Freedom behind bars

By Cheri Cauthon*



Alex Velazquez Jr. had to go to prison to be set free.


Everyone who enters and exits goes through "the room." For some, the room means life behind bars; for others, freedom. Alex Velazquez Jr. walked into prison — and unimaginable freedom.

The moment Velazquez stepped into Receiving and Discharging, he was conscious of other inmates’ eyes following him as he was processed. One man offered him shampoo and slippers. Warned by his lawyer not to take handouts, Velazquez refused. The man insisted, so Velazquez sized up this possible opponent. He reluctantly took the gifts.

The inmate asked Velazquez to meet him after chow to walk the prison track. He knew the track posed greater risk of being jumped by inmate gangs, but he wanted to face his fear. He met the inmate and for 15 minutes had a normal conversation. Then Velazquez’s new friend stopped and faced him.

Outside the room

Growing up in New York City, Velazquez was one of five children raised by a single mother. She worked three jobs and continually supported her family in prayer. At 16, Velazquez started smoking pot. Because he kept a job, he believed he wasn’t addicted. Marijuana weekends turned into cocaine weekends. For two years, Velazquez thought he was in control.

As his addiction worsened, drugs took his paycheck. Selling cocaine was the quick answer to his money problems. Within five years, Velazquez had gone from a teen experimenting with pot to dealing. He established himself as a New York City kingpin — most weeks he made more than $30,000. The money, cars, jewelry and clothes were abundant.

"I didn’t want to be the person I was," Velazquez says. "I had everything on the outside, yet I was empty." Velazquez called out to God. The money and drugs continued to flow, but God heard Velazquez’s cry.

The authorities were tapping his phones, staking out his home, doing undercover work. In 1987, federal agents broke down Velazquez’s door. On August 1, 1989, he was sentenced to four and a half years in a medium-security federal prison.

An open door

"Alex, I’m a Christian. Would you come to a fellowship service tonight?" the inmate from the room said. Velazquez no longer feared being jumped or set up. He knew God had heard his cry. He attended chapel later that evening and immediately felt the presence of God. He ran to the altar. "I was weeping," Velazquez says. "I knew I wanted to come home to my Father."

From the first day, prison was the scene for God’s plan. Spirit-filled prison chaplains Mike Reighard and Manuel Cordero discipled Velazquez for more than two years. God restored his marriage. He learned to read and received his GED.

Released on parole one year early, Velazquez went in a new direction. God provided for him and his wife, Amelia, to attend Valley Forge Christian College in Phoenixville, Pa. After both graduated, they planted Oasis Tabernacle (Assemblies of God) in Philadelphia, six blocks from where he was released from prison.

In little more than a year, the church has grown to almost 100 children and adults and completed a building project. The church logo proclaims: "A place of refuge for hurting people."

Prison ministry will always be a priority for Velazquez and his congregation. Some members hold monthly services at Delaware County Prison, Gratesford Maximum Prison and New Life Youth Facility. "Prison ministry is important to me, because prison is what God used to break me," Velazquez says. "Inmates are people who have made mistakes and are in need of the Savior. If we show them the love of Jesus Christ, we will break down walls." Velazquez now counsels families who are back together after one of their members was released from prison.



*Cheri Cauthon is an Assemblies of God missionary associate in Belgium.