I can’t count the times I’ve told God I was done. I’m a Latina, born into a low socioeconomic community in Dinuba, Calif., into a cycle of brokenness. The pain and loss I’ve experienced in my life has at times caused me to want to give up.
But each time I thought I’d reached the end of my rope, God showed me he’s not done with me. God has been faithful, and I’ve learned to never give up.
My grandparents migrated from Mexico to the U.S., and my family history includes abuse, gangs, violence and drugs. Even though I saw so much brokenness around me, I knew I was different. My family only went to church when my parents had issues—they later divorced—but I somehow knew God was there.
When I was 11, I gave my life to Christ at a revival. At my baptism, I came out of the water and felt the tangible presence of God’s Spirit. I think God knew I needed proof of his presence because the following years were extremely tough as my health declined.
I started losing my hair and coughing up blood. Inflammation caused my red blood cells to burst and come to the surface. I developed a tumor above my eye, and it became difficult to walk, meaning I had to be bathed and spoon-fed. I spent countless days in the hospital, but doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong.
When I was 16, an angel appeared to me in a dream. I was so tired of being in pain that I happily thought I had reached the end of my life. But the angel said, “It is not time to go yet. God still has so much more for you.” I woke up sobbing. The next day, doctors diagnosed me with a rare autoimmune disease.
Because I was allergic to the medication used to put the disease in remission, doctors gave me a steroid and low dose of chemotherapy, but nothing seemed to get my body to cooperate. I wasn’t always bedridden, and on my good days, I coped with drugs and partying. In my family, I was not taught how to process our grief; we drank our pain away.
By the time I was 23, and without much family support, I was done. So, after a week of partying, I took a bottle of pain pills to end my life. I shouldn’t have woken up the next morning, but I did. I lay there paralyzed, not knowing if I was alive or dead. God echoed the angel’s words: “It is not time for you to go. I still have so much more for you.”
From there I began to correct my course. God got in the mud with me and met me where I was. It didn’t matter that I was broken and on drugs. He left the 99 for the one. His love, grace and patience won me over.
I can’t say my life changed overnight—I had to work to break a lot of generational cycles—but I accepted God’s invitation to do life together.
The real defining moment came when I had a baby. Doctors had told me I wouldn’t be able to have children, but hearing I couldn’t have something made me want it even more. I prayed for a miracle baby, and God gave me a daughter. Because I didn’t want her to experience the brokenness I had growing up, I started going to church.
It was just my daughter and I when I met and married my husband, Leo, who was also divorced. My health had improved by this point, but when we wanted to grow our family, I couldn’t get pregnant. Finally, through fertility treatments, I got pregnant with identical twins. After I got pregnant, the disease went into remission. But I lost one of the babies. The pain and circumstances surrounding the event tormented me. I remember looking at my belly and promising that when I gave birth, I was going to physically harm the person I believed caused the loss.
I carried both babies to term. Every week, my heart broke as I faced the fact that I would only bring one baby home alive. After a traumatic birth, anger and resentment grew stronger in me. Again, I was done, but I knew I couldn’t break generational cycles if I was in jail.
I told God I couldn’t carry the anger any longer, and then I heard Christian rapper Bryann Trejo share his testimony of forgiveness after his twin brother was fatally shot. Because he decided to forgive, I saw that I could do the same thing. From that moment on, I’ve given God my all.
When Leo and I heard that Bryann was coming to Bakersfield, we organized an outreach event focused on reaching the streets—the gang members, drug addicts, homeless, prostitutes—because that’s where we came from. Hundreds attended, and people gave their lives to Christ, laying their guns and drugs down on the altar.
I discovered that every time I served, God gave me peace and healing. I started teaching a life skills class at a homeless shelter, and Leo began an apprentice program teaching young men to cut hair in order to provide an alternative to selling drugs or working in the fields. Little by little, outreach has turned into the way Leo and I live our lives.
We chose to surrender and not give up. God has been working with us, and now we are working together to bring people to him. I have joy and urgency to reach the lost right here in our community. If God can bring redemption, restoration and healing to Leo and me, he can do it for anybody.
I am the fruit of Jesus going out of his way to meet the woman at the well. Like for her, it just took one encounter with Jesus to change my whole life. I firmly believe that if he did it for me, he can do it for others, and I want God to use me as a vessel to reach the lost. It is about meeting people where they are and loving them, getting in the mud and walking them through it. That is where true transformation takes place. I get to plant seeds that I know will grow because his Word never returns void.
God’s not done with me yet. I’m like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon. I feel like I’ve gotten a second act. I’m in alignment with God and am finally walking into my destiny. Every day I choose to surrender and pick up my cross, and I want to encourage others to do the same.
Cece Olea is community strategies director at New Life Community in Dinuba, Calif. A Latina and first-generation college graduate, she is passionate about reaching the lost and being the hands and feet of Jesus. Olea is pursuing master’s degrees in Marriage and Family Therapy and Ministry Leadership and Culture at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. She and her husband, Leo, have three daughters and one son. As told to Janae Rempel.
This article has been posted by Christian Leader staff. The Christian Leader is the magazine of U.S. Mennonite Brethren.