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A Drug-Addicted Past Turned Into A Gift


October 11, 2009

Ra¨l GonzÓlez, a street-smart kid from Brooklyn and Puerto Rico, got a second chance in life when he found God and renounced drugs. He spent the rest of his life trying to pass that gift on to others.

He was born in Puerto Rico, where his father, Pedro GonzÓlez, was an abusive parent and an entrepreneur hobbled by alcoholism.

"It made for a childhood of hiding, horror and hardship," GonzÓlez wrote in his 1989 autobiography, "Ra¨l: A True Story."

GonzÓlez went to New York when he was 9 and became a rebellious adolescent who was addicted to alcohol and drugs before he graduated from high school. He joined the Army and, after initially excelling, turned again to drugs.

He married Willie Gongon, a young Puerto Rican woman, in 1967 and got high after the ceremony. His continued drug use caused his marriage to falter.

After several drug-rehabilitation programs and a hypnotist failed to help, he tried a Christian-based, residential drug-treatment program in Brooklyn called Teen Challenge, which provided care for people of all ages, but left in less than three weeks.

His life and marriage continued to fall apart, and nearing the bottom several months later, he entered another Teen Challenge program. This time he completed the program and never used drugs or alcohol again.

That saved his marriage Ś and probably his life.

"God came into our hearts and lives," said his wife, who stuck by him. "He really didn't change until he found the help he was seeking was in the Lord."

After 18 months, GonzÓlez went to the program's Bible school in the Catskills, where his wife and young son joined him. (The couple eventually had four children.) He was 28, and sober for the first time since he was a teenager. After graduating as valedictorian 2 1/2 years later, he was ordained as a minister and began work as assistant director of a Teen Challenge girls' program in Puerto Rico.

In 1974, he moved to Hartford to direct Youth Challenge, a drug program that struggled financially until a fire destroyed the place and brought it publicity that helped attract funds to rebuild the center.

Several years later, with little money but confident that he could attract donors, GonzÓlez urged his board of directors to buy 20 acres in Moodus where graduates of the Hartford program would have more time to recover.

He then faced years of zoning problems as local residents fought against bringing drug addicts to the area, and the matter ended up in court. GonzÓlez and his lawyer argued that the land was being used as a spiritual retreat center, and they eventually prevailed on the grounds that the Christian-oriented Youth Challenge residential program qualified as a church or place of worship. Today, up to nine men live at the ranch.

Youth Challenge has a budget of about $750,000, nearly half of it supplied by the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. It runs separate programs for men and women in Hartford that provide counseling, religion and job training.

GonzÓlez's experience gave him credibility on the streets, where he did a lot of outreach, said Paul Echtenkamp, director of Youth Challenge.

"He was able to say 'I was a heroin addict and I'm clean. My life is different now,'" said Echtenkamp. "It made it possible for people to say ... 'Whatever he found, I could have.'"

In 1979, Gonzalez and his wife established Glory Chapel, with Gonzalez as the minister. It later bought a former synagogue in Hartford that had been used by First Cathedral. While many of its members are graduates of drug programs, the church has attracted others drawn by GonzÓlez's magnetism and dynamic preaching.

"He knew how to relate the word of the Lord," said Marva Downes, who attended a gospel breakfast at the chapel and then joined the church. "Non-addicts find him powerful."

Four years after she first heard GonzÓlez, she left her job as an accountant to run the women's Youth Challenge program. "It's done a lot for me as well," she said.

GonzÓlez was also the founder of Youth Challenge International, which is the umbrella organization for faith-based drug treatment programs in Puerto Rico, Florida, Kenya, Venezuela, Peru and the Dominican Republic. GonzÓlez was ordained a bishop in 1997, and then-Gov. John Rowland appointed him to the state's faith-based initiatives council in 2003.

GonzÓlez served as a volunteer chaplain for the Hartford police department for 20 years. He received an associate's degree from Manchester Community College, a bachelor's degree from Logos Bible College and a doctorate in ministry from Evangelical Theological Seminary of Dixon, Mo., now known as Biblical Life College and Seminary. He died of complications from liver problems.

Besides being a captivating speaker, GonzÓlez was outgoing, down to earth and interested in everyone he met. He played a strong game of tennis, and he liked to take vacations and cruises, with Archbishop LeRoy Bailey Jr., senior pastor of First Cathedral in Bloomfield, and their respective wives.

"He was not going to berate a person or talk down." Bailey said. "He was always talking about how their lives could be a reflection of their maker."

"He was a man of conviction," Echtenkamp said. "He wore his faith out there for everyone to see. He preached the Gospel clearly. It wasn't just the doctrine in a book. It was something you could experience."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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