into?” But I wanted to get out of jail. I wasn’t thinking about society, the communities I was hurting, I just wanted a way out of prison.
And so I remember going into a chapel and I went there to negotiate with God. Throughout my life it has always been negotiations. It has always been making excuses for myself, telling my wife, “I’m going to change, don’t worry. I’m going to make another five million and then I’ll change,” or, “I’m going to do this and I’m going to change or I’m going to stop cheating on you,” and it’s always negotiating my way out of the current matter. And so I did that. I went to the chapel and I said, “God, if you allow me to get released from prison, I promise you I will not drink alcohol for six months.” Instead of saying, “God, you know, change this man. I’m sorry. I’m convicted of all the wrongs, all the sins that I’ve done, Lord. Forgive me, Father.” You know, it wasn’t that kind of prayer. It was a prayer of negotiation, of self.
I finished the program. I was released from jail. And after the six months, I wanted to celebrate that I was going to end my sobriety. And that’s what I did, I went to a local bar while I was out on parole and got drunk and I ran into an old acquaintance that was the second in command of a particular cartel out of Colombia. He was then controlling one ton of cocaine, and he said, “Do you want in?” You know, “You can make millions of dollars again.” I was just fighting with my conscience. My heart was screaming, Don’t do it, and I eventually accepted. It reminds me of Proverbs 26:11, “As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly.” And that’s what I did. I went right back into the drug distribution world.
The Final Reckoning
We were eventually arrested by the Drug Enforcement Agency. I was bailed out on half a million dollars. The same facility where I was housed is where El Chapo—the drug lord from Mexico—was housed, and my brother was also housed there. And so I got bailed out.
I’m running around going to different casinos and clubs, drinking every day until one day I went to go see my attorney. My attorney says, “Listen, they want to give you life in prison, pretty much eighteen years minimum.” So I decided not to go to court. I became a fugitive, and one day after partying and hanging out, I told my driver, “Take me home.” And I lived in a gated community. The following day, the phone rings. My wife picks up the phone, and they told her on the other line, “This is the DEA state police marshalls. Tell your husband to surrender himself. If not, it’s going to go bad for him.”
I tried to get out, tried to escape, but obviously, they had their guns drawn and I went back inside the house. And I told my wife, “Open the door, my life is over.” And so they arrested me and hauled me to the waiting car. They sped away, I told the officers, “I want to end my life right here because it’s not worth anything.” He said, “You never know what could happen.”
My brother that got arrested with me in the federal rap, he surrendered his life to Jesus and he said, “Lord, send my brother to the same facility where I’m housed so that I can share the gospel with him, because if not, they’re going to kill him.”
This was all God setting everything up. He would have it no other way, because I waved my extradition rights and I ended up in the same federal prison as my brother. And there was a dayroom within the grounds that I was housed in, and there were inmates having prayer service. And my brother used to invite me, “I want you to hear the word of God.”
“This was all God setting everything up. He would have it no other way.” – Herman Mendoza
I was making my way to the dayroom, and I was having this conversation with God. And I said, “God, if you’re for real, all I want is peace. I am losing my mind here. I just want peace.” And so I enter this chapel. I sat in the back, observing this religious service. I was not understanding what was going on. I was seeing inmates that were facing life in prison like me, testifying to the goodness of God, giving testimony of marriages restored.
I was seeing in my mind—it was just flashes of images in my mind of the people that I harmed. You know, mothers perhaps selling their bodies to obtain the drugs that I was spewing, people killing themselves just to receive the poison that I was selling out there. And I just feel so bad and so convicted.
The preacher says—amongst fifty-five inmates—”There’s someone here that has been searching for things of this world: money, drugs, sex. And all those things has brought him to a place of destruction, but God wants you to know that He loves you and He wants to give you peace. And the peace that He wants to offer you surpasses all understanding.” That was it. I felt the tugging in my heart. He says, “You know who you are.” And I made my way to the front of this church, and I just got on my knees and I started to cry and cry and cry and ask God for forgiveness. And the Lord, His Spirit enveloped me there. I felt that peace that surpasses all understanding.
For the very first time it wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about excuses. It wasn’t about negotiating with God. It was about the wrongs that I’ve done and that Jesus paid the price for my sins and that He can make it alright, even though the sins that I was committing, there’s a price to pay for them, and I had to pay that price.
