, associate director of Sabbath School and Personal Ministries, General Conference
I was a hippie — lost in the city of New York — but God was looking for me. And He found me.
Here is my story.
I was born out of wedlock. My mother was only 14 years old when she gave birth to my oldest sister. My father was just 15. They were two teenagers without marriage or life skills.
They tried to make a go of it, but it didn’t work. My young father had a roving eye and was soon looking at other women. He and my mother tried to build a home together, but it was over in a couple of years. I have 17 siblings from different mothers, the result of a totally dysfunctional home.
By the time my first birthday rolled around, my parents had split up. We were then living in the Dominican Republic. My father decided to move to New York, and he took me with him.
Because I was his firstborn son, he was proud of me and wanted me to be just like him — an excellent dancer, lover, free spirit, and pleasure seeker. I was on my way to fulfilling his wishes because I, too, wanted to be just like my father. My father took me to places that were forbidden to minors and trained me to be just like him.
Because of my immoral upbringing, statistically I had no chance of making it in life. In fact, I should have been dead a long time ago like many of my friends. The odds of survival were against me. I was lost in New York, participating in all the pleasures of life — but without God, without a future, and without hope. Just another lost soul in the Big Apple.
I had no interest in religion, the Bible, or God. In fact, there wasn’t enough room in my life for God. Although I had everything that a young man could desire in a big city, I felt empty without the guidance and example of a good father or mother. The music, the parties, the friends and women, the drinks, drugs, and dance halls — all were not enough to quench the thirst for something different in my soul.
I started sensing a need for something bigger than me, bigger than the stimulation of the carnal senses. I started to feel a longing for something, but I didn’t know what. I couldn’t describe it. Trapped in a vicious cycle, I just kept repeating the same mistakes of my father, who’d learned them from his father, who’d probably learned them from his father. According to my genealogy, the odds were stacked against me, and my future looked bleak, my destiny hopeless.
But God had not forgotten me. He had a plan for my life. One day, a former drug dealer named Andy invited me to his home in Manhattan. I had visited him before, and we were good friends. But this time I noticed something different. He seemed happier, peaceful, nice. His face had a glow that I’d never seen before. He invited me to dinner with his family — his third wife by now. He served me something that looked like meat, but it was not meat. He gave me cheese that was not cheese, and milk that was not the actual milk I was used to. It was strange. I thought he had gone crazy with all the drugs he’d ingested over the years.
I asked him, “What’s going on?”
He replied: “I’ve been converted. I now belong to Jesus. I don’t do drugs anymore. I read the Bible and go to church.”
When I heard that, I started laughing.
“You mean to tell me that after all these years selling drugs and being a bad boy on the streets of New York, all of a sudden you’re religious?” I said. “You gotta be kidding me!”
Andy smiled and said, “I love Jesus, and I love you.” Then he showed me a book titled The Desire of Ages.
I was curious, so I started reading it. I fell in love with Jesus. I went to church with Andy a couple times, but I was still struggling with drugs. I finally told my friend, “Thank you very much, but church is not for me.”
Two years passed after that first visit to a Seventh-day Adventist church. One night, as I was driving home after leaving the dance floor of a ballroom at 4 a.m., I suddenly heard a voice say, “Read the Bible.” And then the voice said, “Find a church.”
I was startled to say the least! When I was a child growing up in the Dominican Republic, the parish priest, Rafael Fernandez, had given me a Bible with the words inscribed, “So that you will never forget your friend, or God.”
Unfortunately, over the years I’d forgotten my friend, and worse yet, I’d forgotten God. I’d forgotten the gifted Bible, too. For years it had sat hidden away from view gathering dust in a junk drawer.
But God had not forgotten me. Read the Bible? Really? I had never done that in my life!
That voice could not have come at a more appropriate time. I had been feeling sad, tired, and dejected. For some time now I had felt like escaping life, and especially my past. Some events in my life had shaken me up. Two of my friends had died. One had jumped from the 35th floor of a New York skyscraper. The other was stabbed while negotiating a drug deal.
Now the voice persisted, “Read the Bible.” It was not an audible voice. But the impression on my mind and heart was so clear that I hadn’t the slightest doubt it was the voice of God.
I obeyed that voice and in the morning I went out looking for a church. I found several, but wasn’t impressed with any of them. So I drove back home, parked my car, and started walking to my apartment. That’s when a man approached me and said, “Young man, can I give you these magazines?”
I had never seen the man before. He was a total stranger. He gave me two magazines that I immediately recognized as religious. I realized this was no coincidence. I thought: “Now I get it. This is God calling me to be His child!”
It was as if a ray of light had come into my life and suddenly everything became clear. I immediately asked the man four questions:
1. Are you a Christian? He replied, “Yes.”
2. Are you a Seventh-day Adventist? Again his reply was, “Yes.”
3. When is the next time you’re going to church? “Next Wednesday,” came the reply.
4. Can you take me with you? “Of course,” he said.
And that’s how I walked into the Patterson Seventh-day Adventist Church. The year was 1974. I asked the pastor, “What do I need to do to be baptized?” I needed no convincing. God had called me, and I was ready.
The pastor gave me a set of Bible lessons. I took them all and told him I would study them on my own. I did so in record time, and when he tested me on the lessons, I knew all the answers. I was baptized without any formal Bible studies but with a firm understanding and conviction of the truth.
The Bible has a transforming power that few recognize. Throughout the history of Christianity, men and women have recognized that transforming power, not in the Bible itself — it’s only ink and paper — but in its content. It’s God’s Word. Perhaps that’s why Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
Ramón Canals was elected associate director of the General Conference’s Sabbath School and Personal Ministries at the 2015 General Conference Session in San Antonio, Texas. Before that, he served as vice president for Hispanic Ministries and director of the Ministerial Department for North Pacific Union Conference in the United States. He also has worked as an evangelist and coordinator for Hispanic outreach in the Oregon Conference. He holds a master’s in divinity and a doctorate in ministry from Andrews University. This testimony appeared on the website of the Northern Asia-Pacific Division.