Jesus came into my heart when I was fourteen years old. After a prematurely problematic adolescence, my life really did change and I became immersed in all things Christian. An active member of my small conservative church in Puerto Rico, I was always hanging around with my pastor and his wife. During a season when things were rocky at home, church provided me with a sense of family and comfort. Even now, as the years have passed and I have distanced myself from some of the beliefs I held at the time, I can never argue against the love of God manifested to me through the care of my church family. I have not attended that church for more than six years, and I still get calls and messages from them, making sure I am OK!
There’s a memory from a Friday night after service that I frequently revisit. The pastors were giving me a lift, and accompanying us in the car was a visiting pastor from Cuba. At the time, my family lived in a rented house that I felt embarrassed about. It had really funky décor that I can sum up in these things: a donkey statue in the lawn, a lion-shaped fountain by the door, and pink paint all over the walls (I couldn’t make this up if I tried.). Always the self-conscious teen, I rambled on about my ugly house all the way home. My pastor, his wife, and the Cuban pastor patiently listened to my complaints. When we got there, the Cuban pastor commented, “You have a beautiful house. I hope you get to visit mine someday in Cuba.” I was speechless. I did not know where or how to hide. Twelve years have passed, but the memory is vivid.
I was blessed to be able to visit his house on several trips as part of a religious Visa awarded to our church a few years later. Getting to know Christians in Cuba, establishing friendships that still exist, and learning about a different, more simple way of life are a few of the life lessons that these trips offered me. My church, with all its prohibitions and rules, somehow managed to broaden my horizons and expose me to realities of the world that were otherwise unknown to me. In church and on these mission trips, I learned about simplicity, about learning to live with less, about being thankful, about forming friendships, about trusting God amidst hard times, and about expecting miracles in unexpected places. Church was the first place I learned about homelessness, about addiction, and about what I could do to serve those in need. Years of college, and graduate school, and books, and conferences have not taught me as much as these experiences did. They shaped my passions, defined my vocation, and are at the foundation of the goals and dreams that I am pursuing, professionally and personally.
The Evangelical and Pentecostal churches in Puerto Rico have had a beautiful trajectory of service to the community that is often overshadowed by their strict doctrines. I am attracted to that tradition of kindness and compassion, but I cannot get past their exclusive theology and make myself believe it again. I am not changing them, and they probably won’t change me (in that sense, at least). I often reflect on those beautiful years and can only conclude this. Profoundly more so than the teachings and sermons, it was the every-day things and walking together that taught me best about life and ultimately, attracted me to the Jesus I still adore.