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“My parents came to the United States before I was born to escape the civil war in El Salvador, and from a very young age, I watched them work extremely hard to provide for our family. As they spent most of their time trying to restart in a new country, I found myself trying to earn God’s love on my own. I thought I had to work for God to save me, but that isn’t the case. It only drove me further from Him in my teens. I believed the lies that I was alone and that God didn’t love me.

“My loneliness turned into frustration and anger against my family, friends, and God. I spent a ton of time at the church my parents raised me in, but I still felt unknown. When I was at church, I found myself resenting God. Outside of church, my defense mechanism against that emotional pain was to build up walls and avoid my emotions. I bottled up how I felt, which eventually led to moments of outrage. Throughout high school, I was in over 20 violent fights with peers, a couple of high-speed chases, and multiple near-arrest situations with law enforcement.

“My actions clearly represented something wrong in my heart, but my family would hide the reality of the situation and pretend that our lives were perfect. As a teenager living this lie, I just fell further from God and deeper into isolation.

“After high school, the Lord revealed to me that I’d spent years exhausting myself trying to pretend I had my life together. The reality was that I didn’t understand the true redeeming grace that God gives when we surrender control to Him. Until then, I’d been living and trying to do things my own way. I was living for myself and not for Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.

“God showed me that no matter what I do to try to please Him, all of my efforts on my own will fall short. Only by accepting the truth that Christ died for me could I experience the joy of following Him. God opened my eyes to allow me to see that even when I turned to anger instead of Him, Christ still chose to love me enough to die for my sins (Romans 5: 8-10).

“In my early twenties, I spent several years studying God’s Word and had new eyes to see His character. God grew a passion in me for the local church, and I pursued a career in vocational ministry. But as a leader in the church, I struggled to submit my fear, anger, and bitterness to Christ. In secret, I brought sinful anger into my marriage through escalation and physical violence.

“When my pastoral job led me to Watermark’s Church Leaders Conference in Dallas, I had the opportunity to attend an open group at re:generation recovery on the Dallas campus. For the first time, I saw men in leadership positions who had overcome addictions and sin by openly confessing and practicing true repentance (Acts 3:19). This was transformative in my life. It had become so easy for me to hide my sins and struggles in darkness, but my time at the conference showed me my actions were clearly not leading to anything good or of God.

“After visiting Watermark, I kept up with the church digitally from Maryland. Through a lot of prayer and consideration, the Lord directed me to resign from my role in the church. During this time, I pursued reconciliation with my wife and learned how to be vulnerable with others to help heal from my past.

“With this new freedom, we decided to move to Dallas to be near a healthy, biblical church. I didn’t have any desire to work in a church again, but after being offered a position on the facilities team at Watermark, I trusted it was the Lord’s provision to surround me with faithful followers of Christ in my new city and workplace.

“Looking back, I see that even when I was avoiding my pain and allowing my sin to control me, Christ died for me. I know I am utterly helpless when I live life on my own (Romans 5:6). When I trust God, I see His consistency and His resilient love for me. His love pierces through any and every darkness, fear, loneliness, and anger. The joy and peace that God provides break through every wall I could ever put up.”

Please join us in prayer for the hundreds of church leaders like Sam who will be at Watermark this week for the Church Leaders Conference. Pray they will be encouraged and equipped to go back to their home churches with new eagerness and willing hearts to serve.