As Adrian Ortiz signed his final paperwork, cleared his throat, and walked out the doors of the Wildwood Correctional Complex near Kenai, Alaska, for the first time in nearly seven years, he was considered a free man.
But Adrian knew better.
His 80-month sentence for armed robbery—which included three grueling years in solitary confinement—may have ended, but he fully expected to be back in incarceration soon. He knew the numbers. Over three-fourths of inmates are arrested and return to the penal system within five years of release, according to the US Department of Justice.
“At that point in my life I was pretty hardened,” says Adrian, who was part of a prison gang. After numerous stints in jail and prison for robbery, drug possession, drug dealing, assault, illegal sale of guns, and various petty crimes, he decided he was “a lifer,” destined to be in and out of prison for the rest of his life.
Thankfully the Lord had other plans. Today, Adrian is a new person with a new purpose. Married with two sons, he serves as youth pastor at Creekside Community Church in Wasilla, Alaska, having earned his BA in Biblical Studies through Moody Bible Institute’s online program.
Hitting a Dead End
Following his longest stay in prison, Adrian moved back to Anchorage, Alaska, where he’d lived since he was eight years old. As a felon and active gang member, he struggled to find employment. He eventually was hired as a maintenance worker at a strip club and moved into a transitional living home for ex-convicts.
After two despairing months of supposed freedom, Adrian had reached a dead end.
His law-breaking lifestyle began back in middle school—smoking marijuana and drinking, then progressing to harder drugs like cocaine. He started selling drugs and burglarizing homes in ninth grade, then was expelled from two different high schools and was sent to a juvenile detention center for the first time in 10th grade.
By his 18th birthday, Adrian’s criminal activity had only increased, leading to armed robbery, long-term incarceration, and induction into a gang.
“I was out of prison, but the parole office really wanted me back in jail and not spreading more problems in Anchorage,” Adrian says.
A Life-Changing Encounter
On Adrian’s 30th birthday in 2010, two of his childhood friends, Corey and Erin Schmidlkofer, invited him out to lunch. Corey and Adrian had been best friends since grade school.
Like Adrian, Corey spent several years behind bars. (“Adrian and I were troubled together,” Corey says. “We used drugs, sold drugs, and stole drugs from people who sold drugs.”) But Corey trusted Christ as his Savior shortly after his prison release in 2009. Now Corey couldn’t wait to introduce Adrian to the One who had set him free from his bondage to sin.
He and Erin asked Adrian a lot of questions, most specifically what he had learned in prison and whether he had a relationship with the Lord. “He said, ‘Jesus is a good dude, a miracle worker and wise teacher, kind of like Ghandi,’” Corey recalls. “I said to him, ‘Oh, but He is so much more than Ghandi. He is God, the creator of the heavens and the earth, our Savior and Lord!’
“Adrian didn’t seem to have a clue what I was talking about,” says Corey, who went on to share his personal testimony and the gospel. Giving Adrian a Bible, Corey and Erin asked him to read the Gospel of John and told him to call them with any questions.
Photo caption (above): Adrian Ortiz with Corey Schmidlkofer, the childhood friend who led Adrian to Christ after Adrian got out of prison in 2010.
‘Are You Real, God?’
The conversation with Corey and Erin profoundly impacted Adrian, who sensed something different about them.
That night Adrian prayed, “Are You real, God? Are You Jesus?”
He explains, “Something happened that night, call it the hand of God, to cause me to think I needed to further investigate the matter. I read the book of John, and then I just knew who Jesus really was.”
Two weeks later, Adrian called Corey to tell him about his personal encounter with Jesus, saying that he believed Jesus was who the Scriptures claimed. When Corey asked Adrian, ‘Who is He?’” Adrian answered, “My God and my Savior!”
Corey gave thanks to Jesus. “I was so thrilled,” he says.
Adrian adds, “I thought I was something big and bad, but I was a lamb in need of the Shepherd’s rescue. . . I was a person created in God’s image who had wanted to be God more than to be loved by God. Now, because of Jesus doing for me what I could never do on my own, I’m a happy child of God who doesn’t want to be God. I want to please God because of how kind He’s been to me.”
Walking Free in Christ
Shortly after receiving true freedom in Christ, Adrian pursued a new way of life. He enrolled in a drug treatment program, joined Baxter Road Bible Church, and learned the carpentry trade from a devout Christ follower, Robert Nelson, who mentored him. After three years as an apprentice, Adrian launched his own carpentry business.
Adrian also made the difficult choice to leave the gang he had joined in prison. Leaving an organized gang is a dangerous decision; gangs consider membership to be permanent and threaten to bump off members who attempt to leave.
