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By Nelson Vargas


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Jan/Feb Print Cover

Jan/Feb Print Cover Credit: Jim Whitmer Photography
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Tina Turner posed the question in one of her hits from the ’80s: “What’s love got to do with it?” My answer? Everything.

I am the second of seven children, six males and one female. My oldest brother and I were born in the Bronx, New York. After a short stint in my parents’ native country of Puerto Rico, however, our family in 1963 arrived in Chicago.

We had traded an extremely poor community for an extremely violent one in the Humboldt Park area, so we were not allowed to go outdoors. You can imagine the chaos of all of us kids playing in a two-bedroom apartment. Our father was always angry when he came home from work. As children we didn’t understand the weight of the pressure he faced trying to feed and clothe all of us. He took out his anger and frustrations on us. It seemed like he beat us every day. I was his favorite target because I could never keep my mouth shut. I would say things like “You are no good; you are a bad father.” He’d get mad, beat me, and tell me I was a mistake; I wasn’t supposed to be born. (I was born premature at five months.)

A rare photo of Nelson with his son, Nelson, Jr., who was murdered.

A rare photo of Nelson with his son, Nelson, Jr., who was murdered.

I thank the Lord that now I know better. The Psalmist says, “For You created my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13-14). God never makes mistakes.

My father publically humiliated us as well. One time he made my older brother and me kneel down naked on rice at a family party. He never told any of us he loved us or gave us hugs. I had no physical or emotional connection with him. That being said, I loved my father and always looked for his approval or for some kind of affection. I longed to hear “I love you” or “good job,” but those words never came.

In time my father’s demons became my demons. I was always angry, frustrated with life, fighting in school, drinking at a young age, and getting high. One day when I was around thirteen, I was ironing my clothes when my father started to hit me. Instead I hit him – with the iron. He threw me out of the house. With nowhere to go, I slept in hallways and abandoned cars until my mother rented me a room above a bar two blocks from our house. When my father left for work, I would go home, shower, and eat. Mom would also pack me some food to go. I love my mom so much.

Nelson Jr.

By the time I was sixteen I had joined a gang and my girlfriend was pregnant. I was seventeen when Nelson Jr. was born. I loved that boy the only way I knew. Not wanting to be like my father, I told my son “I love you” about a billion times and kissed him every chance I got – when I was around. But I was constantly in and out of jail and on the streets. Eventually Nelson’s mother tired of my lifestyle and we separated. Not long after that I went back to jail, sentenced to seven years at the Stateville Correctional Center for armed violence. That is another story.

I remember the day I got out of Stateville like it was yesterday. My seven years had gotten cut to four for good behavior. Nelson’s mother had married. I didn’t know where they had moved, but I had people looking for my son. I learned he hung out at a boys’ club community center, so I went there first thing. I was standing in front of the club when I first spotted my son walking toward me. He had gotten bigger and looked just like I did at that age. He was so handsome with his shiny, thick, black hair. He tried to walk around me, but I moved over to block his way. I will never forget the look on his face when he looked up and our eyes met. I asked him if he remembered me.

He studied me with his big, black, beautiful eyes and
said, “No.”

I said, “Do you remember someone who used to bring you toys all the time?”

He shouted, “You are my father!” and jumped into my arms. I kissed him over and over again and again. I wish I could go back in time to that very moment. Nelson, I’m so sorry. I miss you so much.

A photo of Nelson during his turbulent teen years.

A photo of Nelson during his turbulent teen years.

Time waits for no one. My son grew up. I stopped gang banging and started dealing drugs. I told my son that we were going to run Chicago. I thought I was doing the right thing by my son by providing for him. I put him in charge of the east side of Humboldt Park while I was in charge of the west side. It hurts me to say I had my son dealing drugs for me.

We had a few drug houses, the money was rolling in, and everything was good. Or so I thought. The Bible says, “Do not be deceived…a man sows what he reaps” (Galatians 6:7). Eventually I started using my own product and hell came down on me. I was using so many drugs that I got very sick. My heart was swollen three times its normal size. My liver was damaged from drinking a fifth of Jack Daniels every night for three years just to go to sleep. My lungs were ravaged from 25 years of smoking.

