From drug lord to pastor: Herman Mendoza shares powerful testimony of prison transformation

Herman Mendoza, the lead pastor of New York City's Iglesia Promesa Internacional, speaks on an episode of Delafé Testimonies that aired on May 26, 2023.
Herman Mendoza, the lead pastor of New York City's Iglesia Promesa Internacional, speaks on an episode of Delafé Testimonies that aired on May 26, 2023. | YouTube/Delafé Testimonies

Herman Mendoza's journey from being a drug dealer and gang member to becoming a devoted Christian pastor, driven by a strong desire to spread the Gospel, was an incredibly challenging transformation. He acknowledges that it was God's mercy that saved his soul during his darkest moments.

Mendoza vividly remembers spending many years involved in drug abuse and selling, often engaged in gang-related activities that repeatedly led him to prison. However, everything changed when he was faced with an imminent 18-year sentence. According to Mendoza, if it hadn't been for God's intervention, he would have never experienced freedom again.

In a May 26 episode of Delafé Testimonies, Mendoza openly shared his journey from battling severe drug addiction and involvement in drug lord activities to his profound transformation through Christ.

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"Trust God in all circumstances," Mendoza said. "The Bible says that 'We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us' in Philippians 4:13. And I think once we apply that principle and say, 'God, sometimes things are beyond our control and beyond our strength and beyond our ability, but I'm going to seek after help.'"

Today, Mendoza is the lead pastor at Iglesia Promesa Internacional, a Spanish-speaking church located in New York City. He also serves as the director of PowerHouse Kids Ministry, a vital part of Promise Ministries International in the same city. 

Mendoza is the author of the book Shifting Shadows: How a New York Drug Lord Found Freedom in the Last Place He Expected.

He also serves as one of the speakers for The 4/14 Window Movement, a global initiative that seeks to raise the next generation to be the leaders of tomorrow through Christ. 

Mendoza has spoken at conferences, schools and churches across the globe, spreading the message of hope, faith, grace and redemption through Jesus Christ. He regularly uses his life story to advise those who attend his church and those who hear his Christian testimony. 

"When you seek that help in all the right places, people within the Body of Christ, the Church, that can give a good counsel, that can give a good direction and good advice, then that's where it starts," he added. 

"And remember, everyone has gifts and talents. As the Scripture says, 'Your gift will make room for you.' You just have to find that and apply it and let that be that tool through Christ that can really bring about your aspirations and your goals to come to fruition."

The biblical advice Mendoza frequently imparts today took him some time to grasp fully, he said. He had to endure personal struggles before he could witness any breakthroughs in his life journey, which now enables him to offer valuable insights and lessons based on his own experiences.

Yearning for his place

Mendoza grew up in Queens, New York, in a family with roots in the Dominican Republic. His parents migrated to America in the early 1960s with Mendoza's two older brothers. Over time, his parents expanded their family and had three more children, with Mendoza being the youngest among five boys.

"It was really challenging at home because of five brothers, five boys. You can only imagine the competitiveness and everyone trying to find their identity within the household. But I was the youngest, and so I was always taken care of, looked after," Mendoza recalled.

He added that he yearned for brotherhood and a sense of belonging.

Mendoza recalled that during his early teenage years in the 1980s and 1990s, as he lived in the culturally diverse community of Queens, he began observing emerging trends. He became aware of the growing influence of hip-hop culture and the unfortunate rise of teenage gangs in the area.

"I wanted to kind of fit in and be a part of that culture during the time. So I got involved with some young people in the community, which were local gang members, and I was introduced to marijuana, basically [at] 12 years of age. … I had two other siblings that were also sort of involved with me," Mendoza detailed. 

"We started to consume marijuana and alcohol. And that really caused a lot of problems because my parents were somewhat noticing my behavior. They noticed that I was really changing in my attitude towards them, towards school." 

At 13, Mendoza became a member of a gang.

During one violent gang altercation, Mendoza said his friend was shot with a firearm and later died. 

"I thought that was going to shake my core, right? It was going to change my behavior, but it didn't. I continued to be involved in his gang and consume drugs and smoke weed. And then eventually, that led me to use cocaine," Mendoza said.  

