Hope for the Forgotten

Ydania Peralta stood among 50 inmates at the Homestead Correctional Institute, their eyes glued to her as she spoke to them. The topic: Jesus’ forgiveness and grace.

Along the front sat Monica, an inmate that had been struggling with the guilt and shame that abuse had brought over her. As Ydania, the Prison Ministry Director at Christ Fellowship, prayed over the group of women that afternoon, Monica raised her hands in the air and let out a cry of relief.

“I’m free! I’m finally free!” she yelled. And as she cried, the inmates around her rose up, placed their hands on Monica, and prayed.

Ydania watched the inmates in awe.

This mother of three never foresaw herself leading Bible studies in a prison. Had you asked her as a child what she wanted to be, Ydania would’ve replied with “police officer.” Instead, she and her husband, Eddie, were married when she was 17 years old, had their first child at 20, and got divorced by 26. Eddie had decided to accept Christ, but Ydania wanted nothing to do with it.

During the separation, Ydania tried to lose herself in anything she could grab a hold of. She became a workaholic, leaving her mother to take care of her daughter, and began seeing a man who was very “controlling.”

Ydania thought she had command over her life, but in reality, she was slowly sinking into depression. It wasn’t long before she was anorexic, weighing only 98 pounds. In a point of despair, Ydania attempted to take her life.

“I felt very lonely,” she said. “I think the reason why I did it was because I was done. I was drained with life.”

Ydania awoke to find herself in a hospital with the possibility of losing her daughter.

Throughout the two years of their separation, Eddie had been consistent about inviting Ydania to church with him, but she had always been quick to decline. As she sat in the hospital bed, processing the reality of her life and what she had done, Ydania decided she wanted a better life for herself and her family. She needed help. She needed a savior.

“I called my husband and I told him I couldn’t do this anymore, and he invited me to church,” Ydania said. “I went and that’s when I accepted Christ. It was one of those moments where your life does change when you have Christ in your heart, because you start to see things through Jesus’ eyes.”

Christ slowly began to heal Ydania’s heart and restore her family. She and Eddie were soon remarried and had two more children.  

ydania

With her new life now founded in Christ, Ydania wanted to pursue the things that had greater meaning and purpose. When the opportunity arose to volunteer for a bonding event, activities planned intentionally for children visiting their incarcerated parents, she didn’t hesitate.

Volunteers would adopt a family and go with them to the prison for the visitation. They would pray over them and answer any questions the family had. The parent and child would get one hug in the beginning and one hug at the end of the visit. Afterward, the volunteer would take the child and family to do an activity, such as bowling, so the last image in the child’s mind was not leaving their parent behind in prison.

“I remember the first time I went. I stood in a corner and cried because I’m able to go home and hug my kids, and they can only hug them at the beginning and at the end [of the visit],” Ydania said. “They don’t know when they are going to see each other again. I went home thinking I wanted to do more with the inmates, not just bonding events.”

Ydania was led to join Prison Fellowship, a ministry that equips local churches and trained volunteers to spread the Gospel and nurture disciples behind prison walls. Ydania had never led a Bible study before, so she went for the first time with two women and observed as they taught the small group of inmates. Every two weeks, the three women gathered to lead Bible study in the prison. At the time of Ydania’s fourth visit, she received an email that would push her outside of her comfort zone and inevitably change her life; the two small group leaders were no longer leading the group, they had not informed the inmates of the change, and it was all on Ydania.

“I cried,” she said. “I called Prison Fellowship and I told them I couldn’t go by myself, and the field director told me I had to. So I cried and prayed and showed up by myself.

“When I walked through the door, there were only three inmates there. I told them what happened and they’re like, ‘Oh, don’t worry. We’re here to help you.’ We opened in prayer and that began this prison ministry.”

Over the last five years, that small group has grown to more than 50 women, including the initial three inmates Ydania began with. Eleven core volunteers help facilitate the group at the Homestead Correctional Institute for Women, and have helped expand the ministry to four other prisons including the Dade Correctional Institute for Men, South Florida Reception Center, Everglades Correctional Institute for Men, and the Federal Detention Center for Men & Women.

“There’s no reason to fear going into a prison,” Ydania said. “You need to understand that God is in control. The Lord met us where we’re at. In the same way, the inmates cannot come to us, so we need to meet these people where they are at. They are desperate to learn and know more about God.”

Last month, the Prison Ministry was able to partner with the Homestead Correctional Institute to provide a program promoting hope and purpose to 25 handpicked inmates. The women, all of which are sentenced to life in prison, packed 200 backpacks of food for hungry children in the Miami Dade County Public School system.

Ydania recalls the smiling faces of the woman as they packed the backpacks and wrote encouraging notes for the children, dwelling on the possibility that they could have been packing a backpack for their own child on the outside.

