When Oscar accepted an invitation to youth group and showed up at the church with his fellow gang members, he never imagined that Jesus would change his heart that night.
There is no question that the early years of our lives shape us. But they do not define us. Oscar’s life is a testimony to that. Born in the Dominican Republic to an alcoholic mother, Oscar was taken in by his grandparents when he was just 1 year old. His grandparents worked long hours to support their children and grandchildren, and Oscar was left alone most days with his uncles.
“Under my uncles’ care, serious things happened to me,” Oscar says. “I fell out of bed many times, suffering head injuries. I also would be bitten by ants all over, and as my uncles did not feed me, I spent long hours of intense hunger.”
At age 6, Oscar started working after school, helping his grandmother do the laundry at a local motel. As the little boy lugged heavy buckets of water and large baskets of wet bed sheets through the streets, he heard the whispers of his neighbors. Mocking him for being abandoned by both his mother and father.
These are the events that shaped young Oscar’s life.
“All the things I was living — the insecurity, hunger and the absence of my parents — started making a huge noise in my head,” he says. “The journey to the wrong path started, and I had no idea how bad it was going to get.”
Although Oscar was registered at the local church-based Compassion center at age 6, his emotional state, and the resulting aggressive behavior, only worsened.
“At school, I would insult and hit teachers, and I always was in fights with the school principal or security guard. I also bullied the other children at the Compassion center. I hated to see them happy and talking about their parents. I became very aggressive,” says Oscar.
Despite Oscar’s destructive behavior, the Compassion center staff persisted in showing him kindness and love. Whenever a tutor sent Oscar to see Peniel, the center director, after one of the child’s angry outbursts, the director always patiently talked with him, encouraging him to adopt godly behavior.
Additionally, in his center classes, tutors modeled positive values and, most importantly, showed him the love of God. Although Oscar felt empowered by their encouragement that he was a child of God and a natural leader, when he went home, he was intensely lonely.
“Neighbors used to tell me that I was going to end up as a drug addict, a thief. They threw stones and yelled at me,” says Oscar.
It wasn’t long until Oscar believed those lies. He and a group of friends formed a gang and began stealing. Oscar says it was all a joke until the day a farm owner from whom Oscar was caught stealing shot him.
“While I was running away, I saw my entire life flash across my mind. I was so scared. I was only 16 years old,” says Oscar.
Shortly after the frightening incident, Oscar’s mentors at the Compassion center invited him to a church youth service. He decided to go, bringing along the members of his gang. That night, Oscar says he decided to change, to be a new person.
“Compassion was the mediator between an evil world and having Jesus in my life,” says Oscar. “Compassion guided me and took me from the bad things I was doing to the man I have become. All the good things I now know, the passion to serve the Lord and the love I have for people, I learned here at the center. If I had not been part of Compassion, my life would still be surrounded by chaos, and I might even be dead by now.”
Oscar went on to finish high school and is currently studying for a degree in language and literature at the local university. He tutors three classes at the Compassion center where he grew up. At his church, Oscar is vice president of the theater ministry and president of the youth ministry. In addition, he is coordinator of the regional youth ministry of his church council. He is also frequently invited to preach in churches across the region.
“I see myself as a great teacher in the future,” says Oscar with a newfound confidence. “I will be a great leader. I see myself preaching to the nations.”
What he missed at home, Oscar found at his Compassion center, and now God is using him to reach others. Oscar especially credits Peniel, his center director, for his transformation.
“Penial hugged me, advised me, told me he loved me and even gave me shoes when I didn’t have any. He never rejected me. He is my role model,” says Oscar. “Now, instead of going out to steal with them, I influence other youths to go to church with me. In the bad things I was their leader, and now that I am a changed man, I am still their leader, but for good, for guiding them to Jesus.”