Nino Esparza owned only his state-issued prison clothes when he stepped off a bus in Rolla last year, and on his shoulder, he carried a single keepsake – a cardboard box filled with 61 pounds worth of sermons he’d written while incarcerated.

Life up to that point had only been a struggle for the East St. Louis native. Esparza dropped out of the eighth grade as an alcoholic, and a series of DWIs later landed him in prison. The prior suffocation death of an infant sister and murder of a teenage brother further pushed him into anguish before arriving in Rolla.

Given those circumstances, it would have been no surprise if Esparza had ended up dead from consumption or yet another wanderer trotting along the interstate. However, in Rolla, Esparza found something which saved his life: unconditional love. Specifically, the refuge of The Mission and support of Rolla First Assembly of God.

It’s been two years since Esparza stepped off that bus, and he has launched his own business, employed local homeless people and is working toward becoming a preacher.

“It not my story, it’s the story of a community coming together,” Esparza says of his journey. “People want to believe in the underdog. It’s part of our makeup because everyone around here has been down at one time or another, and had pain. Hopefully, what I can do is tell a story about redemption and how people can come back from anything. Maybe it will help someone else find that hope they need.”

Rough times in East St. Louis

Esparza grew up in the St. Clair Farms neighborhood of East St. Louis, Illinois. It’s an unincorporated lowland corner where I-255 meets I-64 on the city’s eastern end.

“The neighborhood I lived in was the only one around, it that was country,” Esparza remembers. “In the middle of the hood, it was a little horseshoe, one way in one way out, with a creek and woods all around.”

There were mostly old families in St. Clair Farms back in the 1990s when Esparza was growing up. They’d moved to East St. Louis in its golden years, but decades into decline, couldn’t afford to leave for the suburbs like everyone else. The opening of the next-door Southwestern Illinois Correctional Center further added offense. However, from its neighboring field, the Gateway Arch could still be seen standing in the distance by the area’s youngsters. Esparza naturally looked toward that monument of discovery on the Missouri side. However, his first visit there only revealed the full extent of savage inequalities back home.

“I remember I skipped school and caught a bus. Back then you could just hop on the bus as a kid and nobody said anything,” Esparza says of heading to the Arch. “I had a shoeshine kit and I remember sitting right up next to the Arch where all the people were. After I made a few dollars I rode up into the Arch.”

From the top, Esparza grasped for the first time the hopeless magnitude of St. Louis’s divide in looking to the west, and then looking back to the east.

“I just stared, but almost had to look away,” Esparza says. “It’s like dishonor when you see something like that. It hits at the depth of what you know, and it’s suffocating because you know you have to go home. You’re going to jump on that bus and go back into the hood where you don’t have electricity and you’re going to be freezing.”

Esparza was one of seven brothers growing up with his mom as a single parent and multiple stepfathers. He only met his father a few times, and those came through awkwardly, crossing paths at supermarkets.

“We were really poor, dirt poor. It was something like backwoods around here,” Esparza says. “Everyone in my family went to prison. My mom and dad went to prison. Uncles and my grandpa went to prison. That was one of those places where that was just a regular thing. As crazy as it sounds in America, it was highly implied to not be a dreamer. Don’t dream. Don’t do that to yourself. Even my own mom thought the best thing she could teach me was accept things for what they are.”

Esparza’s first scrape with death came when he was six years old. A little sister died as an infant when she suffocated after rolling off a bed. Foster homes and instability followed. Esparza later dropped out of school when he was 14 years old, started drinking and lowering himself to his surroundings.

“I was always collecting cans or something like that to come up with some money,” Esparza says. “I knew every wino in town and where their hangouts were. There was an old guy named Cat Man who was my nemesis when it came to getting cans. He had a bike, so he was the early bird, but I would always try and outwit him.”

Esparza’s uncle Tippy later intervened and moved him to nearby Granite City, Illinois, to work for his foundation repair business. For a few years, Esparza says he lived relatively well with no debt and his own apartment. His life’s goal then was simple: to live a normal life like the people whose homes he helped fix.

