Nadine Raphael is a compelling pastor, author and speaker whose messages of hope and faith inspire countless people online and at her Florida church. But in addition to being all of those things she is a survivor — of abuse, a violent gang life, and what she believes was an unjust yet transformative prison sentence.
Raphael’s near-incredible journey from prison to the pulpit of Christian Life Center in Fort Lauderdale is akin to the life of the Apostle Paul, an unlikely figure who many may call unqualified but who God calls chosen.
Raphael was born in Jamaica but came of age during the 1980s in drug- and gang-infested Brooklyn, New York. Her father abandoned his family when her mother became pregnant with Raphael, their third child. Raphael’s relationship with her mother was rocky from the start, as the woman had tried to abort her baby multiple times.
“I looked a lot like my father and so every time she saw me there was a gripe in her because I reminded her of my father and that led to abuse,” Raphael told Faithfully Magazine.
Having a resentful mother and an absent father led Raphael to look for what she felt was missing in her life in the wrong places and with the wrong people. Despite being a smart and studious teen who enjoyed reading as an escape, she joined a gang at the age of 14 and later entered into a relationship with an older man.
“He promised me the world,” she said. “He was like a father figure that I didn’t have and he promised to take me out of the plight of Brooklyn. He saved my life so to speak.”
By the time she turned 18, Raphael was pregnant and living in Virginia with this man. Her rose-colored glasses soon came off, however, when the FBI showed up at the door one day asking to search their home. Authorities had been surveilling her family and pinned her partner as a major drug lord. Unaware of what had been taking place, Raphael soon found herself serving an almost six-year prison sentence for crimes she had no part in.
Despite the unjust situation, Raphael eventually embraced it as part of God’s plan.
“Prison was my wake-up call. I don’t regret that. It was part of my destiny, [my] journey,” she said. “It was my Damascus Road or my Jonah in the fish awakening so to speak. A prison guard named Ms. Jackson was a believer who risked her job as a C.O. [Correctional Officer] to tell me about the love of Christ everyday she came to work.”
It was in cell 232 at three in the morning that Raphael, alone, encountered Jesus for the very first time. It was a unique and “surreal experience,” and she couldn’t wait to tell the C.O. later that day.
“She walked up to my cell and she already knew,” Raphael said of Ms. Jackson. “She looked at my face and knew I had encountered Jesus. She walked away and came back and handed me my first Bible. I have that Bible to this day, tattered and all.”
Ms. Jackson, having completed her “assignment,” was soon reassigned to another prison. Meanwhile, Raphael began to find her purpose in life — to inspire people to believe in God and his power to help them overcome their past and the harm they experienced.
Leaning in to her faith and what she had discovered was her calling, Raphael found freedom that went beyond prison walls and an answer to the void she had felt growing up.
Still, she had no intention of becoming a pastor. But God had different plans.
“I think growing up, I just wanted to survive. The journey to being executive pastor is profound because I didn’t have the desire. I thought I wanted to be an anchorwoman, [like] Katie Couric, Oprah Winfrey. Those people inspired me in my late teens,” Raphael said. “I knew I wanted something to do with people but Jeremiah 29:11 says ‘I know the plans I have for you.’ I’m glad that God had a greater plan than what I had. I knew I had the ability to preach God’s word when I was in prison. I didn’t know what it was called, I didn’t know what I was doing.”
After leaving prison, Raphael found work at a hotel. However, she says God soon told her to resign. As a single mom with her background, she was terrified of the challenge but obeyed. Two days later, Christian Life Center called and offered her a clerical position, knowing nothing about her journey. Soon, she was promoted to head of the business department (she had studied business administration in prison). Raphael committed herself to this role for more than 11 years, until the senior pastor told her she needed to be preaching.
Now married with three children, Raphael’s ministry extends beyond her megachurch’s walls. The executive pastor regularly shares her sermons and inspirational messages with thousands online via her social networks, including on YouTube where her videos have amassed more than two million views and thousands of positive comments.
“God calls the unqualified,” she said. “He’s looking for willing vessels that will trust Him at His word and step out by faith.”