RIVERVIEW — Valencia Moss took her first sip of alcohol at 12.
At 15, she was a member of the notorious Crips gang. By 19, she was smoking crack and prostituting herself.
At 23, Moss said she had had enough of the street life. She committed her life to God and entered a faith-based recovery program.
"I got to know the love of God," she said. "Ever since then, I have not looked back."
Moss was one of a half-dozen former drug addicts who shared their stories Friday at Love First Christian Church's Recovery Revival. Hosted by state Sen. Darryl Rouson, the event featured gospel selections and a homily from Pastor Jomo Cousins.
Rouson, who represents Pinellas and parts of Hillsborough counties, jumped off the evening with a confession he has made several times before.
"Hi, my name is Darryl and I'm an addict," said Rouson, who is on the board of the River Oaks Treatment Center in Riverview.
Rouson said he's open about his 14-year crack addition in the hope that it could help eliminate the shame that shrouds addiction.
"We're all in recovery for something," he said.
While the event had the makings of a church service, Rouson said the gathering was less about Christianity and more about the spiritual power of rehabilitation recommended in 12-step recovery programs. "Religion is about those who are trying to escape hell," he said. "Spirituality is for those who've already been there."
In his address, Cousins encouraged audience members to believe that all struggles in life — including substance abuse — can be overcome with faith.
"We're all struggling with something," he said. "What I want you to understand my friends is that you're never too far gone for God."
The Bible is full of examples of flawed people whom God still saw as purposeful: Noah was a drunk; David, a murderer; and Rahab was a prostitute.
"The challenge we have isn't that we aren't qualified," he said. "If God can use all of them, then I ask 'Can God use you?' "
In a separate interview, Moss said even in her worst moments she knew she wanted a better life.
"There was that something that said 'This cannot be it,' " she said. "I just didn't know how to get it."
It was that longing for more that gave Moss the courage to live a year in a recovery program away from family and friends.
During that time, she learned new habits and mindsets and grew stronger in her faith. Today, she is healthy and happy and serves as a minister at Love First.
"God is good," she said.
Contact Kenya Woodard at [email protected]