August 18, 2018

From Poker Addict to Volunteer in the Amazon

Seventh-day Adventist Joey Barajas was 12 years old when he learned to play poker. In the small agricultural town of Mattawa, Washington, United States, there was little else to do, and poker was a fun way for Joey, his older brothers, and their cousins to pass the hot summer afternoons. 

By the age of 16, Joey knew that he was exceptional. He was regularly winning against the friends and family with whom he played, and he felt drawn to test his skill beyond the small world of Mattawas. 

On his 18th birthday, Joey drove himself to a casino in the Tri-Cities and joined a free poker tournament consisting of nearly 40 middle-aged men and women. He won the whole thing. 

“From that day on, I was in love with gambling,” Joey said. 

That same year, Joey moved with his brother to Seattle and enrolled in a local community college. Though it was a short commute, Joey rarely made it through the gauntlet of casinos lining the highway between home and class: he flunked out his first year.

“Poker was my life,” he said. “I was addicted to it.”

For the next several years, Joey continued to win and lose large sums of money — it was not unusual for him to fluctuate between thousands of dollars within a week. Though he told his parents he was still in school, Joey’s days were given entirely to gambling and his nights to partying. 

Losing it All

Through it all, Joey continued to identify as an Adventist. 

“I still kept the Sabbath,” he said. “But as soon as the sun set, I was back to gambling. I met God at church, and I would leave him at church.”

Joey found that he couldn’t leave his family so easily. At midnight every Friday and Saturday, usually while in the city drinking with friends, he would receive supportive messages from his father. 

“My dad would text me, saying, ‘my son, I love you, I’m praying for you,’” Joey recalled. “I would just put my phone down and go back to the party.”

His older brother proved harder to ignore. During a gambling slump when he was broke and hungry, Joey had to accept money from his brother for groceries. He bought a meal, then spent the rest of the cash in the casino. That was the day he broke his slump and started to rebuild his bankroll. 

Despite the financial appearances of success, his brother was disappointed. 

“My brother rebuked me,” Joey recalled. “He said, ‘Do you really think God wants the money the devil helps you win?’” 

“That triggered something in me,” Joey added. “I told God, ‘I respect your Sabbath, and I give you money when I win. What do you need from me?’”

Joey will never forget the response: “You have given me these things, but you haven’t given me your heart.”

At that time of his prayer, Joey had $15,000 in his bank account. “I told God, ‘if you want me to stop gambling, you have to take it all away.’”

The following week, Joey lost everything. His friends at the casino pitied his bad luck, but Joey knew the truth: God had answered his prayer. 

Going All in for God

Now Joey is 27-year-old and a recent theology graduate from Walla Walla University. When he reflects on his experiences as a gambling addict, he thinks about his eighteenth birthday and the cash victory at the free poker tournament.

“I thought I had nothing to lose, but I lost so much,” he said. “I feel like that’s where Satan got me.”

Now a youth pastor at Riverview Church in Pasco, Washington, Joey is always vigilant against spiritual pitfalls. It is why he decided to join the recent ADRA Connections trip to Brazil.“Even though I’m a youth pastor, I still struggle to connect,” he said. “I got comfortable where I was, and I felt myself drifting away from God. I needed a break to serve and work with my hands.”

ADRA Connections, the new volunteer arm of ADRA International, struck Joey as the perfect opportunity to get out, get off the grid, and reconnect with like-minded volunteers over a common cause. 

During two weeks of construction in the middle of the Amazon, Joey found what he was seeking. 

“Seeing young people get together to build up a community has inspired me to go back and build up my own community,” Joey said of his time building a school complex with 250 college students and adults from all over the world. “Get out of your bubble, disconnect from the world, take the focus off yourself and go serve others,” he added. “When you help others, it helps you. We’re called here to serve.”

Now Joey feels reconnected to his faith.

“When I was gambling, I would go all in with my money,” he said. “Now I’m going all in with my life for Jesus.”

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