Today, Cortez Villanueva is in the business of feeding hungry souls. Every Sunday morning, the 47-year-old man can be found in the kitchen at Crimson House Ministries (Springfield, Missouri) stirring pots, baking biscuits and frying meats to feed the homeless who gather around Commercial Street. But 25 years ago, his life revolved around a different hunger game - drugs. Marijuana and crack cocaine were the “food” he was feeding to hungry addicts until he was arrested and sent to prison, serving 17 of a 20-year sentence.
“I was in the family business. My uncles and cousins were dealing drugs for years, but my mother did her best to keep us away from away from them and that side of Kansas City. She moved away from the neighborhood, took us to church and prayed for us. Then one day, she found my stash of money and marijuana and confronted me, so I moved out, deeper into the life of dealing."
I was a major dealer in the neighborhood. Everybody called me ‘Big Chief.’ I made a lot of money. I had two houses and really nice cars – until the police caught me with 25 pounds of weed. I was in prison, from 1992 to 2009, and my mother came to visit often and continued to pray for me. She warned me to stay away from my uncles when I got out, but I went right back to Kansas City and back in the business. That put a wedge between me and my mother and we lost contact.
I never did any drugs myself, but I drank alcohol heavily – seven days a week, from sun up to sun down. In an unexpected twist of fate, my alcohol addiction led me away from my life of drug dealing and into a life of service to God. I had a blackout. They told me I threatened to shoot a guy. … I knew I needed to get sober. I went to a treatment program. It wasn’t very good, but a caseworker there told me about Victory Mission. I had no idea that it was a Christian program, I just thought it was a place to get sober. Then God just took me and carried me away.
The program was helping, but I still wanted a drink. I prayed about it all the time; then I told someone I wanted to be baptized. It was Memorial Day when we went to Lake Springfield for the baptism. The sun was out when I went into the lake and went under the water. When I came out of the water there were three quick thunder claps. From that point on, I have never had the urge to drink.
While I was in the program, I began volunteering at Crimson House where Pastor John Pace worked with me to help me with my quick and bad anger. In exchange, I offered to cook for the church, something I have loved my whole life.
I love to see people eat. I see the joy on people’s faces. The kids run in because they know they are going to get something good to eat. Some even stay for church.
Now I am in charge of the kitchen, and help other volunteers find sobriety and a life of service to God. I'm is also in charge of the Victory Mission warehouse where I work full time as floor manager. I finally have my own home which is right between my work and my church, and across the street from my bank. And I have a bedroom all fixed up for my mother, so she can visit. She’s just so happy about where I am now....and I am too."
I thank God everyday for giving me another chance!
Cortez Villanueva runs the kitchen at Crimson House and the warehouse at Victory Mission, both agencies of Ozarks Food Harvest. The only food bank in southwest Missouri, Ozarks Food Harvest provides food to more than 200 hunger-relief organizations across 28 Ozarks counties. It serves more than 260,000 individuals and distributes more than 14 million meals, annually. Ozarks Food Harvest believes that together, we can Transform Hunger into Hope. Learn more at ozarksfoodharvest.org.
(Cortez's story written by Linda Leicht)