God always desires a deeper relationship with us and is seeking to make us whole; all we must do is surrender our lives to Him.
I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in a part of town called the “War Zone,” and that’s exactly what it was like. Born to alcoholic parents, my mom suffered abuse and mistreatment from many members of her family, including my dad. My parents were 15 and 16 years old when I was born and decided to abandon me when I was two months old.
My paternal grandmother took me in and did the best she could to raise me. We were very poor, and there were many nights I went to bed hungry. I started being abused when I was just five years old. By the age of 10, I had been molested by three different members of my family. I started hanging out with the wrong crowd and took my first hit of crack cocaine when I was 11. I was diagnosed with mental illness and was placed on New Mexico’s Most Wanted list by the age of 16. At 19, I was facing a sentence of 10 years to life in prison.
After being forced to move back in with my father, I lived in horrible fear. He beat me severely at least three or four times per week. I took showers at the beach and got dressed in a nearby restaurant. I slept on the floor between the passenger and driver’s seats of his van. Night after night, I wanted to die. Once my school found out about the abuse and reported it, my father was arrested, and I was placed into the system.
I ended up on the streets, riding the bus all night or sleeping in parks or parking garages. I was stuck in a cycle of pain, abuse, and neglect. I had 14 aliases registered with the FBI. I had no real identity. Addicted to drugs and alcohol, I bounced in and out of jail. I had lived my whole life in fight-or-flight mode, and I was spiraling out of control. Then one day I met Jesus.
Jesus called me to ministry when I was in jail at the age of 19. There were two other girls in the cell with me, and I suggested we read my Bible and pray. I was desperate for Jesus, though I did not know how to find Him. By the dim light coming through a small window in our cell, I read the Bible and started to pray: “God, forgive me of my sins. Please, Lord, help us.” I did not know where the next words came from, but I prayed, “there will be one day when I will no longer sell rocks (crack cocaine), but I will be giving out the rock of salvation.” I didn’t know Jesus personally, but He began a good work in me at that moment.
I finally answered His call 11 years later when I received the life-changing gift of salvation in the midst of yet another dark time in my life. Still in the throes of a drug and alcohol addiction, I had two little girls. I did not want to leave them, because I knew what it was like to be abandoned by a parent, but I also didn’t want to be a bad example for them. I was so tired of the cycle I was in. I felt like the worst of the worst.
One day while at community service, I was asked to fold some flyers for a church event. The flyers advertised a harvest festival at Sandia Church of the Nazarene. I read the flyer repeatedly as I folded and was invited to attend the event. I brought my two little girls and was handed another flyer at the door before leaving. This one was for a Thanksgiving event at the church where they were giving away free turkeys. I went back to the church for that event. Yet again before I left, I was given another flyer for a Christmas event. This church became a steady presence in my life.
One Wednesday night I had been up for three days getting high. The church was the only place I knew to go. I remember sitting at the back of the church and crying. After the service, a woman walked up to me and introduced herself.
She looked me in the eyes and asked, “How can I pray for you?” I didn’t know how to answer, but I asked her not to forget about me.
She took down my information and prayed for me right then and there. I got a call on Friday from the church, a visit on Saturday, and an invitation to come back on Sunday. Then, the women’s group visited me on Tuesday with a bag of homemade cookies. They came around so much, I told my boyfriend I was just going to start going to church!
This was a crisis moment in my life. I was attending many church events, including foodbank nights, church dinners, and special programs, but I was still getting high and committing crimes. I was in and out of jail like never before. I was at a war with myself. Then on March 5, 2005, I took my three-year-old daughter and my 12-year-old babysitter to be dropped off somewhere so I could go get high. I stopped at a store to steal a baby bottle for my child. As I walked back to my car, I saw that it was surrounded by police officers. I fell to my knees in complete agony, crying out, “What am I doing?”
I had parked in a handicap parking spot illegally and had left the children in the car alone with a 12-pack of beer and a bottle of vodka. I was taken to jail again. I cried all night and worried about my girls, wondering why I could not get clean. My boyfriend bonded me out of jail, and I was home the next morning. Broken and out of options, I called the woman who had greeted me at church. She did not know the world I came from, but she was bold in her faith and trusted Jesus to protect her from the evil world I was in.