“For the very first time it wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about excuses. It wasn’t about negotiating with God. It was about the wrongs that I’ve done and that Jesus paid the price for my sins and that He can make it alright, even though the sins that I was committing, there’s a price to pay for them, and I had to pay that price.” – Herman Mendoza
The Work of Making Amends
I wanted to make amends with everyone. I remember I went to the phone area and I made a phone call and I called my mom and I said, “Mom, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for all the hurt that I’ve caused you and Dad and the family. Please forgive me. I’m a Christian. I’m born again.” She was so happy for me, and so my brother and I began to immerse ourselves in Scripture.
My wife came to see me in the visiting area and she said, “Look, I have bad news to share with you.” She wanted to divorce me and I didn’t know. And I said, “Give me five minutes. I have good news to share with you.” And so I shared the hope that’s within me. I shared Christ with her, and she was just so impacted. And she said, “I want what you have,” and so we confessed our sins to one another. God began to restore our marriage and reconciliation began.
I applied for two colleges to obtain a college degree in theological studies, I did that for a while. And my brother and I became the pastors of the inmates of this unit, five north. And so eventually—I was convicted eighteen years—the prosecutor was pretty much speaking on my behalf, saying, “Your honor, this man has done incredible things in prison. He has impacted so many lives. He’s educated others, and whatever time you impose on him, I hope that he continues to do the things he was doing in prison, out in society.”
The judge saw my case and said, “Mr. Mendoza, I’m sending you out as a free man. You are revoked and restored.” There’s hope in Jesus Christ. God is amazing, and when you seek Him, you will find Him. and He will change your life forever.
“There’s hope in Jesus Christ. God is amazing, and when you seek Him, you will find Him. and He will change your life forever.” – Herman Mendoza
From Former Drug Lord to Pastor
It’s an amazing story because from a former drug lord to pastor—I started this not for profit, it was recognized by elected officials, by working with young people, and my entrepreneurial skills, I started a company. I got into journalism that gave me access to political figures, elected officials. Then they saw what I was doing, they connected me to the U.N. Then I was before heads of state speaking at the U.N. Then I went and hooked up with NBA players, started ministering to NBA players. And I say this not to glorify who I am, but it’s who I am in Christ and what God has done for me.
You have to come to that place where you have to know Jesus first. He will navigate you through life’s obstacles and life’s challenges. God enables me to have freedom through prayer, to talk to Him and and for Him to remind me that He loves me. He’s with me, and the Holy Scriptures are there to guide me each and every day.
“You have to come to that place where you have to know Jesus first. He will navigate you through life’s obstacles and life’s challenges. God enables me to have freedom through prayer, to talk to Him and and for Him to remind me that He loves me. He’s with me, and the Holy Scriptures are there to guide me each and every day.” – Herman Mendoza
You know, prayer is just the essence of who we are. It’s the breath of life. It is everything to me personally. And this is where I see guidance through the Holy Spirit, through prayer, and that’s what really shapes me and gives me a sense of direction, even when I prepare my sermons on Sundays.
You give strength to the weary and increase the power of the weak. I have various kinds of weaknesses—spiritual, emotional, and physical. You use them to humble me and train me to wait for You in trusting dependence. Your Word assures me that those who wait for You will gain new strength.
Waiting for You is closely related to trusting You. The more time I spend focusing on You, the more I grow to trust You. And the more I trust You, the more I want to spend time with You.
Waiting for You in the midst of my moments also increases my hope in You. This hope blesses me in countless ways—lifting me above my circumstances, enveloping me in Your unfailing Love.
In Your hopeful Name, Jesus,
Narrator: To learn more about Herman and his ministry, please visit www.hermanmendoza.com.
Stay tuned to advice for parents from Stephen Arterburn around helping your kids navigate screen time after a brief message.
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Celebrating the Season of Advent
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Our next guest is founder and chairman of New Life Ministries, Stephen Arterburn, who hosts the number one nationally syndicated Christian counseling talk show, New Life Live. Stephen unpacks how we can support our children in a screen-saturated world and talks about the role of parenthood during these crucial times.
