Rene Martinez spent the majority of his life in and out of jail, breaking into homes, stealing guns, dealing drugs, and getting into fights.
"I was a ruthless gangbanger – gangbanging is all I ever knew," he confesses. "I nearly died on several occasions, but for some reason I'm still here."
That reason is Jesus.
Today, the 44 year old, better known as "Level" preaches, prays, and baptizes others into the Christian faith as he seeks to save them from the life he once knew all too well. The Miami Dade County native has traveled from Los Angeles to the Bronx, and he's just getting started.
"I lived a very crazy life, I did some horrible things in my life that I know it's only by the grace of God and His mercy that I'm alive and free," Level told Fox News. "I was gang affiliated from the 80's to 2012, I've seen a lot of people die in front of me and I've been through a lot. I was at funerals every other weekend."
From early on, Level was plagued by demons. His mom was part of a religion that sacrificed an animal over him. "It's just demonic. I started seeing demons when I was a kid. They haunted me my whole life."
At one point, he found his mom trying to commit suicide one night, but after she went to the hospital and got better, she accepted Jesus at a church retreat. She stopped drinking alcohol and smoking weed, and she started praying for Rene. He just thought she was crazy.
As a young teenager, Level joined a gang, and on Halloween night 1989 he started what became a notorious gang known as the Latin Syndicate that grew to 300 members.
At 14, he was in a coma and almost died. Two years later he was in jail for attempted murder.
When his daughter was born, Rene says "I knew I had to change my ways but I didn't know how". He started bare-knuckle fighting, instead of robbing drug dealers, as the only legitimate way he knew to provide for his family.
Level became a well-known professional Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter and defeated three-time world champion, Ricardo Mayorga, in Nicaragua.
However, he admits, "the gang life kept dragging me right back in."
Level said in 2013, when he was recording gangster music in his garage, he heard Jesus speak to him, saying: "I spared you for such a time as this. Go and gather the fragments." [Which Level understood as all the broken pieces of his own life and the broken people around him.]
"I saw my whole life flash before my eyes – when a gun was jammed in my face, when a bullet whistled by my ear – I almost died five or six times – and all my friends that died. God set me free for a reason. I turned away from my sins right there."
But it wasn't until he was baptized that everything changed in an instant.
"When I went in the water, this was April 10, 2016, that day shifted my life," Level said. "I ain't never been the same. Something incredible in my life happened that I can't explain. It was Jesus, only Jesus can do it."
And Rene's been doing street ministry ever since. "God just took over. My real mission has just begun. I go from project to project in the 'hood preaching repentance [turning from] and the remission [wiping out] of sins in the mighty name of Jesus Christ."
He had the opportunity to lead one of his friends, Corey, out of gang life in the Latin Syndicate to the Lord.
"I shared Bible verses with him and he got baptized and I started showing him how to live as a Christian. He's passionate for God right now. He grew up in the projects, but now he's in Washington State praising God in the mountains."
Level has made a documentary, The Warrior Level, on his life and ministry. "God really pulled me outta the pit. Watch my story and see how," he encourages others.
"People used to call me the Notorious Level. No, now I'm the Warrior Level for Christ," he added. "I was on the road to Damascus and Jesus showed up – Saul to Paul – that was me." [A reference to the story in the Bible in Acts chapter 9.
Level's in the process of starting a church and looking at other ways to help ex-cons and ex-gangbangers get their lives clean.
"No matter what situation you're going through, no matter how hard you think life is, there's a way out," Level said, "because there are a *lot of people that didn't wake up today, that are dying right now, and you have a chance to come out of the darkness right now and serve the Lord Jesus Christ. If God did this for me, He can do this for anybody."•