“I’m there to talk about how much the Lord loves them, what He did for them, and that there is hope,” she said, “whether they stay there for the rest of their life, there is still hope and they can still be a blessing to someone else. To the new inmate that walks in through the door and doesn’t know anything about anything, they’re going to be a blessing to that person.”

For Ydania, the Prison Ministry has been a vehicle the Lord has used to make her bolder, more compassionate, and forgiving.

“My experiences have taught me to speak Christ more and to grab a hold of Him more,” she said. “I can trust Him. He’s given me a reason to serve others and help someone else that really doesn’t have an interest. Whatever they’ve done, they’ve done. The past is the past, and it stays there. Aren’t we new in Christ?”

By Jeannie L. Rodriguez

For more information on the prison ministry and how you can get involved, visit their website.

CF Stories is a collection that displays God at work in the lives of people at Christ Fellowship in Miami, FL. Each of us are a part of a bigger picture that shows God moving in our city, and these stories aim to give a name and a voice to many of the 100,000 they are reaching in our city and around the world. First published on the CF Blog.

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A Promise Fulfilled

Kenan Parker, 15, stepped into the baptismal pool of Iglesia Bautista Zacamil in San Salvador, El Salvador in front of about 200 church members. Kenan, who was born and raised in Miami, FL, stood out among the crowd of tanned skin and dark hair with his distinctly American features, but his words bridged the divide.

“I think of El Salvador as my second home,” he said, as a Salvadorian translator made each of his words accessible to the Spanish-speaking audience. “I waited a year to get baptized here and it was the best decision I’ve ever made because you all are my family.”

The crowd erupted into cheers as Kenan wiped the tears from his eyes.

His story of faith begins when he was just five years old, with two integral characters: his father, Scott Parker, and his grandmother. Kenan first came to faith after a conversation with his dad about Jesus and sin. His curiosity for Jesus that day ended with a prayer, devoting his young life to Christ in the back of his father’s car. Scott, who is a youth pastor at Christ Fellowship, taught Kenan to depend on God in all situations, and show Christ’s love through service to others.

His grandmother taught him selflessness.

“She really impacted me a lot,” Kenan said. “She never felt the need to help herself. Anything she had, she would give to others.”

At the age of 12, Kenan’s grandmother fell ill and was sent to the hospital. The day before she passed away, Kenan made a promise to his grandmother.

“The last words she ever said to me were, ‘I want you to live your life for Christ,’” he said. “I was holding her hand and crying, and I gave her a look as if to say, ‘Yes, of course! Whatever you want!’

“When I walked out of the hospital room, I felt this tingling sensation I had never felt before,” Kenan said. “It impacted me so much. I felt God’s love and compassion after she told me to do that.”

To fulfill his promise to his grandmother, Kenan and his father set off for the first time to San Salvador during their spring break in 2014. As he interacted with students in the local schools, and evangelized in the impoverished neighborhoods, Kenan’s eyes were opened to the reality of the world outside the United States and how fortunate he was to have what he had.

Upon returning from his trip, Kenan decided that he wanted to be baptized in San Salvador where he felt his walk with Christ really began to flourish. A year later, on March 2015,  Kenan stood in front of the congregation and shared his testimony right after being baptized by his father in front of the people that had changed his life.

“When I went under the water, I saw my life flash in front of me; getting saved, my grandma dying, coming to El Salvador, all the key moments,” Kenan said. “Under there, I felt like my old life was dead, and as I came up and saw the church lights, it was like I was alive.

“When I came out of the water, I saw a lot of older ladies smiling at me and I imagined them all as my grandmother,” Kenan said. “All I could do was cry because of the happiness and the weight lifted off my shoulders.”

Kenan Baptism 01

As Kenan looks towards his future, he prays for the opportunity to serve in San Salvador every spring break. The experience has inspired him to pursue a career as a missional physician, where he sees himself taking two months of every year visiting different countries to provide medical care and supplies.

“You can’t really explain a mission trip because they’re different for everyone, but the best way to describe it is life changing,” Kenan said. “When I came back, my view on people and life and everything you can think of changed. I do what I have to do for God, and if I can help one family out of it, then it’s significant.”

By Jeannie Rodriguez

CF Stories is a collection that displays God at work in the lives of people at Christ Fellowship in Miami, FL. Each of us are a part of a bigger picture that shows God moving in our city, and these stories aim to give a name and a voice to many of the 100,000 they are reaching in our city and around the world. First published on the CF Blog.

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The Modern Day Samaritan Woman

She is a beautiful woman, hiding the insecurities that dwell within her behind a gentle smile. She considers herself strong-willed, a lone achiever, able to do anything without anyone’s help. She has three daughters, been married three times, and the man she now lives with is not her husband. No, this is not the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. This is the story of Nydia Soto’s life.

