Chapter 1 of Neighborhood Portrait: Comerío
What in the world happened to you?
Religion, drugs, and why it’s so hard for men like Jorge Santiago to escape the streets of Puerto Rico.
Jorge Santiago comes from a culturally religious place.
“If you ask anybody in Comerío, they will tell you, ‘I’m a Catholic,’” says Jorge, “but then when you ask them if they go to church, they will tell you no.”
It’s no surprise then, that as Jorge looks back on his formative years, he cannot recall ever hearing the gospel.
“I started trying to remember,” Jorge says, “and I couldn’t think of a time when someone spoke to me about Jesus and tried to present Jesus as the solution to my problem.”
Journeying around the city, Jorge can point out where a gang fight recently cost five men their lives or where thugs held up a convenience store at gunpoint. What’s more, he can point out the corners and streets where he used to deal drugs himself.
On streets like this one, Jorge Santiago once sold crack cocaine and marijuana.
Jorge’s family, fed up with his antics, sent him to the Washington D.C., area in a last-ditch effort to help him start “walking the line.” But at first, a change in scenery wound up being just that.
A friend had begun illegally selling firearms and invited Jorge to join him. In one of their deals, however, their buyer turned out to be an undercover cop, and Jorge suddenly found himself facing 30 years in prison.
“I was smoking a cigarette in front of my apartment after that situation,” says Jorge, “and I remember I was meditating over my life, and thinking, ‘How did I get here?’”
He had come from a good family with good values but had thrown his entire life away with drugs. While Jorge stood outside his apartment, God showed him where trying to live his life on his own had gotten him. That realization terrified him.
“I ran to my bedroom, got onto my knees and called out to God, ‘If you save my life from jail, I will give you my life forever, and I will serve you forever. I will never go back again,’” says Jorge.
A few weeks later, his lawyer called and said, “I don’t know what happened or how it happened, but your case has been dismissed.”
God had heard and answered Jorge’s prayer. Jorge gave his life to Jesus in November of 2012, and he was baptized the following February. Leaders in his church, Primera Iglesia Bautista de Groveton, recognized the special way that God was moving in Jorge’s life and began to train him for ministry.
It was about this time that Jorge met Sandra Rebeca Hernández-Nerio. Rebeca had been raised in and around Primera Iglesia Bautista de Groveton, and Jorge noticed something different about her.
“I was thinking,” Jorge remembers, “‘She doesn’t drink; she doesn’t smoke; she doesn’t do drugs; and she’s happy. That’s what I want. I want that in my life.’”
The two grew closer and in July of 2013, were married.
Rebeca Santiago was one of the first Christians Jorge had ever met.
Then, in the summer of 2017, Primera Iglesia Bautista de Groveton sent Jorge, Rebeca and their two children, Sebastian and Sophia, to Puerto Rico to plant a church in Comerío. They planned to get comfortable in their new setting and launch a church the following year.
But God had another plan.