But God had a plan for me (and He’s got one for you too). “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:11).

Nelson’s story makes an impact on men in tough places.

The Holy Spirit set me up using my girlfriend, Yvonne, a backslider (who is now my wife), and her mother. Yvonne brought me to church where the fire of God came over me. In just one moment His Holy presence healed me from all my sins. He healed my swollen heart. He healed my liver. He healed my lungs. “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new”
(2 Corinthians 5:17, NKJV).

I called Nelson and told him that I had gotten saved and Jesus Christ was in my heart. I said He had healed me and delivered me from every sickness and every disease (Psalm 103: 3-5). Nelson told me I was just going through a bad trip from all the drugs I was doing. I told him no, that Jesus was real and that he needed to come to Jesus himself. Instead he looked at me and said, “Dad, I will hold down the drug business until you come back.”

I told him I wasn’t coming back. For the first time I saw how bad a father I had been. I told my son about Jesus every chance I got. I told him if anything happened, the Bible declares that “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13, NKJV). Whoever!

Unimaginable Grief

For the next three months our pastor, Osvaldo Mercado, picked me up every morning for prayer. He would tell me we were going to have a prayer meeting, but when we got to the church nobody would be there except the pastor and me. Now I realize God was preparing me for what lay ahead.

These men have learned to pray for each other.

These men have learned to pray for each other.

One morning Pastor Mercado came to pick me up for prayer about 5:00 a.m. as usual, but when we got to the church he said he had forgotten the church keys. We had to go back to his house to get them. I didn’t know my pastor actually lived in the very middle of the gangs I had fought my entire life. I thought he was setting me up to have me killed. (Remember, I had been saved for only three months.) I laugh about it now, but I really thought I was going to die. When we arrived at Pastor Mercado’s house he parked the car and told me to stay in it, that he would be right back. You can imagine what was going through my mind. When he left, I scrunched down in the seat of the car as best I could, not knowing what to expect. And then I heard shots being fired, but they were not fired at me.

When Pastor Mercado returned, I told him about the shots. He got in the car and we started to drive, but as we turned the corner we saw a young man lying on the ground, blood coming out of his mouth. Pastor Mercado stopped the car and we got out. We explained the plan of salvation to the young man (Pastor spoke in Spanish and I spoke in English). We asked him to blink his eyes if he had received Jesus Christ as his Savior and he did. Then he died.

The young man’s mother ran up screaming, “My boy! My son! I have been praying for him all night.”

Pastor Mercado assured her that when she gets to heaven, her son will be waiting for her because he received Jesus Christ as his personal Savior. She started praising God right there, and at that moment I heard a voice say to me, “I am faithful. I am faithful.” Psalm 33:4 assures us, “The word of the Lord is right and true; He is faithful in all He does.”

A week later Nelson came to my house to ask me if he could have the equipment to weigh and cut the drugs. I got angry. I told him to leave my house if he couldn’t respect that I was now a man of God. I wasn’t going to give him anything that had to do with drugs. Those would be the last words I spoke to my son.

He got mad and left. I don’t think he was mad because I didn’t give him the stuff; I think he got mad because I yelled at him. I must have yelled at him maybe three times in his whole life.

Nelson and Yvonne, his wife.

Nelson and Yvonne, his wife.

That night we had services at the church. My wife had decided to stay home. I was worshiping the Lord when I heard the door to the church open. I looked back to see Yvonne walking toward me, tears streaming down her cheeks. Everything moved in slow motion as I went to her. Lips quivering, she whispered in my ear that someone had killed Nelson.

It seemed as if my heart stopped. I turned and looked at the cross and felt the life drain from me. I yelled out with everything I had in me, “Jesus!”

It was the longest night of our lives. God blessed me with a good wife, who prays over me every night. Pastor Mercado and the rest of the church stayed with us all night praying over us. Of course our Lord was with us. One of the greatest promises in the Bible is “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Joshua 1:5).

We were overwhelmed by the number of people who came to pay their respects at Nelson’s funeral – family, friends, even teachers from the night school Nelson attended. Their outpouring of love left me in awe. My son’s death spoke to me of the real person Nelson was, the person I never took the time to really get to know while he was alive.

