Four years ago Sam Irizarry was “forced to make the right choice” after years of getting things wrong. It made him a new man.
Irizarry, now 42, grew up in the Bronx, New York City. “Until I was 38 my main source of income was narcotics,” Sam says without flinching. After two decades of dealing drugs, he was finally caught and arrested. He was assigned three years’ worth of monthly meetings with a probation officer. On the way to one of those meetings, “as I was walking to the subway, I was touched,” Sam says. It was the Spirit’s touch, the touch that saved him body and soul.
As an adolescent Sam had seen his father beat his mother. “I prayed for it to stop, but it didn’t,” he says. “That’s when I decided that there was no God. That was the beginning of my walking into the darkness. I was 14.” At 18 he was arrested for the first time as an accomplice to a robber. “I’m a firm believer that the devil is constantly picking on you to do bad stuff. You have the choice to turn around, but you don’t.”
But when the Hound of Heaven grabbed him that day in the subway, he had to respond. An unexpected refrain lodged itself in his mind: “You need to go to church.” When he called to tell his wife, Juliet, she was thrilled. With their five children, they began attending Trinity Christian Reformed Church in St. Louis, Mo.
Trinity CRC entered the story because the Irizarrys (including Juliet’s mother) had moved to Missouri a year earlier when Juliet’s employer transferred her there. During that time Sam had continued to make monthly trips to New York for his probation meetings.
After God touched him, Sam knew he had to get a legitimate job and that he had to quit smoking dope. He also realized he had to confess his long-distance commuting to his probation officer and accept the consequences. Leaving New York without permission was a violation of his probation terms. There too, God stepped in. New York agreed to transfer his case to St. Louis.
It’s been a year since Sam’s probation ended. “I’ve worked three years straight without gettin’ fired,” he says. “The credit is God’s.” He enjoys his job in housekeeping at the nearby YMCA. In January he was promoted to a supervisory position.
The Irizarrys felt “absolutely welcome” by Trinity CRC’s small, loving congregation. Sam elaborates: “It’s family oriented. Everyone’s close. I like the format, the way it’s run. . . . I want to stick to the Bible, and they do that. Gil (Kamps) is a great pastor.” What Sam doesn’t want in worship is “a show,” and at Trinity worship is low-key. He adds, “I didn’t pick my church. The Lord picked it for me. ”
When the Irizarrys lost their apartment in 2005 the future looked dark. But Trinity bought a house (with some help from the CRC Loan Fund) that members (including Sam and his family) repaired, and the Irizarrys moved in with the church as their landlord. Gil Kamps says that in two years, when the Irizarrys are in better shape financially, Trinity will sell them the house for what the church paid for it. For the first time in their lives Sam and Juliet will be homeowners.
They are already “at home” at Trinity. Sam is a member of two church committees: one addresses community needs, the other maintains the church facilities. But he prays that someday he’ll be nominated as a deacon. “I never get tired of telling people, ‘If your life is tough, give it to the Lord.’ I think helping people is a calling.”
Even if Sam isn’t elected deacon, he’s keen to help local prison inmates. “Without the Lord I wouldn’t be where I am now. It’s not easy, but it’s the right road. The Lord has blessed us with forgiveness, and I’m forgiven. I have nothing to hide.” Sam laughs. “I’ve drunk with the worst, now I’m walkin’ with the Best!”