Our family moved to Florida in 1973 after my father concluded we were no longer safe in Puerto Rico. We attended the local Roman Catholic Church, and I became a devout Catholic. The first time I remember hearing the gospel preached was at age 15. Our family was on vacation in Colorado Springs, and we attended my aunt’s Nazarene church. I don’t remember much about the sermon other than the preacher exalted Jesus. I was angry. Why, I thought to myself, would the preacher talk so much about Jesus, the second person of the Godhead, when the Father is the main one?
Looking back, I thank God for that faithful Nazarene pastor who exalted Christ in all his beauty—even though, in my distorted trinitarianism, I was unable to see it. I will never know his name, but the Lord used him to begin drawing me to himself and, eventually, to show me the beauty of Christ. It took a team effort to show me Christ in all his beauty: a high-school youth group, a Baptist Sunday school teacher, and a faithful church member.
At 17, high-school friends invited me to play softball on their church team. To be eligible, though, I had to attend church at least once a month. Since it was a youth league, I began attending the church’s midweek youth meetings. Since my arrival in the Unites States, I had longed to be accepted by my peers in the majority culture. But it was at this point that I finally felt welcomed. Even though I was different, the youth group and their leaders welcomed me, not just as a peer but as a friend. In that setting, I was able to hear the gospel regularly. Though there was much I didn’t understand, they were patient with me.
But what affected me was the personal nature of their relationship with Christ. Unlike me, who knew a lot about God in a theoretical and theological way, they knew God intimately. As I heard them share the gospel and tell their testimonies week in and week out, I came to realize that I did not know God like they knew God. But it wasn’t just a personal knowledge of God that was unique. Their knowledge of God, which was evident in their love for Christ, flowed out into a love for me—a Roman Catholic Puerto Rican. This high-school youth group and its leaders showed me the welcoming love and beauty of Christ.
But I still had questions.
There to help answer my questions was Kenny Kopta, a church member who worked as an engineer for the phone company and served as our Sunday school teacher. Ironically, I don’t remember anything we talked about in Sunday school. What I do remember is all the late nights at Kenny’s house throughout the week. I’d just graduated high school and was only a few weeks out from going to San Diego for Navy boot camp.
I only had a limited time to ask questions. I can’t even say how many times a week I sat at Kenny’s dinner table. From there we would go into the family room, where I would continue peppering him with questions about Jesus, the Bible, Baptists, you name it. He lovingly and patiently answered my questions for hours. Kenny and his wife, Andrea, sacrificed their own family time and personal space to answer my questions, not out of duty but out of love for Christ and for me. Thus, I saw the beauty of Christ’s self-inconveniencing love in Kenny.
That love led me to approach Kenny one Wednesday night to confess that I did not know God like he knew God. Once again, he shared the gospel with me, telling me of the beauty of Jesus. I confessed my sins to the Lord that evening and asked him to forgive me and to grant me the grace to know Christ personally.
But there was one more person who would show me the beauty of Christ that summer.
Knowing that I would be in boot camp in a few short weeks, Mrs. Hall—my best friend’s mom—invited me to come to her home and work through a couple of foundational studies for new Christians. Like a spiritual mother, Mrs. Hall discipled me in the basics of Christianity. And like a good Baptist, she taught me the Baptist Faith and Message. Again, I don’t remember much about our conversations, but I remember her love. The love of Christ flowed through Mrs. Hall to show me the beauty of the Christ, who provided a spiritual mother to a spiritual orphan. And like a good mother, Mrs. Hall phoned the First Southern Baptist Church of San Diego to let them know about a young man (and new Christian) who would need a ride to church once he got out of boot camp. Sure enough, a retired Navy SEAL and his wife came every Sunday to the Naval Training Center in San Diego and picked me up for church.
Who first showed me the beauty of Christ? It’s hard to say, since it was a team effort. But I thank God that he used a Nazarene pastor, a high-school youth group, a Sunday school teacher, a regular church member, and even a Navy SEAL to show me the beauty of Jesus displayed in the church. Little did I know that, as I was longing for acceptance in this strange culture, what I really needed was to know the truth, beauty, and glory of the Savior who brings us into an eternal family.
You can read previous installments in this series.