By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published June 16, 2005
Jorge Valdés had everything he ever wanted, or so he thought.
He had cars, homes, women, power and more money than he could spend.
But it was the one thing he didn’t have that made him walk away from it all—a relationship with God.
Valdés was the first speaker at REVIVE, the young adult track for the Eucharistic Congress held Friday night, June 3.
Nearly 1,000 young adults from across the archdiocese attended the event, which was highlighted by praise and worship music led by Jon Ferguson and the Revive band, and eucharistic adoration.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory began the evening by welcoming those in attendance.
“Since coming to the Archdiocese of Atlanta, I have been amazed by the vitality and depth of faith of our young adults,” he said.
“Tonight I’d like to welcome young adults to this event. Welcome to the heart of the Archdiocese of Atlanta and know that you have a very special place in that heart.”
Emcees Chris and Michelle Benzinger introduced Valdés, who shared his amazing conversion story with the riveted crowd.
A bright young man who received a degree from the University of Miami, Valdés got involved with dishonest businessmen and started a money-laundering business that took him to Colombia at the age of 21. He began working for the Medellin drug cartel and eventually was put in charge of all the U.S. finances of the cartel, laundering money through foreign accounts. The cartel was a powerful and dangerous organization that was, at one point, responsible for 85 percent of the cocaine that came to the United States. As the head of operations, Valdés was making $1 to 2 million a month.
“I grew up poor, but suddenly I could buy a Corvette, I could buy a Mercedes. I could buy any car I wanted to,” he said. “I thought I’d really made it. But I couldn’t figure out why I was so miserable.”
His devout Catholic mother tried to pinpoint the answer for him, telling him that what he was doing “wasn’t pleasing to God.”
“I thought she was crazy. I told her, ‘I am God. I can buy anything. I have the power of life and death. I am God.’”
But the strain on his life eventually got to Valdés, and he decided to retire from the drug cartel in the late ‘80s. He began taking karate from a man who would change his life forever.
“He talked to me about God for three years. It was the first time a man had ever got up into my face. It was the first time someone had the courage to do that to me,” he said.
Little by little, Valdés’ heart began to lean toward Christ.
“I would pray to Jesus that he would either change me or kill me because I couldn’t live like this anymore,” he said.
Wearing a baby blue shirt and pacing back and forth across the stage, Valdés appeared to be a far cry from his former self. The founder of Coming Clean Ministries and the author of a book called “Coming Clean,” Valdés spends his time traveling across the country, sharing his conversion story and his new passion for Christ.
In his impassioned speech, he implored the young adults to make a difference.
“I believe you are the generation that will change the world,” he said. “I truly believe that.”
Ann Blasick, director of the archdiocesan Young Adult Ministry (YAM) office, said that for her Valdés was one of the highlights of this year’s REVIVE.
“He has one of the most amazing conversion stories, I’d argue, of anyone we’ve ever brought in,” she said. “I think he really spoke to people because he wasn’t leaps and bounds ahead of them. He was just so real. What I loved the most about him is that he was just as excited to be at REVIVE as anyone in the audience and that clearly came across.”
In a quieter manner, Father Dave Pivonka, TOR, addressed the crowd next, reminding them of the nearness of Christ.
“Our God is close, though it doesn’t always feel that way,” he said. “Our story is of a God who constantly wants us to feel his closeness.”
Though many times God is seen as “so big, so powerful,” the truth is that he is personally connected to each person he created.
“The mystery of our faith is that God gets dirty. He doesn’t just sit back. He feels what I feel. He suffers what I suffer,” he said. “He wants to be close. But I think we spend so much time running away from him, maybe out of fear. If nothing else, maybe just for a moment today, just stop running.”
As he brought forth the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance for adoration, he encouraged attendees to be candid with Christ.
“Let the Lord in,” he said. “Be honest with him.”
Paul Ditto, 25, a parishioner of St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro, said that he was especially moved by Father Pivonka’s talk.
“A lot of what he was saying, that God is so close to us—it was exactly what I needed to hear,” he said. “I’ve been to adoration so many times, but tonight the tears were just flowing. It was like an emotional release for me.”
“I was praying and when Father (Pivonka) would say something, it was exactly what I was feeling. This was really a reaffirmation of my faith,” he said. “I just found a sense of peace, and God affirmed what I was doing was right.”
Heather Heaton, a recent University of Georgia graduate and a parishioner of St. Ann Church in Marietta, was moved by the evening. Eucharistic adoration is always a powerful experience, and despite it being a very old tradition in the church, its deep meaning is not lost on young people, she said.
“I think the young adult community here is so charismatic and it’s really expanding,” she said. “It’s really important for people to know that there are different ways to be in adoration. It’s not always silent. Praise and worship (music) is another form of prayer.”
Blasick was pleased with the turnout of this year’s REVIVE, which, she said, is held to “give young adults a spiritual vitamin.”
“Young adults are going out into a world that is often critical of their Catholic faith. We want to energize them and make them think, get them more involved with the church and make them more excited about God, so that they can go back into the secular world and be witnesses who are able to live their faith.”