Every year a man named Steve Moran from California brought a group of teenagers from California to build a church or a school in some part of Mexico. They would fly into a nearby airport, spend one night at our Academy and then drive down to Mexico the next day.
Steve was the kind of guy who had clearly not fit in when he was younger, had not been part of the cool kids. I think the memory of this motivated him to go out of his way to make sure that kids who were odd or different always felt included, that they always had a place to belong. He was avid about his faith and wanted everyone around him to be, and far more bothered by people who were indifferent than people who were opposed. The people who were opposed he could at least argue with. He used the Socratic Method to lead discussions about faith, generally allowing the conversation to flow the way a riverbed does, some twists and turns, but guided in a general direction. It was obvious that he had a specific agenda and point of view that he believed should prevail. He didn’t care about the little details of the picture, but was more concerned with framing the argument and making sure that God’s word was heard. It pained him when “his children” didn’t end up following. His own wife had converted from a devout atheism and he himself had spent some time wondering through the wilderness in his youth so in his mind everyone was salvageable.
He is the closest thing I ever had to being a father but that would come later. He and I had spoken the previous year as his group had gone through and he had really tried to encourage me to go to it. I had with the help of the new chaplain, Jaime Cruz, had done so.
I can’t think of many things that I’ve ever been more enthused about than that. We had a great crew headed there; Alycia, Josie, Jeremy and Ellen were all coming. I got to make friends with many young newcomers from California like Curt, Chris and Grace. They were all from South Bay Adventist church in California. There is a term within Adventism called ‘California Adventist’. California Adventists tend to be more liberal, not as concerned with many of the touchy details that the vast majority of Adventists are. Hanging out with them made me realize how right I was about things like movies and earrings being evil.
We were going to build a church and have evangelistic meetings every night. The local community had been promoting it for weeks. We had another dynamic preacher with us, Rocky, who on the way down was growing more and more sick until it became evident that he would not be able to preach. This was a point of concern for many because what were we going to do without a preacher. Someone said, “Well… Iram preaches.” I tried to deflect, obfuscate, etc, but the crowd eventually prevailed on me to do the evangelistic series. Steve even said that maybe this was God’s way of getting me involved.
I was in absolute panic. Preaching in a church full of Adventists is one thing. Generally speaking, they agree with you. This crowd now was there to be convinced that they should come to Jesus. If you’ve ever watched TV evangelism, it all rhymes with that. Obviously there are shades and degrees of melodrama, but it’s essentially a come-to-Jesus meeting. The other thing is that the Adventist church holds that the Catholic system of the papacy is essentially the anti-Christ. Not the Catholic Church per se but this belief that a man, the pope, should be invested with so much authority was a problem. Adventists sincerely believe that this will bring about the end of time as they try to force everyone to believe the same thing. Evangelism in a place like Mexico isn’t so much about trying to convert secularist or atheists, because there are almost none of those. It’s essentially trying to get the 95% of the country who is Catholic to accept that they are wrong and that Jesus’ way is found within the Adventist church.
Rocky had brought some pretty scripted sermons to preach and slides to go with them. I tried to just take his ideas and go with it. The first one I tried can roughly be described as a train wreck. I was nervous, afraid to both fail Rocky and God and it can be safely assumed that I did so.
During the days, the vast majority of the crowd was building the church but there was only so much we could do, so a part of the extras like Alycia and Josie -who were excellent with children- hosted a mini day camp where we taught people about Jesus. We had also brought a doctor who essentially set up a mini free clinic for people in the community. A few of us, myself included, went door to door around the town trying to convince people to come to the meeting. It was a double edged sword because I felt like I had done such a poor job the first night.
Our method was essentially to knock on the door and ask people if there was anything we could pray with them about. People are generally open to having people pray with and for them so it was going well. After the prayer, we would give them a pamphlet or informational sheet inviting them to the meeting. It was all fairly non-incidental until we got to this one house. The lady at the door let us know that she and her children were the victims of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a philandering drunk. She wanted to know exactly what our God was going to do about it. She said she’d tried praying for so long that it seemed that God never heard and so now she didn’t know what to do other than to beg Satan to go away because obviously the devil was very real when God had been so absent and silent. She said this with anger in her voice and sadness in her eyes. She said it with a zeal and conviction that showed she was crying out for help. A small boy, maybe only seven or eight was making the rounds with us (he was someone’s son and really not useful in any other place) and despite the fact that she was essentially screaming in Spanish interrupted. This little boy asked me to tell this woman that “Jesus loved her and is trying to take care of her.” Had any of us teenagers or any of the adults said that, it probably would have fallen on deaf ears and come across as hollow. But this moment touched her, and she began to cry, asking if we could pray with her. I invited her to the meeting afterwards but she politely declined. I am still haunted by the look on her face as she talked about how real the devil was in her life and how God seemed to have faded so far. We went back a couple more times but we never were able to find her again. I prayed for her for years.
We had the meeting that night again and I tried with a little more success to use Rocky’s slides and sermons. It was less of a disaster but still one. Surprisingly, we had a bigger crowd the second night than we had the first night. One of the local church elders said that it was clearly the work of God and that people were motivated to see what these Americans were doing and why they had brought such a young preacher.
The third night I decided that I would just do things my style and they went much better and each night we had a few more people. The fourth night by coincidence we had a local preacher who was coming too. I gave the sermon and between the two of us we both tag teamed an altar call and at the end of the evening several candidates had come up offering themselves up for baptism. It was an incredibly touching and humbling moment to think that God had used my particularly bad sermons to move people to come to God.
We spent Friday having a very intense Bible study with the candidates. The church’s frame would be done including the ceiling. More importantly, we had completed the Baptismal tank and we intended to dedicate the church and break in that tank. We did so. In the Adventist tradition, only ordained ministers are allowed to baptize so Rocky was actually the one who baptized our candidates as I stood by. It was a strange week where both God and the devil’s work had become incredibly evident. They had fought each other. I felt like I had put on the whole armor of God in the midst of that battle but there ended up being a chink in the armor.
I could not possibly have been higher had I been on cloud nine. I was enthusiastic about what had been done. I felt like this was the culmination of a lot of hard work on the part of lots of people. The vacation bible school, the building of the church, the medical clinic, and the evangelistic series were by any definition a success.
It started severely raining that afternoon not too long after the baptisms and there was some fear that the roads were going to flood on our way back into the US. The adults made a decision to drive back all night instead of the next day to make sure that the California group would not miss their flights.
There was a girl who had been flirting with me all trip, Corina. She was a rough and tumble girl, a Pacific Islander who definitely could have taken me in a fight. Now, let me be clear. I had been committed to not having girlfriends that year but I hadn’t turned into a prude or a priest. I would still have a wink and a smile, a nudge, a flirtation but it really was completely harmless. That entire week down in Mexico Corina had been flirting with me and she was part of those people who didn’t fit in that Steve so liked to take care of and I think he was trying to encourage it. She was 14 and I was 16 at the time. That night when we were trying to get into the vans Corina and a few of the people were teasingly trying to get me to ride in the backseat with her. I was not interested. Even Steve joined in on the heckles (I think this came from a place of trusting me where he thought worst case scenario was that she would fall asleep on my lap and that would be that). Finally I relented.
Corina was definitely aggressive and before long what I had successfully stayed away from for almost a year started unraveling. In no time at all, we were heavily making out and all the guilt that I had worked so hard at shaking came pouring back into me. The next day Steve gave me a lecture on my moral failing. Many of the same people who had so actively encouraged me to flirt back showed their disdain and disappointment. It’s really impressive how people want you to be human but not too human.