A murderer and a troublemaker discover a persistent Savior.
Two men. Two backgrounds. One a former murderer, the other a former troublemaker. Little did they know that one day the Lord would bring them to himself . . . and to work side by side at the same church.
Roy Mendoza* was born in Detroit, one of ten children. From an early age, his parents tried to get rid of him. Twice they took him to Mexico and left him there. They took him to California and other states and purposefully left him behind. He always managed to find his way back, but his distrust and hatred grew.
He soon began to take lives. People in southwest Detroit called him a vigilante. Neighbors would ask him to take out an abuser, a thief, or some other untouchable, and he would. He became good at killing—he boasted about it—and he didn’t think twice about doing it. He felt no remorse, until he accidentally took the life of his own son.
Shortly after that horrific event, Roy landed in prison. He didn’t want to hear anything about God or forgiveness because he’d killed his own son. But then he heard a verse from the book of Luke where Jesus said, “They will be divided, father against son and son against father” (12:53). By the Spirit’s power, these words piqued his interest, since he had been wrestling with guilt for the first time in his life. Within months of Roy being in prison, God grabbed hold of his heart through his Word, and Roy cried. Tough guys weren’t supposed to cry, but Roy did . . . and it felt good.
As he reflects on the 25 years he spent behind bars for his life of crime, Roy says, “I didn’t go to prison. I went to school—God’s school.” He didn’t know how to read, but he somehow started to learn by reading an old King James Bible someone gave him. He pored over Scripture day and night. At one point, he taught the Bible every day to 14 men—many of whom had worked to destroy his own family because of things he’d done against their families on the outside. Roy came to know Christ and God’s grace for him, and with a humble, penitent spirit, he brought the gospel to his own enemies.
In 2017, Roy walked out of prison, finally a free man—and by God’s grace, a free man spiritually. Yet, he didn’t have a church to call home. Soon enough, that would change.
That same year, Paul Moronczyk, at 53 years old, became one of the newest adult confirmands at Palabra de Vida, a WELS congregation in Detroit. However, Paul was not always interested in the Lutheran church, or the Christian church at large for that matter.
His life had been difficult. The only thing he remembers about his father is his mother’s words about him: “You won’t see Daddy no more, Pauly.” Growing up in southwest Detroit’s roughest neighborhood, Del Ray, was tough enough. It was tougher without a dad.
He has foggy memories of seeing the family’s large Catholic Bible open on the floor. But nobody ever took him to church. His first memories of a Christian church are those of a Baptist preacher screaming at his congregation, condemning them all with no hope of salvation. Nonetheless, at that moment, Paul remembers, something awoke in his heart.
“God’s heart is not blind acceptance or angry threats—it’s forgiveness and love, and his grace rules. That’s what I’ve found in the Lutheran church.”
Drugs, drinking, and troublemaking were his teenage memories. But he couldn’t shake that open Bible or the Baptist church. Was there something to it all? Paul decided to start reading from the source. He bought a Bible. His friends noticed. For that reason, one day, a friend didn’t let him go along with them on a “mission.” “Go home, Paul. This isn’t for you.” He never saw those friends again. He went home, picked up his Bible, and never put it down.
Baptized at age 21, he started out on his own mission—to find a church. He went to every Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox church imaginable, even into mosques and Jewish temples. He even pastored a small mission in southwest Detroit at one point.
A gospel-loving church
On a gloomy afternoon in August 2016, after participating in hundreds of churches, Paul came to Palabra de Vida. My wife and I were squeegeeing the basement floor from filthy floodwater when his booming voice bellowed down the staircase. He had come looking for something to satisfy his curiosity and his troubled heart. Within a year, after studying the Bible and Luther’s Catechism almost every day with me, Paul became convinced that his decades-long search for a church had come to an end. He became a communicant member of WELS.
Paul got to work right away, helping with everything. He passed out flyers; he cut the grass; he helped recruit people for Bible studies and worship; he started an outreach group called Warriors on Fire. As the congregation began to grow, everybody grew to know Paul. Over the years, he’s become recognized as a leader at the church.
And then, after church on a Sunday morning in September 2020, in the heart of the pandemic, Paul walked outside to invite someone to his new church and his new peace and hope. As he meandered to the corner of Cahalan and Springwells, a late-90s silver Pontiac Grand Am made a left turn and slowed down. The man from the car yelled out, “Hey, is this your church?”
“Yes!” Paul said, proudly. “You got a church?”
“Well, the place I was going to for a bit shut down for good during COVID. I want to check this place out. Can I come in?”
The car pulled over, and Roy Mendoza stepped out onto the curb, cool as a cucumber, with sunglasses and a leather jacket. He followed Paul inside. Paul introduced him to me, and he shook my hand. Then he said, “I’ll be here next Sunday, Pastor. Good to meet you. God bless you.”
And Roy never missed another Sunday. Because of Paul’s invitation, Roy soon became a member of the church. He now serves on the leadership team and studies in the Pastoral Studies Institute with Paul.
A persistent Savior
As they sat after class one Tuesday afternoon, chuckling about their paths to Palabra de Vida, Roy reflected: “When I was 13, I used to come to the bar across the street here. I thought liquor made me feel so alive. Now, I’m 67, and that bar’s closed down. But I’m on the other side of the street at the church I ignored all those years. I’ve found the real Water of Life this time.” Roy concluded that the Holy Spirit sent him here, to a place that loves the Word. The Word is what gave him a new life in prison. It proved to him that God washed away all his sins. He loves the gospel—it is his life. He loves this church because he loves that same gospel he hears and studies here. He’s here to help in that mission. He’s here to stay.
Paul cracked a smile. He sat back in his chair. “Why did I stay here? Well, you’re never going to find a place you agree with everything,” he joked. “But it’s forgiveness. Everywhere else it was either threats and rules or it was false love and acceptance. But that’s not God. God’s heart is not blind acceptance or angry threats—it’s forgiveness and love, and his grace rules. That’s what I’ve found in the Lutheran church. I see myself in Martin Luther—a man who searched for truth and didn’t back down when he found it.”
Two men. Two backgrounds. One a former murderer, the other a former troublemaker. Once unknown to each other, both had an insatiable thirst for God’s truth. For 30 years their search brought them to wrong answers. Then their search led them both to the same place, by God’s providential hand, at Palabra de Vida, where they found the forgiveness of Jesus, peace, and hope.
*Roy Mendoza passed away on October 29, 2022. To hear more of Roy’s story and that of Palabra de Vida, watch this video from WELS Missions.
Author: Ryan D. Kolander
Volume 109, Number 01
Issue: January 2022
- Confessions of faith: Roy Mendoza and Paul Moronczyk - 2021/12/27