Two weeks prior, she and a pastor at Sandia church had prayed that God would show them how to pray for the lost who walk through the church doors, how to minister to them afterwards, and how to truly love them. I was one of the lost that she had prayed for.
I asked her to pray with me, and she did. She brought her husband with her. They came into my apartment, and I am certain that the demons fled as they entered in.
I knelt down at my little coffee table and began to sob the moment she put her hands on me.
When I said the sinner’s prayer, I cried as though someone had died. Later on, I found out that the old Jenee had died. I repented of my sins and confessed that Jesus was Lord and master of my life. I stood up and was completely delivered from a 19-year drug addiction. It was a “Road to Damascus” experience. I was a new creation!
I was now going to church because I loved being there, and I was falling in love with Jesus. I was alive! The Lord had delivered me from so much, but I had to learn how to really live. There was one thing I was still holding onto: smoking cigarettes. I thought about how much I had changed and thought surely that was enough for God; but in my heart, I knew the Lord wanted me to freely surrender this habit to Him.
One day I went to a woman’s house to help her prepare it for an event the next day, and I noticed she was smoking cigarettes. I asked her if I could have one, and she said yes. That turned into us going to the bar, which turned into a search for cocaine, which turned into me going on a three-day drug binge.
I just knew that now the church would not love me. I called my friend from church and told her I needed to go report to my probation officer. She offered to take me. I cried as I left my house, hugging my kids and weeping for letting them down again. My probation officer said, “Jenee, I do not send you to jail, you are sending yourself.” I remember being handcuffed and hugging my church friend as I asked her to please look out for my little girls and not to give up on me.
I was taken to jail, but instead of the usual placement, I was sent to the detox pod. I had never felt as uncomfortable in jail as I did this time. I did not fit in. I was no longer a part of this crowd. I was saved, but it was during this time that the Lord sanctified me. You see, God had already done an amazing work in my life—it was His first work of grace that reached me through my broken, helpless state. But I now realized that He required all of me. This time, even the cigarettes were gone!
God wanted me to completely surrender to Him. It was in those last 30 days in jail that I was sanctified wholly. I was reading my Bible and leading Bible studies instead of participating in the unhealthy activities I would normally have been a part of.
God was working outside of the prison walls as well. The women of the church helped my boyfriend take care of our little girls. The women would make him meals and take him to work. The grace and love that the church showed us truly was Christ in the flesh! No matter what we did, they loved us through it.
The transforming power of the Holy Spirit was at work in my life. I got out of jail on September 5, 2005, and a pastor from the church was at the gate waiting for me. She drove me to my little apartment in the War Zone where the Lord kept me for a whole year after my conversion. I had an opportunity to show the world around me that even in that unhealthy environment, I could have victory over sin through the Lord’s saving and redeeming power.
I invited other drug addicts to church instead of joining them on the streets.
Christ was my redeemer, the Holy Spirit was my counselor, and God was my Father. I had come home!
I had earned my GED in prison, but I sensed the Lord telling me to go back to school. I started at the local community college in basic classes but went on to graduate with three associate’s degrees and was asked to be student speaker for my graduating class. I got to speak to 4,000 people in a secular environment about Jesus and the hope that only He gives. From there, I went on to the University of New Mexico and completed two degrees. The school paper wrote an article on my life, and then the local news heard of the story and shared it through local news outlets. It was all about the saving grace of Jesus Christ. This truly is not my story, but His story—I just had to be willing to live it and to tell it.
I am no longer “Jenee from the War Zone.” I may have been “hood-raised,” but I am now “Jesus-saved.” I have been saved for 14 years. I married the father of my children, who is now a faithful man of God. I am a pastor in the Church of the Nazarene and am completing my second year at Nazarene Theological Seminary. I teach and preach holiness all around the world. I have been honored to speak at women’s retreats, youth camps, churches, prisons, and on the streets, all by the grace of God.
God is still in the business of making Christlike disciples in the nations. I know this to be true because I am one.
I am eternally grateful for the Church of the Nazarene and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. To God be the glory!
Jenee Noriega is a pastor, preacher, teacher, and evangelist who is passionate about sharing the love and hope of Jesus.
Holiness Today, May/Jun 2019