Stephen Arterburn: I’m Stephen Arterburn, and I am the founder and chairman of New Life Ministries. Our whole mission is transformation with God’s truth and redemptive relationship, and I have five kids and a very brilliant wife.
Kids and Screen Time
It’s interesting how things have changed. The biggest challenge today for any child in today’s society is the screen-saturated world. You can’t trust everything on the Internet, and yet that is exactly what kids are doing. They want to be a part of something, and in their desire to be in a group or belong, they buy into some really damaging philosophies and practices. I call this toxic affinity, and that is that I will believe something that isn’t true, just because I want to belong and be affiliated with this group that I love. And so our biggest challenge is what goes into their brain from a phone or a computer.
We’re all aware that if a child has too much social media or access, there’s an impaired attention span, and then you’ve got these physical, mental, psychological, cultural, and spiritual side effects. Parents need to be praying that their child will be wise in being able to make the choices that they do.
“Parents need to be praying that their child will be wise in being able to make the choices that they do.” – Stephen Arterburn
Identifying Your Parenting Style When it Comes to Social Media
One of the first pieces of research that we quote is from Dr. Alexandra Samuel, who’s a data journalist, and she divides parents into three categories: limiters, enablers, and mentors.
So the limiter, I was one of these. That’s the person that’s worried about all those side effects. And so they’re limiting the time and all the things. And they believe that anything other than the Internet has to be better, like reading, hobbies, playing outside. Now you’d think, Well, yeah, that sounds great, but actually, these children of limiters are most likely to access pornography intentionally or accidentally find pornography. And then they’re three times most likely to impersonate a parent and be a fake identity online. So just limiting isn’t the answer.
Now, enablers don’t restrict anything. They think there’s no harm in anything or they don’t love their kids or they’re not engaged with their kids. They’re actually at a lower risk, not a lot lower, but a little lower risk than the limiters.
But here’s the goal—and here’s what we’re trying to help parents be—is to be a mentor where you’re modeling this standard. And rather than restrict kids from all things online, you’re bringing them online early on, teaching them and guiding them in the standards that you expect, the standards that will be best for them, your expectations. And in doing so, you’re giving them time and attention. You enroll them in online activities, you search for new apps and things that you guys could do together, and you find the video games you can play with them so you are actively engaged online with them in safe, healthy, fun, or safe, healthy, informational videos. And this group is most likely to avoid all the pitfalls of social media. You want to be a mentor in the area of social media and screens.
You might have made some mistakes and you have given them more access than they should have. You have to ask yourself, Do I want to be liked by these kids or do I want to add restrictions while I’m also doing the mentoring thing and being more involved with them? And we encourage parents to go from this too much access to limitation while mentoring, even though kicking and screaming, they’re going to do it or have to do it. They’re not going to like it, but it’s the best for them. You want to add the mentor piece that engages you and involves you in something that’s really important to them.
Finding Inspiration Through Devotionals
You need to find devotional material that is inspiring to you. And, you know, if you look at the history of Jesus Calling or Jesus Calling for kids, thousands and thousands of people have said, “This is helpful, I want more.”
That would be a great resource, either of those, depending on the maturity of your child, but a kid going off to college, give them Jesus Calling, but start younger with Jesus Calling for kids. It will help them apply whatever the Scripture is that they’re reading. I think Jesus Calling and Jesus Calling for kids, they’ve stood the test of time. So many people have been blessed by those. So it’s always great to read truth that has great commentary.
Narrator: To learn more about Stephen and his work, please visit www.stephenarterburn.com, and be sure to check out his book, Understanding and Loving Your Child In a Screen-Saturated World, wherever you buy books.
If you’d like to hear more stories about finding a new life in Christ, check out our interview with John & Stasi Eldredge.
Next week: Levi Lusko
Next time on the Jesus Calling Podcast, we’ll hear from pastor Levi Lusko, who shares about how he’s seen what can be called a “loneliness epidemic” in our world, and how the universe can remind us of God’s unending love for us all.
Levi Lusko: I think when we lift our eyes, we’ll be reminded, “Hey, the one who made the moon, the one who with His fingers called out the stars with His voice, with the word of His power, separated light from darkness, He loves you. He has a plan for you. He came as the person of Jesus into this world. He wants to have a relationship with you.”