Santeria Priest Finds God in Prison
By Amy Reid
The 700 Club
Nelson Toranzo was seven years old when his family took a tour of Alcatraz prison. “The tour guide tells us to all go inside the cell so you could see how each one lived,” Nelson recalls. “Then he says ‘Well, I’m just going to close the door to show you how it felt.’”
“Then the tour guide said, ‘Okay we’ll come pick you up tomorrow,’ and it was a little bit scary,” Nelson remembers. “So I started crying and yelling to get me out of there and so finally they opened the doors.”
As frightening as that experience was, it didn’t keep Nelson on the straight and narrow. He was entranced with stories about gangsters and crime. Soon it became a part of his life. “At first it was, you know, stealing a bicycle. And then from stealing a bicycle, it escalated to other things,” says Nelson.
It soon passed from a boyhood fascination to a matter of economics. “If I could’ve sold showerheads and made the same kind of money, I would’ve been one of the best showerhead salesmen around,” says Nelson. “But at the time, cocaine was what the public was calling for, and I had the opportunity to get it and provide a service for what people wanted.”
Throughout high school and into adulthood, Nelson grew his business and became a powerful figure in the drug world. But the notoriety came at a price. “The more money I made, the more product that I moved, the more of a bull’s eye I had on my back,” Nelson explains. “I have to worry about the guy who’s trying to rob me, who’s trying to kill me to take my position. I gotta worry about the informant that wants to try to work off some time off of him or earn some money by turning me in. The law enforcement that was always seemingly watching you, and you always had to be one step ahead of them.”
Nelson started looking for ways to protect himself. He tried Santeria, or African spiritualism—and it seemed to work. “The more stuff that I was initiated with, the more my business exploded, so I started putting two and two together,” Nelson recalls, “And I said, ‘Well, I guess it’s time for me to go up to the next level in the faith and then get initiated as an ordained priest.’”
Just a few months after he was ordained, Nelson was arrested and charged with drug trafficking. The priests in his order told him how to beat the charges. “They gave me a laundry list of animals to sacrifice, herbs to take a shower with, powders to concoct, and that’s what we did,” says Nelson. “I did everything like it said.”
But none of them worked. Nelson was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to thirty years in prison. Everyone he knew in the religion deserted him. “Everybody in that faith left me,” Nelson says, “Everybody abandoned me.”
Still Nelson held on to his beliefs. When he got to jail, he made friends with another inmate. “You forge relationships very quickly. And I wasn’t going to forge a relationship with an accountant. I forged a relationship with a killer. He was a hit man from Puerto Rico,” Nelson explains. “He used to talk to me about God. And I said, ‘Dude, you’ve lost your mind.’ I said, ‘Listen, give me your Bible, and I’m going to show you from front to end all the mistakes that are in the Bible. And then you’re going to come believe in what I believe in.’” Nelson remembers, “He hands me his Bible with a big smile on his face and he says, ‘Go at it.’”
Nelson started reading, but he couldn’t find anything to discredit his friend’s claims. Instead… “Something started happening to me when I read the Bible. The more that I started studying, the more that I started, you know, trying to find faults in the Christianity, the more that I started seeing the truth,” Nelson says.
A few days later, his friend invited him to a chapel service. When the pastor gave an altar call, Nelson’s response surprised everyone. “There was something going on inside me that told me to get up. I really couldn’t get up. I felt like I was chained to this chair, wanting to run to the altar, run to the front, but I couldn’t,” Nelson recalls. “And then finally I stood up, and I’m standing in front of the preacher.
The preacher’s looking at me and he says, ‘Do you want to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?’ And I remember that I couldn’t talk, I felt like I was being choked. It was so powerful. I was struggling and something was holding me down. And the preacher, said to me, ‘Well, just give me some sort of acknowledgement,’ and I just looked at him and I just nodded. And he said, ‘On that confession of faith, you know, you’ve accepted him.’ And he baptized me; well, he just laid hands on me. I’ve never been a part of the Christianity of laying on hands anything, but next thing you know, I felt, it felt wonderful!”
It wouldn’t be long before he would have to take a stand on what he believed in. A prison riot between gangs was brewing, and Nelson and his friend were going to be caught in the middle of it. “Right before it sets off there’s a quiet that’s deafening,” says Nelson. “You hear people sharpening their toothbrushes, sharpening their picks, making their weapons. Some of the guys carry razors in their mouths. And there’s a mop bucket close to me. So now that handle becomes a big sledgehammer if I need to defend myself. So I’m laying in the bunk and I’m hearing all these noises. And I said, ‘Dude, what have we been reading? What have you been teaching? What have you been trying to show me in that Bible? We’re not supposed to be doing this.’ I said, “This has to stop, you know. Because then everything we’re doing is a fraud.’”
Nelson confronted the leader of one of the other gangs. He remembers that moment. “I walked right into the cellblock and I said, “Listen, what we’re doing here is wrong. I know I don’t want to die. I know you don’t want to die. And there’s no reason for this to happen. Everything that we’ve been praying about, when I look at you in your cell and you’re reading the Bible - I said, “Listen man; let’s go outside, me and you right now--me and you. And let’s pray. Let’s do something different.’”
“And he says, ‘Yeah, let’s go.’ And we all walked out. So we all started praying, one by one. We started praying for our life, for our families, just all kinds of stuff. It was an awkward moment, but very powerful, very pure. This is how I learned to pray.”
Just like that, the riot was over. It was a turning point in Nelson’s faith. “I felt like the Holy Spirit was really teaching me how to read the Word,” says Nelson. “and how to study and how to learn about forgiveness. That was a big deal, how to learn how to be forgiven.”
Nelson was released from prison after serving ten years of his sentence and started a new life. Today, he shares his story through a thriving prison ministry. He also has his own business and is happily married with two beautiful daughters.
“God, I think has brought me from the deepest places that I could ever imagine, you know, and I’ve been to the valleys and I’ve been to the peaks. And He’s been with me throughout,” says Nelson.
“He rescued me. I mean, think of a man drowning; and this hand goes in there and pulls you out. That’s what He did.”
CBN IS HERE FOR YOU!
Are you seeking answers in life? Are you hurting?
Are you facing a difficult situation?
A caring friend will be there to pray with you in your time of need.