Ralph Mendez was a violent gang member (gangbanger) and a drug addict, living on the streets and spending over half of his life in and out of prison.
His home life was very unstable as he "lived in a family where my dad, who was a drunk, beat up my mum. My mum would always call me and I would try and get in between [them] but I was only a small child".
At the age of thirteen, Ralph became a gangbanger who "got into a lot of trouble, dealt drugs and did everything you are not supposed to do".
At 15, Ralph began to take drugs and, when he was 18, he was arrested for assault and possession of firearms. This was the start of a long, slide downhill.
According to Ralph, prison "was my lifestyle [for years]. I could adapt to prison, I could adapt to the thug life, I could adapt to everything".
When he was in prison, though, Ralph learned about God for the first time and gave his life to Him. "But when I got out, the lack of a relationship with Him caused me to go back to drugs and alcohol. Eventually, I ended up back in prison."
However, years later in 2007, when he was 58 and living on the streets, he received a phone call from his son, Thomas. "Dad, I love you," he told him. "I do not want you to die out there."
"This broke me," Ralph admitted tearfully. "It took me a year [to get myself together], but that's what broke me."
Finally, he had had enough. "God, I give up!" he said. "What do You want me to do?"
Ralph called his son, who came and picked him up and took him to a Christian residential organisation for recovering addicts called U-Turn for Christ.
In the beginning, when he first came to the mission, he wanted to make his own little prison click, "but God was like, 'No, you're not, you're going to follow me'. And that's what I did."
Past crimes caught up to Ralph, however, and he was taken to court. He was accompanied by a pastor from the mission who told him, "God knows your heart, Ralph, do not worry about it."
"All the charges were dropped," Ralph said. "I got down on my knees and started crying. I told the Lord, 'You know what? From this day on, I will serve You'."
He said that U-Turn had done a lot for him in his fight against drugs. "If it wasn't [for them], I would not be in this place right now. I had five brothers and one sister. They're all dead from using drugs. They said I would be the first one to die, but you know what? I made a different choice."
Ralph became an ordained pastor and, for the next nine years, he shared the love of Jesus wherever he went, telling other addicts and gangbangers of the hope they could find in Christ.
"I tell these guys that when you go to prison, you lose it, it's a waste of your life," he said. "Did I want to become a gangbanger? No, but I made that choice. No one wants to become nothing, but I made the choice to gangbang because [the gang] were my family, they were the ones I loved. I found out the hard way that those people did not love me back, they just used me.
"Some say that they are a soldier for Satan, but I say, no, you are not a soldier, you are a puppet. You are a soldier for Christ. And I promised Christ that I would always be a soldier and that I would always give encouragement to the guys."
Ralph, who was diagnosed with liver cancer and diabetes as a result of his previous drug use, "suffered from the consequences of his sin".
"But I am not going to put my focus on that!" he exclaimed. "I am going to put my focus on the Creator and not on the created. A lot of guys put their focus on the created instead of what God can do for them. Either way, they know where they're going and I know where I'm going."
In September 2017, Ralph, at the age of 68, died and went home to heaven to be with his Lord.•