A Leader in ‘The Jungle’

Interview by Hugo Bravo

Lieutenant Ismael Ortiz, commanding officer at The Salvation Army Corps Community Center in Wilkes–Barre, Pa., talks about finding God in jail; a vehicle that started a ministry; and leadership skills that came from the streets, but thrived in the Church.

I grew up in York, Pa., which was known as “The Jungle.” There was crime, prostitution, and gangs that always sought new members. A gang recruited me as I played in my front yard. I became part of the trouble and chaos they caused the community. I didn’t feel in control of my life; I was being controlled by the streets and the gang, always trying to live up to this persona I had created. At 21, sitting in jail and facing possible life in prison, I thought back to my childhood, and I could only utter one word: Abba, or Father. In that moment, I felt God’s presence, and I was completely transformed. I immediately asked for a Bible and began to pray.

The apostle Paul spoke about the gift of persuasion in the Bible. I never understood why anyone in a gang would choose to follow me. Still, I’d wake up some mornings and see gang members standing outside of my house, waiting for my orders. Later, as a Salvation Army soldier in York, Pa., my wife and I were put in charge of the youth ministry. We started with only three teens, but in a few months, we had 60 members. They would help clean the corps and cut the grass. Whereas once I influenced and persuaded others negatively, today I’m doing it in the name of Jesus. It’s extraordinary how God used my own life experiences for His Kingdom.

Lieutenant Irseris Agosto Santos and I have been married for 15 years. We’re each other’s number one fan. When people in our ministry see us together, they tell me that they’ve never seen a pastor as openly affectionate with his spouse as I am. That makes my heart full. The Word of God teaches us to love and respect our wives, mothers, and all the women in our lives who have influenced us. Our marriage isn’t perfect. A happy marriage takes both of us surrendering to the Lord every day, and being a support system for each other, never in opposition.

During my training to be an officer, I was put in charge of a canteen ministry on Saturdays. We would go to the nearby Spring Valley Corps to load the truck with food and then go out and feed people who were homeless. When I arrived at my appointment in Wilkes– Barre, Pa., there was a canteen that had been sitting in the garage for years. It was from 2009, but it only had about 10,000 miles on it! We dusted it off and used it to help feed our community on Saturdays. This ministry has gained a lot of recognition here. It shows people that The Salvation Army is still active and working for them. We are also blessed to be joined by other churches and organizations that want to drive the canteen and help. We all come together as a faith–based community to feed homeless people.

My mother, a devout Christian, would recite Psalms 91:11–12 every morning before I went to school: “For He shall give His angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways.” At 37, I still feel those words in my heart every day. When I leave the house in the morning, I walk out confidently, because whatever happens throughout the day, God is in control. He blesses our goings and our comings.

saconnects Volume 8, Number 5, 2022