More Than Conquerors
Pastor Hector Manolo Rodriguez sighed with relief, as his dilapidated, once-blue station wagon crawled and chugged through the final inches of the hour-long event known as a border crossing. The international station between San Diego and Tijuana saw the heaviest traffic of any crossing in the world, with about 300,000 people making the trek every day—some to work, some to play, some to shop or visit relatives, and some to conduct illegal activities of various kinds. For Hector, it was strictly a venture of love, one he made regularly and yet was relieved when it was over.
It wasn’t that Hector didn’t appreciate the beauty and modern conveniences of his sister city to the north, but he preferred the slower, quieter pace of his humble home on the outskirts of Tijuana, even now in 2008 when crime increasingly encroached on the peace of their existence. He had lived there his entire thirty-eight years, the middle child in a family of nine offspring, and had later married the beautiful Mariana Lopez, who had grown up right next door to him. That she had even noticed Hector never ceased to amaze him, and that she had agreed to marry him was nothing short of a miracle. Now, still living in the same neighborhood where they grew up, they did their best to feed and clothe the three children God had given them, as well as minister to the fifty or so members of their beloved Casa de Dios congregation. To supplement their income, Hector worked part-time in his younger brother Jorge’s shoe repair shop. Though their financial situation did not allow for luxuries, it did provide a roof over their heads and food in their bellies.
It was a good life, Hector thought, as he coached and prayed the twenty-five year old car through the undisciplined crush of traffic on Avenida Revolucion, the main drag in this burgeoning city of nearly one and a half-million people. As always, Hector was anxious to break away from the city’s hub and escape to a quieter, more navigable thoroughfare. Though the quality of the roads would deteriorate the farther out he went, he would be glad to leave the hustle and bustle of the Tijuana tourism trade behind.
He would also be glad to leave behind the sadness that seemed to cling to him each time he crossed the border. And yet he knew his need to continue making the trip would end far too soon….
Then, of course, there was the situation in Chiapas, which seemed to grow more desperate and dangerous by the day. And his sixty-three year old mother, Virginia Correo Rodriguez, was living just outside San Juan Chamula, right in the middle of it all.
The area in and around the small Mayan village of San Juan Chamula, nestled in the Chiapas highlands just six miles from the city of San Cristobal de las Casas and home to several shamans and healers, known as curanderos, was not friendly to outsiders or to evangelical Christians. Virginia Correo Rodriguez was both.
Devout, dedicated, and determined to fulfill her calling to spread the gospel wherever and whenever God gave her a chance, she had come to San Juan Chamula with her pastor-son Hector on one of his rare trips to bring Bibles to the unevangelized areas of Chiapas state. While in Chamula, she distinctly sensed God calling her to remain there with one of only a handful of evangelical households in the community that openly acknowledged Christ as Savior and struggled to practice their faith in an increasingly hostile environment. Though Hector pleaded with his mother to return with him to their home in Tijuana, she had instead chosen to obey God’s directive and stay behind.
That was nearly two years before, in the summer of 2006. Now, as the early days of spring 2008 unfolded and the first rays of sunlight began to peek over the tops of the trees in the rain forest that surrounded the small, dilapidated, mud and wood hut Virginia called home, she welcomed the new day with a prayer of thanks to the Creator of those trees and the Source of all light. Though it would be more than an hour before the sun dispelled the damp chill that nearly always settled over the village and its outlying areas during the night, Virginia would rise early to start the fire, and then spend some time in prayer and Bible reading before preparing a meager breakfast of homemade corn tortillas and vegetables from the garden for the family of seven who had so graciously adopted her.
She shivered as she sat up on the side of the rickety cot in the corner of the house’s main room, which served as kitchen and living area. Sliding her feet into her well worn but functional zapatas, Virginia grabbed the heavy wool serape from the foot of the bed and threw it over her shoulders, as she thought of the family who had become so dear to her over the last couple of years. The parents, Diego and Eldora Campos, slept with their newborn son in the smaller of the two bedrooms, while the four older children shared the larger one. There was no indoor bathroom, only a shabby outhouse with holes in the walls big enough to poke a fist through, and no running water or electricity. Yet the size of the home made it one of the nicest in the area, despite the fact that it was a step down from where Virginia had lived in Tijuana. These were hardships Virginia now took in stride, however, though it had required some serious adapting when she first made the commitment to stay. It had also been a challenge to adjust to the 7200-foot elevation after living her entire life in the nearly sea level city of Tijuana.
But God had brought her here—planted her, as she liked to say. And she had every intention of blooming right where she was planted. As a result, the adjustment had been nothing more than an inconvenience when compared to the joy she felt at being used by God in this late stage of her life. Just when she had thought her usefulness was nearly over and she was ready to pass the baton of ministry to the next generation, God had graciously surprised her with the chance to teach her new family, along with the few other evangelical families—disparagingly known as los evangelicos—in the area, to read. Since the Bible was one of the only books at her disposal, she happily used it as her primer. As a result, even a few women in non-evangelical families who also spoke Spanish had dared to come for reading lessons and were now hearing the Scriptures for the very first time.
What an amazing ministry, she thought, lighting the kindling that had been stacked in the woodstove the night before. And what an amazing God You are that You would entrust it to me! Thank You, Father.
With the fire going and the area around the stove beginning to radiate a welcome warmth, Virginia settled back on her cot and opened her Bible to the Book of Psalms.
O God, You are my God; Early will I seek You….
Virginia smiled as she read the familiar verse. Oh, yes, Lord, You are my God, and I will rise up early and also stay up late to seek You!
It seemed the older Virginia got, the less time she spent sleeping and the more time worshiping the Lord. And instead of making her tired, her new schedule left her energized.