“When I was working for my uncle we would go to St. Charles for a job and see these places, it was dreamy,” Esparza says. “It was surreal and shocking there was a whole different world out there, and it was so close, right across the bridge and down the road. In our neighborhood, there was nothing like that. There weren’t even police at all, and even if they were called, they hesitated to come.”

The downward spiral

Everything changed for Esparza when his older brother Nick was murdered during a robbery attempt in St. Louis. It was especially hard for Esparza, as Nick was immediately above him in age among his brothers and served as something of a father figure. The family only found out about the killing after Nick’s body was found thrown in a trash can.

“When that happened, something shattered in my psyche,” Esparza says. “It didn’t make me evil or hate, but a big part of me died. At his funeral, I wasn’t even going to go up to the casket, but when I did, I remember letting out this growl, and when that happened, it was like my soul came out.”

In the wake of Nick’s death, substance abuse consumed Esparza.

“I didn’t realize, even when looking back at the scope of the damage that was done, that I was really aware of all the trauma,” Esparza says. “It was like an alternate reality. That is the best way I can describe it. When you come from a certain environment there is so much stuff against you. Even in your family.”

Esparza’s 20s and 30s were a dark period. He did manage to leave the Metro East by migrating through the Missouri countrysides of Franklin and Crawford counties. However, the same grief which drove him to self-harm in Illinois still haunted him in the rural Ozarks.

“My alcoholism is what really got me into trouble. It was because I really wanted to die, but I didn’t have the guts to do anything like suicide. As the dream began to die, I had to stay away from the light,” Esparza says. “The saddest part of these situations is you don’t have anybody to tell you what’s normal. You know you shouldn’t break the law, and you should be better, but you’ve never actually seen it. The children of alcoholics and addicts are at a huge disadvantage because they don’t have this knowledge of how to deal with life on life’s terms.”

Esparza had three DWI charges and plea deals before he finally ended up incarcerated in state prison. The third arrest in Crawford County proved decisive in wanting to get sober.

“I was on a little backroad when I saw him coming,” Esparza says of the officer. “I had already gotten a DWI two weeks prior, and was on probation for another even then. I saw him whip around in my rear-view mirror with lights a-blazing. I took off, and it was like I was laughing and crying thinking ‘what am I doing?’ I got down a mile, jumped out and ran. When I got in the middle of the woods, I just stopped and thought ‘I’m not doing this anymore. I’m done.’ Something had happened. I didn’t see lights, and there wasn’t some big thunderclap, but something clicked. That was the beginning of this process of healing. I started crying for my brother. I started crying for my sister. I cried for everything bad in this whole world.”

Esparza was taken into custody and thrown in the county jail. However, unlike the arrests before, Esparza decided to get baptized upon his release. It was the dead of winter at a church outside Steelville.

“I didn’t know anybody in this church and hadn’t been to church in a long time, and I don’t know what it was, but I went in there, and the pastor asked does anybody else want to get baptized?” Esparza says. “Everybody turns around and looks at me, and my hand was up. I went up and got baptized in the clothes I had on. This was February, so I walked home like the tin man because my shirt froze to my back. I knew something had changed, but I didn’t know what quite yet. It was like everything was shiny and new.”

The road to sobriety isn’t straight, nor is it smooth from being well traveled. Although Esparza found the will to stay sober and discovered his faith, it took a fourth arrest for him to realize nothing less than whole-hearted devotion was required for him to achieve his dream of a normal life. This time it was for a domestic dispute with a girlfriend in Rolla who was herself struggling with addiction. That offense was the last straw as far as Esparza’s probation was concerned. He was subsequently incarcerated in state prison.

Finding faith

Esparza had seen many preachers come and go while behind bars. However, it wasn’t until hearing Pastor Chuck Whitmire of Rolla First Assembly of God that he felt an actual connection.

“Everyone else who came in would stay behind the fence, Pastor Chuck was the only one who went out with the inmates to talk with us,” Esparza says.

Upon being moved from the Phelps County Jail to Fulton’s state prison, Esparza began to not only grow his own faith but spread it to others.