“I had to tell the gang leader I’m out; I can’t follow Jesus and follow what the gang is doing,” Adrian says. “I wrote a letter to the gang leader, and he wrote back and said, ‘Do what you’ve got to do to be your own man.’”
Back in prison, Adrian had once leaped to defend the gang leader when he was attacked by a group of prisoners with weapons. “I jumped on the first guy who was swinging a weapon at him, so I had earned respect and affection from this gang leader.”
Though Adrian has run into members of his former gang through the years, with God’s protection he has never had any trouble with them. “The gang leader even came to know Christ later on while in prison and left the gang, too. That was an answer to my prayers,” Adrian says.
New Wife and New Calling
Adrian met a woman at his church, ironically named Adrienne, through a Bible study he was leading. Adrienne was visiting while serving for a year as a missionary in New York. After dating long distance through letters and phone calls, Adrian proposed to her during a trip to New York, and they married after Adrienne’s missionary service concluded.
Adrian and Adrienne soon moved to Wasilla, and Adrian’s carpentry business continued to flourish. But his wife believed God was preparing her husband for an entirely new mission.
“He was very good at his job and financially successful, but he seemed unfulfilled and discouraged,” says Adrienne, who suggested that Adrian wasn’t living out God’s calling on his life. “That led us to prayer in pursuing full-time ministry, something he’d talked about doing. He strongly believed in getting a formal education and ended up applying to Moody. I supported his decision because I’ve felt thankful for my own nursing degree and wanted to see him able to live out his own dreams and calling, no matter what stage of life we were in.”
There was just one problem.
“How in the world would we be able to afford that?” Adrian wondered.
Adrian applied to Moody Bible Institute’s online program, becoming a full-time student. Giving up the construction business, the couple lived on Adrienne’s nursing salary and a small stipend from their church, where Adrian became an intern. The Alaska Department of Vocational Rehabilitation awarded a grant for ex-felons to help pay Adrian’s tuition.
A week after Adrian was accepted, the couple learned they were pregnant. “It was God’s timing for sure,” he says. “If I had found out we were pregnant a week later I wouldn’t have gone to Moody.”
Photo caption: Adrian and his wife, Adrienne, in Alaska with their children Judah and Lazzaro.
A Family-Wide Educational Effort
Adrian enrolled in Moody’s online program in 2017 and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Biblical Studies in 2021. His education at Moody quickly paid dividends when Creekside Church hired him as its full-time youth pastor, fulfilling Adrian’s dream of being a pastor.
That’s not to say earning a degree wasn’t fraught with obstacles. Adrian studied full time while interning part time and later pastoring full time at his church. He also juggled the role of stay-at-home father caring for their kids Lazzaro (now 4) and Judah (now 2) while Adrienne worked long hours to support the family.
“In all honesty, those years are such a blur of sleep deprivation and total insanity,” Adrienne says with a laugh. As soon as she walked through the door, Adrian would start catching up on the studying he hadn’t been able to do because of his parenting duties.
“We just made the most of it,” Adrienne says. “I was the designated driver wherever we went because he would be typing away with a mountain of books on the dashboard. We were probably quite the sight driving around town!”
Adrian’s limited formal education as a troubled teen, combined with being out of school for 20 years, created hurdles. But Adrian rose to the challenge and learned to meet his professors’ writing standards.
“Adrian truly loved to learn and was intelligent and grew strong academic muscles over time,” Adrienne says. “His papers transformed along with his theological understanding of doctrines and Scripture, and he received so much confirmation on his calling to be a pastor through the whole education process.”
‘I’m So Grateful for Moody’
Adrian says he would encourage anyone who can’t attend in person to study online through Moody.
Those four years in school were instrumental, Adrian says, “for my training and understanding of Scripture and the tools I gained for critical thinking, the biblical foundation I learned, the understanding of hermeneutics, and the different tools for Bible study. I’m so grateful for Moody and value what my professors poured into me and what I learned from classmates who were from all over the world.”
But more than anything, looking back at the last 11-plus years, Adrian says he’ll never forget the One who deserves all the credit for breaking his spiritual chains and giving him true freedom.
“Jesus is and always will be the hero of my story,” Adrian says. “He has made good on His promise to give me life and life to the full. Like John 10:10 says, ‘I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.’”
Photo caption: Adrian huddles in prayer with members of Creekside Church in Wasilla, Alaska, where he is a youth pastor.
To learn more about Adrian’s experience as a Moody student, read Online Professor, In-Person Friendship.