My growing up years were spent in an area that was not the best of environments. Lots of gangs, drugs, violence and anything else you can think of. This is what I grew up around. My parents were once active LDS but have slid into some of the activities of the neighborhood. I’m trying to better my life and have recently gone back to church. How can God really see my potential after the way I was brought up?
I commend you for wanting to better your life and for going back to church. Even when we don’t see it, Heavenly Father sees the potential in all of us. Sounds like you could use your experiences to help and inspire those around you.
Your story reminds me of a conversion story that I recently read. This young man had many of the same experiences you did. Let me share his conversion story with you.
Cruz Soto’s conversion story as told by “Papa” Ostler. Shared with permission from Cruz.
On Sunday Sept 13th, 2015 I sat on the stand of our young single adult ward (YSA). The week before we had a major boundary change and we lost about 40 active YSAs to another ward and inherited about 80 actives YSAs into our Ward … bringing our attendance to around 140.
As I was looking into these 80 faces for the first time, I felt overwhelmed and nervous getting to know and “walk with” some many new and wonderful YSAs. Separate from the 80 new “boundary change” faces was the face of a new convert Cruz Soto who was baptized in the home ward a week earlier and had come to check out the singles ward. Our first meeting was a testimony meeting and Cruz bravely shared his testimony … probably not knowing anyone in the congregation.
For the rest of the block, I was busy with interviews and didn’t see him again until the mingle (snacks and socializing). As I saw him out of the corner of my eye leave the mingle, I felt impressed to follow him and caught up with him in the parking lot as he was getting in the back seat of a black car waiting for him (I can still see him getting into the back seat of the waiting car). I introduced myself and asked if we could meet (we set up an appointment for Saturday afternoon). Cruz later told me that he didn’t plan on coming back to the singles ward … but me following him out to the parking lot helped him know that was his place … I’m so glad I acted on that impression.
When we met on Saturday, I learned his amazing life story. He grew up on the street of California … a brutal environment … involved in the activities that come with life on the streets. He told me about a difficult family life and doing everything on his own … total survival mode. He told me that how all his friends are either dead or in jail … he is the only “survivor”. He told me his courageous story to move to Utah and then investigate the church … needing three times to finally make the decision to be baptized. I just felt his survival was a miracle … that Heavenly Father has protected him and saved him for a wonderful life mission.
During that interview I pulled his record into the ward, found him worthy to receive the Aaronic Priesthood and be ordained a priest, worthy to receive a limited use temple recommend (didn’t give it to him until after he was ordained) and extended the call to be a Ward Missionary. That’s quite a first interview … but Cruz is not your average guy! He was sustained in sacrament meeting and ordained by a wonderful member, Brother Brian Taylor, who had helped him with his baptism decision. I felt impressed to share with Cruz advice I give to new converts … that there are two things that can cause you to become less active during the early stages of church membership … 1) being offended by people or 2) not keeping all the commandments. We discussed that Cruz is going to get judged at times by members … and he will (like all of us) not be able to keep all the commandments all the time.
On Sunday, Sept 20th Cruz was sustained and set apart in his new calling and received the Aaronic Priesthood. We meet again the next week and I gave Cruz the form to receive is Patriarchal Blessing from our beloved Patriarch Lynn Erickson. As I gave him the form for the blessing, he asked me who he could visit. I gave him a few names. He wrote those names down on the back side of the form and he immediately went and visited those good men. Wow. That tells you something about Cruz. A few hours later Cruz messaged me with a report of a great visit.
“Mean mugged” and tattoos. Cruz is the proud owner of 28 tattoos. When I meet with YSA’s with tattoos (that I can see … I don’t ask them if that have tats), I will usually ask them the story behind their tats. Seems like there is a story behind most tattoos. I love hearing these stories. Many of these stories are part of their survival, key family events, and other important memories. While I discourage people getting tattoos, I have come to see the positive role they can plan in people’s lives … and might even be a way to cope/survive the difficulties of life. Cruz last tat is the date of his baptism on September 5, 2015. How cool is that? He almost got his 29th tattoo of his favorite scripture which is D&C 58:42 (great scripture … but he decided against a 29th tattoo). I was worried that people might judge Cruz for his tats and not see past the tats and see this remarkable and courageous man. Cruz reported this did happen during his visit to the Temple for baptisms … he told me he got “mean mugged” by a “sweet” temple worker. Cruz was barely bothered … but I will forever love the term “mean mugged” … a visual judgment when we see someone that is different from us … but we fail to see who they really are and their core goodness. I’m trying to do less “mean mugging” in my life … I don’t think Christ did any “mean mugging” during his ministry … but taught us to love and accept everyone as illustrated in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. I’ve also kind of wanted to get a visible tattoo (maybe a hand tattoo of Mama Ostler) just so I can relate to and have my tattoos friends know I’m with them … but I decided against it. But, a tattoo of Mama Ostler sounds sweet
Cruz took his Ward Missionary calling seriously and went out and visited so many in the Ward. He became a “safe place” and many opened up to him and shared the difficult things in their lives and knew Cruz could understand and help them.
