Sometimes life’s unexpected challenges make us feel like we have nowhere left to turn. So it’s especially encouraging when we see how people who have been through so much still manage to live full lives.
Harold Recinos, who is now a professor of church and society at SMU, is one of these people. No matter how much the world took from him, he never stopped hoping for a brighter future.
Harold was born to two immigrants in the South Bronx borough of New York City. His father was largely absent, and his mother struggled to bring in enough money to support her children.
When Harold was 12, his older brother announced his intention to drop out of school and start working. The boys’ mother issued an ultimatum: Rudy had to return to school or leave the house. When Harold tried to defend Rudy’s choice, he got kicked out too.
The young brothers started living in an abandoned tenement building, where they turned to drugs, dropped out of school, and became addicted to heroin. During those dark days of searching the streets for his next fix, Harold found comfort in his faith and safety inside a local church.
“Even when my life would take an unfortunate turn, even when I was living on the street, I always felt close to God,” he said. “I always believed things would get better.”
He also found sanctuary in his public library. “For one thing, it was warm in the winter. And safe,” Harold said. “I’d find a quiet corner, away from everyone else, and spend the whole day reading.” He added, “Books don’t care if your clothes smell bad.”
After four years on the streets, Harold dreamed of getting clean and going back to school. He moved to central Texas, Southern California, and even Puerto Rico before ending up back on the streets of the Bronx. Who knows if he would have broken free if not for Kenneth Haynes, a street minister who stepped in to save the strung-out teenager’s life right before his 16th birthday.
“He’d see a group of junkies on a corner, walk over, and invite us to pray,” Harold explained. “One day he asked me why I wasn’t in school. I said I’d love to go back to school. He said, ‘You want to come live with me and my family? I’ll get you back in school.'”
And he did. Harold moved into the pastor’s basement, where he finally received the support and security he needed to get healthy again. The Haynes family helped him kick his heroin habit, finish high school, and go on to earn a bachelor’s, a master’s, and two doctorate degrees.
Harold is now a professor of theology, an accomplished poet, a missionary to Central America, a jazz flutist, and an ordained elder of the United Methodist Church.
In his spare time, Harold pursues physical fitness. He runs eight miles every morning and is on his way to being a three-time grand champion in international martial arts competitions, with a first-degree black belt in jujitsu and taekwondo. He is also an instructor at the Hebei Chinese Martial Arts Institute in Richardson.
But perhaps most importantly, Harold uses his history of parental abandonment, addiction, and homelessness to counsel others. Harold’s dedication to these teachings was spurred on by the loss of his brother to an overdose in 1985. After Rudy’s death, Harold says he felt more compelled than ever to spread the word of God and keep others from falling into the same trap his brother did.
Harold’s faith remains strong, despite all the darkness he’s seen. “I never felt God was punishing me or that he’d abandoned me. To the contrary, when Rudy died, I heard God telling me very clearly what I should do with my life,” he said. “My work in the church would be a ministry of accompaniment — accompanying struggle-laden people.”
Harold is a perfect example of someone who held onto hope for a better future. What a good reminder to all of us that even in the darkest times, we can achieve amazing things with a little support and encouragement.
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