Facing the Killer

I tried to block Nelson’s killer from my mind. I thought more about Nelson’s life, how he was always smiling, always joking around, so polite and respectful. If he had not looked so much like me, I would have had to question if he was really my son because we were total opposites. I never smile.

I didn’t even know his killer’s name until about twelve years ago when someone in jail called me and said they knew where my son’s killer was and had gained his trust. All I had to do was give the word and the killer, Carlos, would be dead. I said “No, he is in God’s hands.” I started praying for Carlos – for God to save him and use him. At that time I really forgave Carlos for killing my son. Romans 12:17 tells us, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.”

Twenty-two years passed with me busy doing God’s work. Then the Lord put in my heart to visit a friend, Ronnie. He had been my leader in the streets when I was in the gang. Now he was locked up in the penitentiary, incarcerated longer than my son had been dead. Charged with killing a police officer, Ronnie was serving a 200 to 400-year sentence. (I thank God he is now saved and on fire for God.) I told Ronnie I was interested in coming to the prison to minister. He told me about a ministry for prisoners called Koinonia House, led by Pastor Manny Mill. I met Manny at his church and expressed my desire for ministering in the prison. He invited me to come back the following week and give my testimony, so I did.

A couple of days later Pastor Nephtali Matta, Koinonia’s ministry coordinator, called and asked to talk to me in person, so we set up a meeting at my house. As we were eating dinner, Nephtali asked me how I felt about my son’s killer. I told him I had put him in my Father’s hands. I had forgiven him and was praying that God would save him and use him.

There was silence as Nephtali considered his next words. Finally he said, “I think God heard your prayers because Carlos was saved about ten years ago through our ministry.” Having served twenty years in prison, Carlos had been released the previous year and was an active member of Koinonia.

Nephtali added, “By the way, he was there when you gave your testimony. He wanted to ask you for forgiveness but felt too ashamed to approach you. He asked to meet with you and your family.”

I started crying. It’s one thing to forgive someone you think you will never meet. It’s another to forgive face to face a person who took your son’s life, a person who took part of your heart. I was undergoing a flood of emotions when suddenly I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit fill the room. The first thing that I heard the Holy Spirit say was “Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and truth” (1 John 3:18).

We set the meeting for the following week. Nephtali and I agreed in prayer that God would be glorified every step of the way. After I told my family what the meeting with the pastor was about, we cried and prayed together. It was a wild week for all of us, but my heart was made up. I was going to trust God no matter what.

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The day of the meeting finally arrived. It seemed to take forever to walk into Midwest Bible Church in Chicago. Pastor Marco David, a former police officer, met us at the entrance and led us inside the building. His brother, a police officer, was also there. They wanted to make sure everyone was ok before we actually met Carlos. After asking me some questions, they led us to an office up some stairs and into a hallway.

It felt like I had butterflies in my stomach. I think my wife felt the same way because she squeezed my hand. As we entered the office, I expected to see a rough, tired-looking man. Instead I saw a scared, nervous, humble, God-fearing man. When our eyes met, time seemed to stand still. We just stood looking at each other; it was a divine moment. My wife broke the ice by going to Carlos and hugging him. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he said, “Forgive me. Please forgive me. I’m so sorry.”

Through her own tears, Yvonne said, “I forgive you.”

When Yvonne let go of Carlos, my son Joshua walked up to him and hugged him. They cried as Carlos asked Joshua for forgiveness.

When I heard my son say, “I forgive you, bro, I forgive you,” I started crying.

Then Carlos stood looking at me. “Can I get a hug?” he asked.

I felt frozen, tears streaming down my face. I heard a small voice say, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15).

I walked over to Carlos and hugged him as if he were my son. We cried so hard. He asked me to forgive him and said that he was so sorry. I was able to look him in the eyes and say, “I forgive you.”

What does love have to do with it? Everything! Because God is Love (1 John 4:7).

MSG-Vargas-author-webNelson Vargas, with his wife, Yvonne, is pastor of Silohe Evangelical Church, an Open Bible church in Chicago, Illinois. He has shared his testimony at numerous churches and other venues. You may contact him at 773.671.2954.

About The Author

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