On Sunday, October 4th, 2015 we had Cruz, a BYU fan, to dinner and had him share his conversion story with our family and our nephews, Andrew Juergens, Mitchell Juergens and Garrett Juergens. Love the picture of Cruz with the BYU Football Juergens twins (my wife’s brother’s sons). Cruz looks like a linebacker
On Saturday October 24, 2015 in connection with our YSA Stake Conference, Elder John C. Pingree Jr. of the Seventy and President Broadbent YSA Stake President visited Cruz. Cruz was super nervous for the visit … but did a great job. Both Elder Pingree and President Broadbent later told me what a great visit they had with Cruz, how impressed they were with him and what a great future he has in his life. Later that evening during the Saturday night session of Stake Conference Elder Pingree called Cruz up out of the congregation to bear his testimony in front of hundreds. Cruz did a great job and helped all of us want to grow closer to Christ. I think that experiences further opened Cruz’s eyes to his future abilities to lift and help others … and that this is his home. The rest of our Stake Presidency, President McMurray and President Dowdle, also grew to love and admire Cruz and provided helpful support and counsel.
As Cruz met with people in our Ward, his desire to give blessings increased as he knew the power of the Melchizedek Priesthood and wanted to use that Priesthood to bless their lives. He asked me frequently in the last few months of 2015 the process/timing to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood. What a cool reason for wanting this Priesthood … to bless other’s lives! I told him that the Stake tries to process these during Stake General Priesthood Meeting or Stake Conference and to wait a few months (April 2016). However, Keaten Mcdonald our EQ President felt impressed to recommend (which was later approved by the Stake) Cruz as the 2nd Counselor in the EQ Presidency, which triggered the need to become an Elder. On January 17, 2016 Cruz was ordained an Elder and received the Melchizedek Priesthood by his close friend Keaten McDonald and set apart as a member of the EQ Presidency (Keaten and his wonderful parents have blessed Cruz’s life so much … we love you!)
Armed with the mantle of his calling and the power/authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood, Cruz proactively embarked on the “rescue”. Frequently I saw him at the church doing visits with members of his Quorum. Many of these members later told me how they opened up to Cruz … how he helped them … often giving blessings … and providing hope and friendship. Many reported to me the impact for good that Cruz was having in their lives. I kind of had to remind myself that here was Cruz, less than one year in the church, helping and serving so many … even those that had been in the church their whole lives and had served missions … isn’t it cool that being a servant of Christ doesn’t require some formal training or passing an academic test … just a desire to serve others.
In July of 2016 as I was visiting with Cruz, I had a deeply spiritual experience where my “spiritual eyes” further opened to better understand Cruz and his earthly mission. During this deeply spiritual visit, I felt very strongly that Heavenly Father and Cruz had a discussion in the pre-earth life where they talked about two earthly options for this valiant soul. One option was to be born into a traditional family … growing up with love, support … education … and safety from the streets. The other option was the one Cruz choose … growing up on the streets and all the learning that comes with that world … and then being able, on his own terms, follow Jesus Christ and walking into Mormonism … a survivor of that brutal world. During this visit with Heavenly Father, Cruz “saw” that he could rescue more of his brothers and sisters and bring them to the Gospel of Jesus Christ being born into the street life … they both new he could survive this life … and the experience would make him uniquely qualified to succeed at his life mission. Cruz knew the “street path” would cause him much emotional pain, witness the worst of humanity, and then once out of the street life would be judged at times (like his 28 tattoos). His life on the streets would delay some things that are made available to kids who don’t grow up on the streets … one of those is education … Cruz told me how hard it was to change schools all the time and how he craved education … Cruz did earn his high school diploma and in August of 2016 bravely started his college education.
I look forward to see all that Cruz will accomplish in his life … it will be hard at times … but Cruz knows how to overcome the hard times and move forward. Armed with this unique foundation from what he learned on the streets … how he grew and survived that experience … and now with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Priesthood he holds … I will love seeing all the unique things Cruz is able to accomplish and how he will be able to rescue so many … many of which only Cruz will be able to connect with and help create a vision for them as he teaches them about Christ. He will do this with his own family and many others. Is it possible that Cruz will be rescuing some of his dear friends from the pre-earth life?
On September 3, 2016, I attended the baptism of Michael Baca in our YSA Ward. Mike is a great man … one of God’s elect and heard his voice and accepted the invitation to be baptized. Guess who Mike asked to baptism him? Well … no surprise to me … he asked Cruz to perform this ordinance. I soon realized that this Saturday, one year ago, was that Cruz was baptized. I have to think angels on the other side of the veil were celebrating the first year of Cruz in the church, all that he has accomplished, and the decision of Mike Baca to follow Christ with his own baptism.
On September 17, 2016, Cruz received his Endowment in the Salt Lake Temple. We had more people from our Ward at that Temple session that any “official” ward temple activity. I think that tells you something about Cruz … how many people love this good man and all he has already done for so many others. Cruz was so prepared for these ordinances … it was a “coming home” for him … and, because of the power of the covenants he made, a “complete opening of the door” to Cruz’s future mortal mission.
I share this story of Cruz to pay tribute to him … one of the best men I know … privileged to be his friend … and pay tribute to all who have helped Cruz … but to also share my testimony that this is His work and it is true … Heavenly Father is carefully guiding our lives … knows us each individually, loves us, and has a plan for us. Maybe we can all use Cruz’s story of faith and action to help create vision … that God has a plan … and that each of us has great potential as a Son or Daughter of God.
On behalf of all of us that know you Cruz, we love you brother, we are glad to have you as a friend and we are excited about your future.
So Armando, as you can see, anyone can rise above the difficulties and struggles that life has thrown at them and become a powerful source of inspiration.
I wish you the best in your future endeavors.