During the early 1980s, cocaine became popular on the streets, influenced by a desire to be part of Hollywood culture. Mendoza succumbed to this trend and became deeply addicted to cocaine.

Driven by his addiction, Mendoza approached a local drug dealer in his neighborhood, offering to sell drugs. He started selling small amounts of cocaine in a specific area of Queens to sustain his drug habit.

Landing behind bars 

Mendoza said his cocaine habit eventually drew him into heroin use as a young teenager.

"[My parents] noticed my behavior that I was coming home drugged out. But, they didn't know what to do. They didn't know how to interact with me. They didn't know how to address the situation, being from the Dominican Republic, immigrants," Mendoza recounted. 

During a gathering with male friends, Mendoza participated in a robbery, which resulted in his confinement in a juvenile detention facility in the Bronx for approximately a year.

Upon his release, Mendoza's parents reached a breaking point and sent him to the Dominican Republic to live with his grandparents. The intention was for him to attend a private school and undergo a positive transformation.

But after a period of time in the Dominican Republic, Mendoza returned to his parent's home in New York. His grandparents reported that he was consistently skipping school and returning home intoxicated each night.

In New York, Mendoza sank deeper into drug abuse and got increasingly involved in the drug trade, ultimately leading to his incarceration in a detention center.

To his astonishment, the detention center where he ended up was the same one where his brother was serving his sentence.

When Mendoza first encountered his brother in the detention center, he was struck by a noticeable change in him. 

"[My brother] looks at me, and he just extends his hand up to me and he says, 'Hallelujah, praise the Lord.' And I look at my brother with indifference. I'm like, 'What is he talking about? Praise the Lord. Hallelujah. We're in jail. … He's lost his mind.'… So, he's like, 'You know God loves you. You don't understand. I've been praying for you. I've been praying for your salvation,'" Mendoza said.

As days turned into weeks, Mendoza experienced frequent feelings of profound sadness and a strong desire for inner peace. He admits that repentance was not at the forefront of his thoughts.

Learning from his attorneys that he was potentially facing a sentence of up to 18 years in prison significantly impacted Mendoza's state of mind.

God's transforming power  

After learning about the severity of his potential sentence, Mendoza's brother invited him to attend a chapel service in the detention center.

During the service, Mendoza listened to testimonies from fellow inmates, some of whom were facing life sentences for serious crimes like murder. These individuals shared their stories of redemption through the grace of the Lord.

One particular inmate took the stage and started preaching a message that resonated deeply with Mendoza. He strongly believed that the words spoken were specifically intended for him to hear as a direct message from God.

"The [inmate] said, 'There's a gentleman here ... amongst 55 inmates here, [who] has been chasing after things, and those things have led him down the road of destruction. And he is seeking after peace.' And this is the word that I felt that God was telling me. I had been telling God, 'I want peace. All I need is peace. I'm going crazy in prison,'" Mendoza recounted. 

"And as I'm sitting in the back, the pastor said, 'There's someone that's been telling God that He wants peace.' He said, 'The peace that God can give you surpasses all of your understanding. You know who you are. God can change your life.' I just felt this peace come on me. And I knew it was for me. I was like, 'Man, how does this inmate know my story?'" 

After the inmate concluded the sermon, he invited Mendoza to come forward. On that significant day, Mendoza made the life-changing decision to surrender his life to Christ.

While incarcerated, Mendoza dedicated himself to studying the Bible and theology. Both he and his brother reached out to theology schools, expressing their desire for educational resources.

Graciously, the schools provided them with complimentary educational materials.

Eventually, Mendoza assumed the role of head pastor at the detention center chapel, witnessing numerous inmates have transformative encounters with Christ.

To his surprise, Mendoza was given a reduced sentence of five years and six months instead of 18 years.

Throughout the remaining period of his sentence, Mendoza persevered in preaching the Word of God and engaging in Bible studies with fellow inmates until his eventual release.

"As I was released, I was crossing that bridge from the island of Rikers Island, which is an island where 10 jails are located. And as I went over, and I was physically free, I got on my knees and said, 'God, thank you. Lord, thank you for giving me freedom," Mendoza continued. 

Nicole Alcindor is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at:

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