I was born and raised in Amsterdam, where my parents were serving the Lord. My father was known as the Nicky Cruz of the Netherlands because he was formerly a drug pusher and a gangster, but God changed his life and he became an evangelist doing crusades.
When I was young, we all moved to Los Angeles, while my dad did a year of mission and training with a view to later setting up a ministry for drug addicts in the Netherlands. That time abroad was difficult for me as I missed my father’s presence in the house: he and my mother were busy all day, helping addicts and gang members. The culture difference was also huge: I used to fight with Latino children a lot. They tried to tease me, but I fought back. I turned from a sweet boy to an aggressive kid. I stole people’s belongings from their pockets in church. By the time we moved back to Amsterdam I was a problem child.
My friends and I spent our time stealing, smoking and hanging on the streets the whole day. I remember robbing a white student – I hated white people back in those days.
I was walking away from my family and the church. I was addicted: to alcohol, marijuana and porn. I did a lot of bad things and I thought there was no hope for my life. Over the years, my friends and I became increasingly restless and violent.
Some addictions are a spiritual thing you need to be set free from. Even at that time, deep in my heart, I wanted to go to church, but the spiritual part really was a battle and I needed a lot of prayer. Thank God for my mother. She prayed a lot for me – every day, every night. I would sneak back into our house and would see her on her knees. She would be screaming out: “Jesus, save my son, because one day he will preach the gospel all over the world.” It touched me when I saw my mother like this, in a lot of pain, but it took a while before change came. Things got worse before they got better.
I was very influenced by Gangsta Rap: 2Pac, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Dr. Dre, Notorious B.I.G. I was searching for satisfaction, but I couldn’t find it. My friend, a teenager like me, always dressed in the best clothes, with great tattoos and gold chains. I said to him: “I want that too – what do I have to do?” He showed me how to sell drugs – ecstasy, cocaine, heroin. So I sold a few grams here and there. Then one day he offered me a big bag of white cocaine.
I was in my house in the bathroom trying to weigh the bag, when my dad opened the door. He was very angry and flushed the drugs down the toilet. I was really afraid; not of the punishment from my dad, but of the drug dealers. Afterwards they were searching for me everywhere and I was constantly hiding.
After a few weeks of lying low, my brother approached me and invited me to the church youth camp – usually I would diss him because I hated the church, I hated Christians. But because I was trying to get away from Amsterdam, I said: “Yes! I love the church; I want to come.” My brother was shocked.
The first three days at camp I was my usual rebellious self: telling the other kids not to go to the Bible study, but to come to my Bible study – smoking! But on the third day they had a gospel evening. There was hip-hop, dance and drama and it had such an impact on my life. I asked one of the dudes in the room at the youth service: “Hey, man, are people on ecstasy pills because they are so happy?” He said no. “Do you drink alcohol?” He said no. “Marijuana?” he said no, adding: “Jesus Christ – the joy of the Lord is our strength.”
Then a preacher gave the message and did an altar call and everybody went to the front, many in tears. I thought: Christians are crazy. First they are laughing and then they are crying.
I surrendered and ran to the altar with marijuana and cigarettes in my pocket
I went to walk out of the room, but somebody pulled me back inside. I was searching for the one who I thought had touched me, but I saw nobody. I know now that it was Jesus. He was pulling me inside and it was a spiritual battle. I was going back and forth, back and forth – I was really struggling. It must have looked crazy.
I surrendered and ran to the altar – 16 years old with marijuana and cigarettes in my pocket, with sin in my life, with fear in my life about those drug dealers, with shame from my parents. And I was kneeling right there at the altar call, and Jesus touched my life. Every time I think about that, I’m always grateful for the Lord. If I had not made that choice in that moment, I would be like some friends of mine now: locked up in prison for murder or dead – killed as a result of drug wars.
Called to preach
That was 22 years ago and now I’m showing young people that Jesus Christ is the one who can change us. It took years to go from that teenager to being a church-planter, and I’m still learning every day.
I have a heart for guys where I come from, who are addicted to alcohol, who are in gangs, who are selling drugs or addicted. The Lord said to me that I needed to start a church to speak for these kinds of people. He called me for inner-city people.
Alongside my church I also preach in prisons. Last year I was invited to go to one of the most dangerous prisons in the Dutch Caribbean: they call it the Alcatraz of Curaçao. Big guys with big muscles and tattoos are in for life, for murders and for armed robbery. I preached the gospel there and they all gave their lives to Jesus Christ. This is how the Lord is working in my life.
Joshua Kotandiny is a pastor and author of Finding Grace in the Gutter. He was talking to Emily Howarth, deputy editor of Premier Youth and Children’s Work