Last Man Standing
Alfredo “Freddie” Rios remembers the night a few years ago when he was jolted awake. Sitting upright, he shifted to the edge of the bed. He was strangely wide awake with a question burning in his mind.
“God, is this really you?” he asked, looking up, unable to hold back tears. “Are you the One who did all of this?”
Rios, 57, needed answers for what still seemed utterly incomprehensible:
-How did he avoid a lifetime in prison for the choices he’d made?
-How could he account for the fact that his mind was still clear?
-How was he still alive when so many in his circle didn’t make it?
To understand Rios’ story, you have to go back nearly 50 years, to a single decision that changed the course of his life.
It was the late 1960s when Rios moved with his family to Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. His parents settled into an apartment with Freddie and three of his siblings, just steps away from a Spanish speaking church where they would become regular attenders.
Freddie’s four older brothers moved into their own apartment nearby. It quickly became the hang-out spot for the young men in the area, and brought the vices of the tough west side neighborhood into close view for then-8-year-old Freddie.
“All the drugs, gangs, everything was right there,” Rios says. “Looking out the window I used to see all the crazy things right where we lived.”
The men who gathered became like mentors to Rios, coaching him in the ways of gang life, telling him stories of prison, experimenting with illicit drugs. At nine years old, Rios became one of them - declaring allegiance to the gang that ran his neighborhood and was already a big part of his life. By the time he was a high school sophomore, he was deep in gang life- and all of the brutality and drug use that came with it.
“I was high every day,” he admits. “I would get up in the morning and it was the first thing I used to do. I’d fall asleep, wake up the next day sober, straight mind, then get back into it.”
For the better part of the next decade, Rios says he spent more time on the street than he did at home, eventually becoming one of the top gang leaders - and one of the most feared.
“The gang I was involved in, I would have died for them,” Rios remembers of his mentality at the time. “I would have went to prison for them. I’d kill for them. I did a lot of things out there that I’m not proud of.”
Still, Sunday mornings often found Rios in church with his family, listening to messages from a Bible he read but didn’t understand, hearing about a God he heard about but didn’t know. His sense of identity and greatest pleasure came not from the church but from the streets, where he says he felt “invincible.”
“When I was on the streets, everybody knew me, nothing could stop me,” Rios explains. “It was just the power. Being able to do whatever I wanted to.”
Violence surrounded him, and took the lives of many in his circle, but Rios managed to avoid serious punishment, or even being shot at. Time after time, the really bad stuff seemed to happen right after he’d left. He’d hear about it after the fact, but somehow, he was always spared.
By 1985, at age 24, the years of hard living began to take a toll and Rios found himself at a near breaking point. Desperate and unable to sleep, he walked down the block to the church, and asked to meet with the pastor.
After a brief meeting where Rios says he sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit for the first time, he went into the sanctuary, knelt down at the altar and prayed. By the time Rios returned to his feet, everything had changed.
“It was like everything was gone,” Rios describes. “I felt a big load off of my back.”
He quickly made his way back home, where he methodically flushed his stash of drugs down the toilet, got rid of the number to his dealer, and went for a walk.
“I told the guys I used to run with I’m through, I’m not doing this anymore,” Rios remembers. “I’m hanging up my guns. I’m going to start going to church.”
Rios made good on his word. No more drugs. No more gangbanging. “I even stopped cursing,” he says.
He was baptized and became involved in the church, secured a job with the city of Chicago, and got married. Seven years passed and life for Rios was good. Better than it had ever been.
It wouldn’t stay that way.
Ironically, an illustration he heard in church years earlier, is Rios’ best way of explaining how his life spiraled from ‘better than it had ever been’ to locked in a solitary confinement prison cell, with once-a-week showers as his only reprieve. Rios doesn’t remember a single sermon from his younger years. But this riddle, shared by a Pastor trying to make a point, Rios can still recount with detail.
A guy gets in a boat and starts to row across the lake for a trip that should have taken half an hour. After rowing tirelessly through the night, to his dismay, the boater notices he still hasn’t reached the other side. In fact, he isn’t even moving. How is it possible?
There was a hushed pause in the sanctuary while the Pastor waited for the congregation to make the connection.
Why didn’t the rower make it across the lake?
Rios, still at the height of his gangbanging, was the only one who instantly knew the answer. It was so obvious, he thought.
“He forgot to untie the rope,” Rios remembers blurting out to the guys sitting next to him. The boat was still attached to the dock.
That riddle would haunt Rios and become almost prophetic.
“I think about it now and that’s what I did,” Rios explains. “When I started serving the Lord in 1985, I didn’t cut my ties with my friends in the neighborhood. The rope was still tied there.”
Old friendships and attachments resurfaced. Rios returned to drugs, this time as a dealer. He was determined not to get back into using. Seven years of sobriety, until one day, he slipped.