“In Fulton, I started telling stories at night,” Esparza says. “I started with my bunkies. I told them we’ve got to keep going and get through this. Eventually, I turned that into my first real sermon I ever wrote. I called it ‘Highway to Hell.’ It’s about this time I walked from Salem to Rolla. It was in June and hot all day, then it started pouring down rain with a thunderstorm. I started crying, wondering ‘Why God?’ After that, the skies brightened, and I realized that was what I had been doing to God the whole time with how I was treating my soul.”

Esparza served in three different prisons and a halfway house during his sentence. He was freed early for good behavior in 2019 after three years and nine months. He credits Sing for the King Prison Ministries for helping him get straight and refine his sermon writing.

Upon release, Esparza had no place to call home, but did remember what an inspiration pastor Whitmire had been for him in the Phelps County Jail. And so it was, Esparza came back to Rolla with nothing but hope and a box full of sermons. After getting off the bus by Burger King, Esparza walked to The Mission and asked for help. There, Esparza found the foundation on which to rebuild his life.

“I was expecting to have to explain myself, beg and make excuses,” Esparza says. “It was none of that. They took me in and loved me at a moment when that is all I had in the world. I knew some theology, I knew all the laws and how I wanted to act, but what I needed was a hot meal and a place to go to bed. A place to get my mind right for the next step. That is what I found there.”

At The Mission, a hot shower turned into some dignity and a warm meal provided the energy to face the world. Esparza says the love of director Ashely Brooks and her staff at The Mission further helped him navigate the seemingly mundane hurdles of modern job seeking and social services which he’d struggled a lifetime to overcome.

“It was the love which made the difference,” Esparza said. “It was the warm cup of coffee. It was the work shoes they gave me. They gave me the first pair of regular pants I’d worn in years. When I arrived at The Mission, they loved me in a simple way with that real hands-on love to break through my situation and tell me it’s going to be okay.”

After a few weeks at The Mission, Esparza had a roofing job. With the help of pastor Whitmire and Rolla First Assembly of God, he then moved into his own apartment. Eventually, Esparza got to a point he launched his own handiwork business called Christian Values Construction through the help of ALG Enterprises. He used it to employ people like himself.

“Ashley’s mom knew I wanted to go out on my own, and she made me two shirts and two hats with Christian Values Construction and a logo. That made it real. That was real love. It was my dream all along. It wasn’t because I had money or anything. It was because somebody believed in me,” Esparza says. “I’ve hired homeless people from The Mission or people from around this area who were struggling. What I want to do is spend time with people. There is something about bringing people together which is powerful. If you take the saints and sinners and you somehow get them together with their pride out of the way for a minute, you’d be surprised. One job can change an entire person’s life.”

Esparza’s next goal is to become a pastor himself through the Missouri School of Ministry. From there, Esparza says he wants to follow pastor Whitmire’s example by making life-saving connections with inmates. Esparza hopes to start in January at the Boonville Correctional Center.

“That’s the end game for me,” Esparza says. “I love prayer but there are so many who do only that. It’s so overused and a cop out. We need people out there doing something. I don’t want people to have to get off the bus like what I had to do. I want to bridge that gap between the reflex of saying I am going to pray for you and the reality that what I need is a hot meal.”

The coming years will be ones of more study and more struggle for Esparza as he continues his education and volunteers weekly at The Mission. He says in that effort his success will be the success of those who’ve helped him along the way, and their collective impact will be measured by homes repaired and souls saved.

“There's a critical time in everybody's life. For some people it might be a year, for some people like me it might take 25 years of pain and suffering. But if you catch them there at that time, that’s when miracles happen,” Esparza concludes. “The action is in the storm, not in the fluff. It’s kind of like a heart surgeon. When you go in that room, it has to been clean and sterile because what you are doing is a very dangerous procedure. You’re dealing with a person’s bare soul. They’ve been through hell, been abused, lived horrible lives; but there is a point where if you can catch them, you can help save them. That’s why places like The Mission, The Russell House and Embrace Grace are so important. That’s where you can do amazing things.”