I met Jesus at a Spanish-speaking church over empanadas. This sounds like the punchline of a joke.
I have to back up a decade or so. I grew up in family that had much respect and reverence for God and the church, but saw little interest in following His commandments and being disciples of Christ. Both of my parents grew up in the Methodist church, but we only attended service on Palm Sunday, Easter, Mother’s Day and sometimes on Christmas Eve. The other times were weddings and funerals. As a kid I had an unhealthy dose of fear of the Lord – that He was constantly mad at me because I wasn’t always the best-behaved kid. I had to walk the line, watch Veggie Tales, and listen to DCTalk if I wanted to even think of entering the kingdom of God.
That kind of thinking followed me as I grew older and attended Vacation Bible School and eventually youth camp. My youth leader led me and some other seventh graders to say the sinner’s prayer, and I knew at that moment I was headed to Hell and I had better get right with God ASAP. I remember feeling there was a difference and that I had to behave better, but if I am honest with myself, I don’t think I truly knew why.
Because I did not build my faith on a firm foundation and I wasn’t attending church regularly, I drifted away from God. Family life was in turmoil as my parents separated and my dad started doing awful things. I did not have a good core group of Christian friends and was barely attending church. I had always struggled with acceptance and wanting to be liked, so I sought friendships with whoever paid me a little bit of attention – even if that attention was negative and their life choices did not reflect my inner beliefs. The people I hung around with had little interest of pursuing a relationship with Christ, let alone living a life of a disciple. I began to admire them and their carefree outlook on the world.
Until I met Jesús.
It was 2009 and I was taking a course in graphic design. One of my classmates, Vanessa, was super quiet and I was paired up with her to work on a project. She was always smiling and friendly to everyone. She diligently did her work, never cut corners or backtalked the teacher, like the rest of us did. My interest in her was solely curiosity of why she was such a good person and also wanting to get a few tips on Illustrator because she was really good at design.
I learned from casual conversation that her dad was a pastor at a Spanish-speaking church in Langley Park, Md., a majority Central American community near D.C. I thought that was pretty cool and wanted to learn more, and she invited me to their church. I was hesitant but, because I hate saying no to people, agreed and made plans to join her that following Sunday.
I really thought the church service was fascinating. Pastor Barbosa spoke in both English and Spanish (though most of the service was in Spanish and the Bibles were in Spanish). The service lasted about 3 hours and afterwards everyone shared a potluck meal, and I got to meet some of the youth. I met so many people who came from different backgrounds, but the one thing they had in common was the passion for their faith. I wanted to be a part of that.
I had visited the church about a week before my birthday and Vanessa and her family surprised me with a Bible – an NIV brown and green leather Bible that I treasure to this day and stopped usually regularly because I don’t want it to wear out or get misplaced. Over the next few weeks I read through the Bible and the fire was lit for me to return back to my faith.
I wish I could say that flame engulfed me from head to toe, but it was a quick burn and fizzled out. I did not turn back to following my friends’ ambitions, but I did skip church and let other concerns of college life consume me.
Then my Great Uncle died.
He was 89 and died of cancer, so I was happy he was no longer in pain. His funeral was accordingly festive and the thing that stood out the most to me (other than the flowers falling off of the casket), was that his friends and church family all said, “He was a man of God.”
I wanted people to say that about me at the end of my life. I want to live a life worth living for the Lord – one where my achievements were centered around God and others, not myself.
That was 2012, and from there I slowly began changing my life to one of a Christ-follower. I’d like to say it has been easy, but there are times I still struggle in my faith. One thing is certain: I am forever grateful for God’s grace and forgiveness and proud to declare Him as my Savior and put my trust in Him.