the shape of leadership

From Vice to Victory

Addiction and incarceration were not the end

Cleo Lewis on May 27, 2022

In 1989, I was forced to use crack cocaine at gunpoint. The experience nearly destroyed me, leading me down a path of addiction, deception, criminal activity, incarceration, and homelessness. But by God’s grace, those dark chapters of my life were not the end of my story.

My favorite verse is Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” I am living proof of God’s persevering goodness.

I grew up during the 1960s, amid civil rights marches and war protests. It was a confusing and frightening time for a Black child with a father deployed overseas. Faith was my refuge.

I accepted Christ at the age of 9 in a small church near Fort Riley, Kansas. My paternal and maternal grandfathers were both ministers, and I believed God had called me to follow in their footsteps. I sometimes practiced preaching by repeating their sermons to a “congregation” of young cousins.

After suffering a serious wound, my father returned from the Army and took a civilian job at a municipal water plant. I enjoyed spending time with my father and often accompanied him to work.

By the time I was 12, I could run the plant. My dad started leaving me in charge while he slipped out to drink at the local bars. When his boss discovered this, Dad lost his job.

It was the breaking point in my parents’ marriage. Mom took my sister and me and moved to Tucson, Arizona. I never heard from my father again, which left a huge void in my life.

After high school, I joined the Air Force. Leaving home triggered an overwhelming sense of loneliness. Like my father, I turned to alcohol to medicate my pain.

I gave up drinking for a while after I married. Then, while stationed in Thailand, I lost 18 of my friends in a helicopter crash. I would have been on board with them had my orders not changed at the last minute. To cope with survivor guilt, I returned to the bottle.

Upon leaving the military, I transitioned to law enforcement. I enjoyed being a police officer and quickly worked my way up the ranks. I had served on the force for seven years when my career came to a crashing halt in a crack house.

During a sting operation, I realized something was amiss and tried to withdraw from a drug transaction. Suddenly, a suspect drew a gun and ordered me to smoke the drug to prove I wasn’t a police officer. Fearing for my life, I did as I was told. I left the house a crack addict.

I am living proof of God’s persevering goodness.

Soon I was looking for drugs again — not to catch criminals but to satisfy my own cravings. One night, some dealers attacked me and broke my jaw. I escaped in my car and crashed near a police station. After undergoing drug testing at the hospital, the secrets I had been keeping began to emerge.

I faced a host of drug-related crimes, including fraud and conspiracy to sell/possess. I accepted a plea bargain and served nearly three years in prison.

My wife divorced me. God never gave up on me, though. I attended prison chapel services and sensed the Holy Spirit stirring in my heart.

Following my release, I remarried and tried to rebuild my life. I returned to church, but I failed to surrender fully to God or seek help for my trauma and addiction. Soon, my old struggles resurfaced.

After a series of probation violations, I was facing the prospect of more prison time. Instead, the court ordered me to Teen Challenge. It was a place of hope and healing — exactly what I needed. I felt confident that the tools I gained there would help me succeed. Yet I abandoned those tools once I graduated from the program.

Before long, I returned to drugs and alcohol, my second marriage failed, and I became homeless. I was about as broken as anyone could be. In desperation, I called out to God and offered what was left of my life to Him.

The Holy Spirit directed me to a small Assemblies of God church. I attended and again sensed the ministry call I had felt as a child. I didn’t know where to begin. My life was a shambles.

God reminded me of those tools I left behind. I went to a homeless shelter and accepted the help that was available there. A few months later, I reconciled with my wife. God set me free from addiction and healed my heart.

Six years after I left the streets, I enrolled in the Arizona Ministry Network’s school of ministry. In 2019, I became an ordained Assemblies of God minister.

Today, I am a staff pastor at City Church Phoenix (AG). I minister to police officers and firefighters, veterans, parolees, and the homeless community. I also volunteer at our local Teen Challenge center. God has truly redeemed every part of my story for His glory.

In the quietness of prayer, sermon preparation, or devotional reading, I sometimes hear the echoes of that little boy trying to preach. A smile crosses my face as I remember that God is still at work.

This article appears in the Spring 2022 edition of Influence magazine.

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