It was May 2014, and the living room couch was Nydia’s spot for three weeks. Influenza B, a type of flu virus that can cause respiratory, fever and stomach symptoms, had commanded her health and the only place she could find any comfort was laying somewhat upright on the couch.  Her body was weak and feeling sore. This was unusual for the mother and pseudo stepmother of a total of five kids. She never got sick. The struggle to find her health led Nydia to reevaluate her life. She had been out of work for years, recently had a falling out with her oldest daughter, and struggled to have healthy relationships her entire life. It all had been comfortable to her until this moment.

“I never truly committed to anything in my life,” Nydia admits. “Everyone thought I would always land on my feet. My life was always going, always an adventure and I didn’t need anybody. They thought I was great but I wasn’t. I felt alone and I didn’t trust anybody.”

Her lack of commitment and trust spilled into her belief of God. Nydia said she had always believed in God, but didn’t want to accept that “Jesus was it.” Her entire life, Nydia would watch as God worked and opened doors in her life every time she prayed to Him. Most recently, it happened in the midst of a very low point in her life. After the third divorce, when Nydia was facing unemployment, foreclosure and single parenting, God showed His grace by leading her to meet Christopher Kaye.  She was certain he was a gift from God since their first meeting was on her birthday after all. He would eventually become her strongest supporter and encourager. Even so, she couldn’t get herself to commit to God.

As she lay on the couch, she thought about her life and where she was going. Was she missing the point? Nydia began to pray.

“I wanted my life to be different,” she said. “I wanted a purpose. I wanted my life to be relevant.”

God wasted no time answering her prayer.

Within the week, Nydia got a call from her oldest daughter, Darin, 17, after months of not speaking to each other. Darin was calling to invite her mother to church.

Nydia-Darin

“I only went because she asked me to go, and to spend time together without it becoming volatile,” Nydia said. “But man, the Lord wanted me there. That was the beginning of my awakening.”

Nydia’s newfound infatuation with God was strong. She continued her weekly visits to Christ Fellowship on Sundays, began attending Reach Beyonds and Small Groups, and constantly reached out to campus pastor Omar Giritli and a co-worker at her new job with questions and phone calls.  With every answer came more curiosity and an eagerness for more, leading her to begin reading the Bible regularly.

Then, on September 21, 2014, Nydia’s heart was stripped away of all its hardening, opened up, and was filled with the Lord.

“I was overwhelmed with emotion, sobbing from submission, release, and comfort,” Nydia said. “I suddenly understood why people used the expression ‘born again.’ It feels exactly like that. Like you can finally breathe, see, taste, feel, and walk intentionally. You can forget who you were, for you suddenly are who you were meant to be.”

Since opening her heart and listening to the Holy Spirit, Nydia had not been so joyful and peaceful in all her years. Obedience and gratitude to God was easy to show through her tithing and service. But when it came to relinquishing her relationship with Christopher to the Lord, Nydia’s faith would be tested.

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well fell on Nydia like a ton of bricks.

“Mom, why is Pastor Rick sub-tweeting you?” Darin said as she gently elbowed her mother on the side. Nydia felt as if God had a spotlight on her during the sermon that Sunday in January. Multiple husbands, five children to raise, the status of her current relationship — the biblical story was a mirror reflecting back her own life events and decisions. The Lord was speaking, and she couldn’t deny it.

Up until that point, Nydia and Christopher didn’t feel the need to get married. They had been dating for five years, and engaged for three. After their engagement, it was an unspoken decision to never complicate the relationship with “marriage.” Nydia knew she and Christopher would never part. She loved him like she had never loved anyone else, but now, it felt like something was lacking. They called each other “Husband” and “Wife,” yet they had only acknowledged themselves on paper as Domestic Partners.

After several weeks of listening to the story of the woman at the well, the couple felt heavy-hearted.   

“I felt so blessed by the Lord that I wanted to do the right thing for Him in all the things I do in my life,” Nydia said. “But here I was, intentionally being disobedient. Yes, we had papers, but we hadn’t stood in front of the Lord properly. We both realized that it was important and necessary to honor our love through the Lord.”

Nydia and Christopher were married just three short weeks later on February 14, before their friends and family, with Pastor Omar officiating.

Nydia_Chris_boys

“The Lord just made everything happen for me,” she said. “The fact that Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well was a big deal for me because that was me then and it is me today. He met me here, at my couch, when I was sick and gave me everything; that was my well.”

Now that they have acknowledged their relationship before the Lord, Nydia and Christopher feel like they can move their family of seven forward in growth and faith in Christ. Nydia is excited to continue falling deeper in love with the Lord and all that He has for her.  

“Even through hardships or challenges, my life has a sense of peace and purpose now,” she said, “for I am loved infinitely.”

By Jeannie Rodriguez

CF Stories is a collection that displays God at work in the lives of people at Christ Fellowship in Miami, FL. Each of us are a part of a bigger picture that shows God moving in our city, and these stories aim to give a name and a voice to many of the 100,000 they are reaching in our city and around the world. First published on the CF Blog.

CF Stories Feature Stories