I am seated in the front seat of a car that stands out as luxurious in the midst of the carcachitas and motocicletas of Cartagena, Colombia. My friends, Sasha Andrade and Edgar de Leon sit in the back; my pastor, Libardo Cuesta, makes small talk and explains to us where we are at in the evangelistic process.
I smile and try to sneak a photo through the car window. I can't believe I'm in Cartagena. I silently thank Jacqueline whose spot I replaced. I had forgotten how much I loved evangelism. I had forgotten how much I missed the grunt work of interpersonal ministry and preaching.
I was usually the first or last to be dropped off. My church was in Loma Fresca—the cool or refreshing hill. I had the poorest district. My elder would often explain how the people I worked with and for were the kinds of people who worked so that they could buy/have food for that day. My pastor would advise me to keep my camera gear hidden in the church. I never felt unsafe, but then again, I tried to not stand out too much.
One time when I was in Loma Fresca, gunshots went off nearby. An altercation but I never found out the details.
Everyone took me in. And I gladly loved everyone. My freshman year at Southern had been messy and dramatic. I was making all sorts of mistakes in the USA and it felt good to escape and feel healthy for a month. They fed me so well. I don't care for sweet foods, but I gratefully received their Caribbean cooking. Little did I know it was prepping me for the Cuban girlfriend I would come to have.
And they were very gracious of my Mexican Spanish. Often they would ask me to say ¡mande! Again and again they would say it back to me; I loved it. I felt at home for a moment. Showering with buckets, walking through dusty roads, and hard working sun kissed people surrounded me. Every house doubled as a shop of sorts.
Might as well have been mi ranchito de Mexico.
Jacobo Cabarcas was special. A winsome smile with bright white teeth that lit up his dark face. He had been through things. He had worked hard and studied hard and he was making it with his arepa business. Church was part of his family's DNA. His mother was a matriarch. They lived right beside the church. He was the oldest of three boys and he knew there was pressure to be a certain way.
As a firstborn, I could relate.
He came nearly every night to my meetings. He became my number one priority—my first experience at laboring for someone's decision to recommit.
In this poor area of Colombia, like in my home country, one of the biggest obstacles for backslidden Adventists are issues of marriage. Often the church has to call men to commit to a woman or to exact a legal marriage from two people who have been living together forever. For Jacobo, it was the latter. In his younger days, he had fathered a child with another woman and he both felt guilty and responsible; his wife went in and out of bouts of jealousy and hatred. But Jacobo wanted Jesus.
"Bryant, es que yo sé lo que tengo que hacer. I know what I need to do but I just can't right now. My wife doesn't help. Also, I will feel like I will be abandoning my child. I can't."
The head elder and the pastor had decided that tonight was the night. But when I finished my sermon, I could sense something wasn't right. I stepped outside where Jacobo would be prepping.
I did not find him in baptismal robes.
He was still dressed.
Elder and pastor surrounded him.
His face was downcast.
My heart sank.
It was dark outside. The song service people could stall only for so long.
"He's backing out. Talk to him!"
I wondered what a 20 year old Mexican American screw up could possibly do to encourage him to go through.
"Jacobo, God took care of Hagar and Ishmael. God loves your daughter—more than you do. You are not abandoning anyone. You are doing what's best for you family. God will care for her, and you—you will care for your wife and your child with her."
I will never know if my words helped or not. His face communicated nothing and after I said what I said the pastor took over with his Latinx evangelism.
"¡En el nombre de Jesus, bautizate! In the name of Jesus, step forwards. In the name of Jesus, take off your shirt. In the name of Jesus, step forwards. ¡Vamos! Let's go Jacobo."
And like that Jacobo was moved away from the uncertainty of darkness and inside the church beneath the lights of the baptismal pool.
A crude and yet perfectly romantic structure.
The pastor is basically prophesying over Jacobo.
I remember feeling uncomfortable. I remember wanting to judge the whole situation according to my Dutch-German Rationalistic Low Key Deistic Christian standards.
And then I remember filming his smile when he emerged from the waters, and my doubts went away—en el nombre de Jesus.
Some things are not arguments or experiments to dissect. Some things are events to behold and believe.
A few weeks ago, Jacobo passed away. He had cancer and then he didn't and then he had complications with his lungs. Then all of a sudden, Facebook told me he had died.
I plan to return Cartagena's busy streets and up to Loma Fresca's rowdy roads and I hoped to hear Jacobo tell stories and offer me arepas.
But I will see him and his brilliant smile again. In the name of Jesus—I know I will see his white teeth and sparkling eyes that will fit right along the dazzling displays of the age to come.