“From the day I got high, within six months I lost my city job,” Rios says matter of factly. “I lost my apartment. I lost a lot of stuff that I had.”
Within a few years, his marriage was over too. And that was just the beginning.
Referencing a parable from Matthew 12, Rios compares his relapse to a house swept clean, delivered from the evil spirit that had inhabited it, only to see it return, with a vengeance.
“..when it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.”
Rios’ raging drug addiction was worse than ever, driving him to wake in the middle of the night to use. He describes becoming increasingly numb to the violent world he was living in. So much so that when one of his friends was gunned down, his first thought, even as the wails of a grieving mother pierced his ears, was where am I going to get my drugs now?
Rios was arrested multiple times, and served four separate prison terms over the next fifteen years for offenses ranging from drugs and weapons violations, to armed violence. During one prison stint, he spent just over two years in solitary confinement.
“I was in a cell 24 hours a day by myself,” Rios says. “I used to come out once a week for a shower and whenever I came out I was shackled up.”
No phone calls. No radio or television. No contact with family. He witnessed other inmates experience mental breakdowns, requiring medication just to withstand the isolation. Rios passed the time reading books, including the Bible from cover to cover. Twice. It was a religious habit, but the power of the Gospel was still lost on him.
Instead, as his final release date approached, an unfazed Rios set his mind toward reviving his lucrative drug business.
“I remember I used to say when I get out, I gotta get new customers, a new connect, get some drugs. I’ve got to start selling and make good money again,” Rios explains. “Those were my intentions.”
Turns out, God had other plans.
It started with a simple invitation from a friend to attend a Friday night Bible study. Rios agreed to go, and was surprised to see that the speaker was a man who used to run in the same gang. Fridays kept coming, and Rios kept coming back, riveted by the truth from the Bible that he’d missed before, overcome by the reality that God not only knew him, but had been the one protecting him all along.
“It got to the point where I said that’s it. I’m not going to go back to that,” Rios says of his old life. “This is what I want. I never want to go back.”
He walked away from his old neighborhood, and even moved out of an apartment he shared with an associate who was still living the gang life. Rios alternated between couch surfing, and staying in a room in an old warehouse for 15 difficult months as he tried to find a job and an apartment.
The isolation that barely rattled Rios in prison, was now almost more than his fresh faith could handle.
“I’m asking God, why do I have to be there? Why do I have to be by myself?’ Rios recalls. “It got to the point where I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
The words he heard from God: You have to learn to trust me.
Slowly, Rios was learning the lesson. He started spending more time talking to God, and reading the Bible with fresh understanding.
Rios became a part of a new church where he serves faithfully and the members welcomed him like family. Rios vividly remembers his first Tuesday night prayer meeting, when the Pastor invited everyone to come forward to seek the Lord in prayer for a new heart (see Ezekiel 36:26).
“I had my arms up, I’m praying. I felt something grab my heart and squeeze it,” Rios describes. “I could feel like it stopped beating. Then, BOOM. I feel my heart beating again.. I never missed a prayer meeting again. I just want to keep seeking the Lord and going after Him.”
Rios’ once jet black hair is now completely white, and the darkness he once lived in has been lifted. Still, his heart grieves for the ones who died in the dark. He can’t get out of his mind the friend who lives in a nursing home, unable to care for himself because of the ravages of a longtime addiction. He can’t help but to mourn for the one who lives under a city viaduct and refuses to be helped. He’s tormented by the guilt of the life he once lived and the question he can’t seem to escape:
Why me? Why would God keep me?
This is what woke him up out of bed that warm night, and moved him to tears.
“I should have been in prison for years. I should have overdosed. I could have been living on the street,” Rios cried out. “ God, did you do all of this? Are you real? I need to know.”
Rios grabbed his Bible to read a few chapters, before eventually falling back to sleep.
When he awoke the next morning, the Bible lay open on his desk, just as he’d left it the night before. It was open to Isaiah 49, and the answer to his question was right in front of him.
Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the Lord called me; from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name. He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver.
Rios could hardly believe what he was seeing.
“It says right there he concealed me in his quiver. He was there all that time,” Rios exclaims. “He’s telling me I’m the one who kept you out of prison. I’m the one who kept your head straight. I just starting crying, thanking the Lord for everything. I just said wow, I know you’re real. If not I wouldn’t be here.”
The gang leader who used to run the streets now wakes up every morning, turns on worship music and sits down with a cup of coffee and an open Bible. The ties to his old life have been severed, this time for good.
“The things I used to do back then, that’s how I want to be for the Lord. I would die for the Lord. If I gotta go to prison or whatever it is.” Rios says, voice softening. “It’s hard to explain. But I love the Lord and what He’s done for me. It’s not my story. It’s God story. He did all of this, not me. I just hope that people realize that there is a God. I didn’t change, the Lord changed me from the way I used to be.”
For more on my interview with Freddie, click here.