By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer
A reformed inmate was the center of attention at Tuesday's JAIL banquet.
From the moment Rick Vasquez took the microphone, all eyes were on him. The Bell County Expo Center conference room was quiet, despite the crowd of more than 1,000 people.
'He's the Texas field director for Prison Fellowship Ministries,' said Steve Cannon, JAIL Ministry executive director, as he introduced Vasquez. 'He's a perfect example of what prison ministry can do. His is a story of transformation.' Before Christ was in his life, Vasquez said things were as bad as they could get. In the 1990s, he was a prison inmate in solitary confinement. His crimes ran the gamut from theft and drug use to gang activity and physical assault.
'I wasn't looking for God,' he said. 'I have never been evangelized. Nobody took the time to explain the ramifications of the choices I was making. Nobody told me about God's love and forgiveness. I used the Bible for rolling paper (for cigarretes).'
Fellow inmates had given him the nickname 'Demon.'
'I beat up Christians because I thought they were fake,' Vasquez said. 'They'd say hallelujah, and then turn around and not act what they preached, and that made me angry. So I beat them up. I feel bad about it now but had no conscience about it then.'
That was his life, he said. He wasn't content but it was all he knew.
'I lived a cycle of sin and selfishness because I was useless from the time I was 12,' Vasquez said. 'I couldn't do anything to make life better, so I made it worse.'
His 'awakening to Christ' didn't happen until he had served a few years in jail.
'I was sitting in solitary confinement,' Vasquez said. 'I had a bandana on my head, and I was listening to my head phones.'
Two songs from the heavy metal band Metallica played: 'Unforgiven' and and 'Nothing Else Matters.'
'In 'Unforgiven,' the image was of me leaving my gang,' he said. 'If I rejected them and that way of life I'd never be forgiven.'
At first the image didn't mean much to Vasquez. He shrugged it off as a weird thought due to boredom.
Then in 'Nothing Else Matters,' the lyrics asked about trust. Vasquez was at a loss. He couldn't answer the question.
'I didn't trust the gang because there was always somebody out to take my spot as leader,' Vasquez said. 'I didn't trust my family because I had burned all the bridges. I was alone. I had no one.'
Then he felt as if his head cracked in half, from the tip of his skull to his chin.
'I felt the Holy Spirit flood in me, and I saw myself before God,' he said. 'I saw the truth. It was Judgment Day, and in His eyes, what I saw for me was an eternity of pain and suffering. I didn't want that.'
Then just as suddenly, he was back in his cell.
'I started to cry,' he said. 'And there was a voice that said 'Trust in me and nothing else matters.'
Those weren't the lyrics to the Metallica song. To Vasquez it was the voice of God, calling him to a different life.
'I hit my knees to pray, and the Bible fell from the top bunk. It hit my head,' he said. 'If that's not a sign, I don't know what is. The Bible had new rules for me to live by. I have to live and die for Christ.'
From that day for the next decade of his incarceration, he was the best Christian he could be.
'I felt the need to reach out to others,' he said. 'I told them that they too could live and die for something that matters. Other gang members started giving up the gang life. It was powerful.'
And within a few weeks, Vasquez said he had transformed the solitary confinement wing to a revival hall.
'We were having two services a week and Bible studies every day,' he said. 'They called me Brother Rick. The guards said I was for real or a really good actor. So they ended up transferring me back to general population.'
And after that, he didn't stray off of what he calls the 'God path.'
'I made good decisions,' he said. 'I trusted God. I trusted others. And life got better.'
After his prison term, he earned a degree in Christian education from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. And that won him a job with Prison Fellowship Ministries.
His story won a standing ovation from the audience.
The message was serious, but Vasquez was relaxed as he shared it, smiling and interjecting the occasional joke.
It was Bell County Sherriff Dan Smith, the master of ceremonies, however, who earned the most laughs. Every time he took the stage to introduce a topic or speaker, he shared a 'kid's religion blooper.'
A few examples: 'All Egyptians drowned in the desert,' 'Adam and Eve came from the apple tree' and 'The epistles are the wives of the apostles.'
'These are quotes from kiddos,' he said, smiling like only a proud grandpa can. 'It's amazing what we can learn from them.'
The banquet is JAIL Ministry's annual fundraiser. Proceeds help the faith-based, non-profit group provide Bell County prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families with spiritual, emotional and practical support. It was founded in 1987.