ANDERSON, S.C. (Christian Examiner) – He has been in America for 53 years, but this Thanksgiving is different, says Jose Alvarez.
He moved in 1961 with his family from the Dominican Republic to New York City when he was 8; surrendered to Christ in 1987; and became a U.S. citizen this June.
"Citizenship holds a lot of rights," Alvarez said. "I'm thankful for that." You are a part of the "voice of the people," he explained.
An important benefit of citizenship is the right to carry a U.S. passport, the new citizen added.
If he had one in 2010, he might not have been detained for six months after a mission trip to Haiti. On the other hand, if he had not been put in prison he would have missed a blessing from God. While held by customs officials because of confusion about his identity, Alvarez evangelized 273 fellow inmates who came to profess faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior.
"Every day I felt the touch of His hand," Alvarez said. "Every day I looked for those I could tell about my Jesus. ... I was imprisoned but just like Paul, it turned out to be one of my greatest opportunities."
Today Alvarez shrugs off the hardship of his incarceration saying he grew to love the U.S. more, especially the national anthem because people sing, "Jose can you see."
He also grew in his love of the Father, and is grateful and humbled that God would choose him with his checkered past to tell people about Jesus.
"I give all the praise to God," Alvarez said. "I am thankful God uses an individual like me."
By the age of 12 he was involved in a gang and experimenting with drugs. By the time he graduated from high school, "I was living a fast-paced life that was quickly wearing me out." He joined the Army but could not get away from drugs and alcohol and when he returned to New York City in 1971 he became a drug dealer and user.
His was a $1,200-a-day habit.
He was trying to detox back in the Dominican Republic when he heard Nicky Cruz preach in 1984. Cruz was a New York gang member led to the Lord by David Wilkerson, who wrote "The Cross and the Switchblade," an international best-seller.
Alvarez was jolted by Cruz' conversion account, resonating with his life story. But it was not until 1987 in New York City that Alvarez gave his life to Jesus. He had planned to attend a Catholic church -- as was his Palm Sunday habit -- to get a "good luck palm." However, it was too crowded. So he looked for another place to go and found Manhattan Bible Church.
As he walked in, a soloist was singing Keith Green's, "People Need the Lord."
"Boy did I need the Lord," Alvarez said. "I still remember it, to this day. ...
He said the sermon was on John 3:16 and he thought, 'Wait a minute. I heard this message [from Nicky Cruz] in 1984."
This time the Gospel passage changed his heart for good and he made his profession of faith.
Today Alvarez is engaged in street ministry, homeless ministry and Bible studies. He even has a "mobile ministry" using a chapel in a trailer he pulls behind his van to conduct Bible study, prayer and worship.
The ministries God gives him to do, Alvarez said, are evangelism, hope and encouragement, and prayer. Every day is a mission, and every moment a window of opportunity to reach the lost, he says, or to strengthen believers through words and deeds.
Alvarez prays twice a week with Johnny Hunt, pastor of First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Georgia, where Alvarez was ordained and he calls his home church. Alvarez also preaches in the streets twice a week (Canton and Atlanta, Georgia), and takes his pull-behind-trailer to do ministry around his home area in Anderson, South Carolina, often giving out food with the spiritual nourishment he offers.
"Jose has a heart for hurting people and gives his life to help others," said Sid Stewart, a minister with Haven of Rest Ministries to the disadvantaged in Anderson.
He also is a member of the evangelistic team for Evangelist Rick Gage and GO TELL Ministries -- visiting schools, jails, orphanages, and reaching out to Hispanic communities in each crusade town. Additionally, for at least 10 years he has partnered with Score International to bring a week of baseball clinics each morning at several cities in the Dominican Republic,using the afternoons in a variety of ministries (depending on needs).
"Jose's enthusiasm and dedication to helping others rise above their circumstances has been both an inspiration and encouragement not only to [my husband and me], but to all who have come in contact with him," said Marsha Jones, a businesswoman and fellow member at First Woodstock.
"His unfailing faithfulness to the homeless and less fortunate reflects only a small portion of his devotion to God," she added.
He also started a Spanish-speaking church in February, which has grown to about 20 families.
"This life I live now, I live because of the Christ who died for me," Alvarez said.
"So now, I work for Him. I am thankful God uses an individual like me."