From Hopelessness to Happiness
AS TOLD BY VICENTE GONZÁLEZ
When neighbors heard that I had shot myself four times but did not die, they began calling me Superman. But a superman I certainly was not. Let me explain why I tried to take my life.
I WAS born in 1951 in Guayaquil, Ecuador. My parents made a home for their nine children in a place by the sea called The Invasions. Poor families had “invaded” the area illegally, building houses with bamboo walls and corrugated metal roofs. Because the homes were constructed on mudflats and in mangrove swamps, they stood on wooden stilts. We had no electricity, we cooked on a charcoal stove, and we walked half a mile each way to fetch drinking water.
To help with the family’s expenses, my siblings began secular work at an early age. When I was 16 years old, having dropped out of school, I found work as a messenger in a factory. My friends and I started drinking and behaving immorally. When my conscience bothered me, I went to confession. “Son, you have made a good confession,” the priest would say before sending me off without giving any spiritual help. So I just continued doing the same things. Eventually, the cycle of sinning and confessing seemed pointless, and I stopped going to church. At about the same time, I became aware of the social injustice around me. The poor majority eked out a living, while the rich minority lived in luxury. Life made no sense. I felt that I had no future or purpose in life.
Then one day I discovered that four of my sisters were reading publications produced by Jehovah’s Witnesses. I too began to read them. One book in particular caught my attention, The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life. In a logical way, it shed light on many Bible topics. ‘This is the truth!’ I remember telling myself. But as I would discover over the next 15 years, living the truth was another matter.
At the age of 22, I began working at a bank. One day a fellow employee showed me how he secretly “borrowed” money from the bank and later repaid the “loan.” I too began extending “loans” to myself, until I had taken so much that I could no longer hide my crime. Despair swept over me, since I felt that I could never repay the money. So I decided to confess and then, as an extreme form of penance, to take my life.
After writing a letter to the bank, I bought a small-caliber pistol, went to an isolated spot on the beach, and shot myself twice in the head and twice in the chest. Although seriously injured, I did not die. A cyclist found me and quickly arranged to get me to a hospital. After recovering, I was tried for theft and sent to prison. When released, I felt ashamed and depressed, as I now had a criminal record. Because I survived four bullet wounds, neighbors began calling me Superman.
An Opportunity to Change
About this time, Paul Sánchez, a missionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses, visited me. The first thing I noticed was his big smile. Paul was such a happy, positive individual that I accepted his invitation to have a personal Bible study. ‘Perhaps he can help me to find happiness and meaning in life,’ I thought.
With Paul’s help, I learned that God has a purpose for humans and that those who love and obey Him will one day live in an earthly paradise. (Psalm 37:29) I also learned that injustice and poverty are not God’s doing but a result of mankind’s rebellion against God. (Deuteronomy 32:4, 5) These truths were like a light in my life. Changing my personality, though, was much harder than studying the Bible.
I got an office job requiring that I handle company funds. Once again I caved in to temptation and began stealing. When I could no longer conceal my theft, I fled to another city in Ecuador for about a year. I tried to leave the country, but without success, so I returned home.
Paul found me again, and we renewed the study. This time I resolved to apply Bible principles in my life and to serve Jehovah. To that end, I revealed my earlier dishonesty to Paul, who was very frank in his counsel. He referred me to Bible verses such as Ephesians 4:28, which says: “Let the stealer steal no more, but rather let him do hard work.” I saw that I needed to own up to the theft and accept the consequences.
While thinking over my situation, I began working privately as an artist. One day a man came to my studio and expressed interest in a painting. However, he was a detective and had a warrant for my arrest. So once again I was off to court and then to prison. Paul visited me, and I promised him, “You will not regret your effort to help me understand the Bible.” We continued to study while I was in prison.
I Proved My Sincerity
When released, I resolved to serve Jehovah with all my heart, and I proved my sincerity over the next two years. In 1988, I was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Eager to make up for the time I had wasted, I commenced full-time service as a pioneer minister, making a special effort to reach members of youth gangs.
One gang often scrawled graffiti on our Kingdom Hall. Because I knew the members and where they lived, I called on them, explained the purpose of the Kingdom Hall, and kindly requested that they respect our property. We had no more graffiti after that.
Later, when we were remodeling the hall and scraping off old paint, a young Witness named Fernando uncovered graffiti that read “The Frog” (La Rana, in Spanish). “That was me!” he exclaimed. As a gang member, Fernando had painted his nickname on the building. Now, he was taking it off!
The first time I saw Fernando, he was high on drugs. His mother had sent him to two rehabilitation centers, but in vain. Hence, she gave up on him, moved away, and left him alone in the house. Fernando sold everything of value—even the doors, windows, and roof of the house—to pay for his drug habit. I approached him on the street one day, gave him a soft drink, and offered him a Bible study. He accepted and, to my delight, responded to the truth. He left the gang, stopped his drug habit, began attending Christian meetings, and before long was baptized.
When Fernando and I preached together from door to door, people would often recognize us and exclaim “The Frog!” or “Superman!” and ask what we were doing. They were amazed to see a former gang member and a former thief visiting them, Bibles in hand.
On one occasion I was witnessing to a man while Fernando was talking to the man’s neighbor. Pointing to Fernando, the man said to me: “See that guy over there? He once put a gun to my head.” I reassured him that Fernando had abandoned his old ways and was now living in harmony with Bible principles. In fact, when Fernando finished talking to the neighbor, I called Fernando over and introduced him. “Young man,” said the householder, “I want to commend you for the changes you have made in your life.”
I cannot recall the number of times that people have made similar comments to Fernando and me. These have opened the way for a fine witness, resulting in a number of Bible studies. Yes, both Fernando and I are honored to be identified as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
A Milestone in My Life
In 2001, when I turned 50 years of age, I was both surprised and thrilled to be invited to attend a class of the Ministerial Training School to be held in Peru. This school gives qualified Witnesses eight weeks of in-depth spiritual instruction to help them in their ministry.
Every aspect of the school was a delight, with one exception—public speaking, which terrified me. Many of the younger students gave excellent talks and seemed full of confidence. But when I got up to deliver my first talk, feelings of inferiority that had troubled me since childhood returned. My knees wobbled, my sweaty hands shook, and my voice trembled. Jehovah, though, supported me by means of his holy spirit and loving brothers. One of the instructors even took a personal interest in me and after class helped me prepare my talks. Above all, he taught me to trust in Jehovah. By the end of the course, for the first time in my life, I actually enjoyed speaking before an audience.
A big test of my confidence came at a convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Guayaquil. Before 25,000 people, I related how I became a Witness. As I spoke, however, I was overcome with emotion at the privilege of encouraging so many people, and my voice began to tremble. Later, one of the convention delegates approached me and said, “Brother González, when you related your experience, there was not a dry eye in the audience.” More than anything else, I had wanted my story to be a source of encouragement to those who may have been struggling to overcome their old ways.
I now serve as an elder and a regular pioneer and have had the joy of helping 16 people come to an accurate knowledge of Bible truth. I am thrilled that my parents and four of my sisters have also dedicated their lives to Jehovah. Mother died faithful to God in 2001. I cannot thank Jehovah enough for allowing me to come to know him, and I know of no better way to show my appreciation than to invite others to draw close to him as well.—James 4:8.
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Fernando, The Frog, a former gang member whom I helped
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Paul Sánchez, the missionary who studied the Bible with me
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Vicente González today