For the next hour she alternated between reading from the Bible that lay in her lap, and closing her eyes to respond to God in silent, sometimes whispered, prayer. It wasn’t until she heard the baby’s cry and Eldora’s responding coo of reassurance that Virginia realized it was time to put her Bible aside and get on with the breakfast preparations.
“That’s all right, Father,” she whispered, closing her beloved book and rising from the bed. “We will find more time to be alone together throughout the day. Meanwhile, thank You for giving me this little flock to love and care for. I know that most of the people around here don’t know You or worship You—though they think they do in their mixed-up Mayan version of Catholicism—and therefore they don’t welcome me in their midst. But I also know You love them more than they can ever imagine. Use me, Father, any way You wish, to conquer their fears and superstitions with Your great love.”
Hector was never happier or more at peace than when he was at home with Mariana and their three children. Their house might be modest, even by local standards, and desperately in need of paint, but at least they had running water, electricity, and indoor plumbing, which was more than his mother now enjoyed living on the outskirts of the quaint village of San Juan Chamula, home to approximately 80,000 people, most of Mayan ancestry. Perhaps if she had moved in with a family who lived in town she would at least be able to enjoy the more basic luxuries of modern life, but she had chosen instead to live in the exact spot where she believed God had called her.
Sitting on the sagging stoop and watching his children play ball in the small, fenced dirt yard, with only patches of dry grass and a few healthy rose bushes that Mariana had planted along the fence line, Hector took a sip from the glass of cool water his wife had brought him and sighed. Hadn’t he always told his congregation that there was no better or safer place to be than in the middle of God’s will, even if that meant living and ministering in a dangerous situation or location? And who, in fact, had taught him that? His mother, of course. Certainly not his father, who had deserted the family when Hector was still a child and who, even now, in what was most assuredly his last days on earth, continued to deny God’s existence, though Hector chose not to believe his avowals of atheism. No, it had been Hector’s mother, the strongest, most faithful human being Hector had ever known, who drilled that great truth into him. It was primarily her influence and example that had brought not only Hector but also his eight siblings to give their hearts and lives to Christ and to lead their own families in the same way. So how could Hector now challenge his mother’s right—and yes, her responsibility—to follow God’s call, despite the danger involved?
A slightly deflated soccer ball landed with a thud in front of Hector, pulling him back from thoughts of his mother and the hardships she was undoubtedly enduring. Glancing down at the ball, which had failed to roll beyond the spot of its original plop, and then back up at his children who were now eyeing him expectantly, he scolded himself for getting caught up in worry and letting his mind wander when he should be enjoying his family and leaving his mother in God’s capable hands.
“So,” he said, rising to his feet, “you want your papa to play with you, is that it? Why didn’t you just say so?”
The three youngsters giggled and squealed with delight as Hector used the scuffed toe of his brown cowboy boot to send the not-quite-round ball rolling gently back in their direction. The scramble was immediate, as each tried to be the first to reach the ball and kick it back to their father. The firstborn, Hector, Jr., who was nearly ten, won the race and promptly kicked the black and white ball in the desired direction. When it sailed up and into Hector’s chest, he exaggerated the effect and howled in mock pain as he fell to the ground. In seconds the three were upon him, climbing and laughing, urging him to get up and quite obviously not believing his ruse for a moment.
“All right,” Hector gasped. “I give up! You got me. The three of you are just too strong for me. I’m going to have to tell Mama to quit feeding you so much. You’re getting too big for me to handle.”
Lupita, the youngest child and only daughter, who was sitting on her father’s stomach by then, squealed with joy and bounced up and down, evoking a very real grunt from Hector.
“Enough!” he cried. “I told you. I give up! Have mercy on your poor papa!”
When that didn’t work, Hector grabbed the four-year-old girl and tickled her until she rolled off him onto the ground, only to be replaced by six-year-old Manolo. “Oh, no, you don’t,” Hector insisted, immediately dislodging the boy and getting to his feet before he could be attacked again. “What’s the matter with all of you? Do I look like a horse? Or maybe a burro?”
The laughter level rose as Manolo began to prance around the yard, whinnying and hee-hawing, and sending Lupita into near convulsions of giggles. When Mariana stepped outside to investigate, Hector grinned at the pleased look on her face. He knew there was nothing his beautiful wife liked more than seeing her brood enjoying one another.
“All right,” she said at last, raising her hand in silent command. “Time to stop and come inside to eat. The frijoles are done, and I’ve made fresh tortillas. Though I don’t know why I bother.” She shook her head, even as the dimples in her cheeks telegraphed amused approval. “All of you, inside…now.” Her sparkling brown eyes settled on Hector. “That means you too, Senor Rodriguez. Honestly, I can’t leave any of you alone for a moment, can I?”
With a giggling Lupita attached to his left leg, Hector slipped his right arm around Mariana’s still slim waist and limped into the house, dragging his delighted daughter with him while the boys followed closely behind. “You most certainly cannot, Senora Rodriguez. We wouldn’t manage for an hour without you.”
She smiled up at him with her large brown eyes, and he kissed the top of her head, enjoying the fresh scent of shampoo in her thick, wavy dark hair, gathered neatly in a jeweled clasp at the nape of her neck. Life was indeed good, Hector thought, as he did so often. God had blessed him beyond his wildest dreams, and he couldn’t be more grateful.
The wasted remnants of an exhausted, pain-wracked human being lay in his bed at the hospice facility, drifting in and out of consciousness, glad for the “out” times that took him away from his agony. How much longer? And what would happen then? In his lucid moments he hoped he was right that there was nothing beyond his last ragged breath—just peaceful oblivion and escape from the hell his life on earth had become. But in his heart he sensed there was something much worse, some type of existence after this one, a reckoning of sorts. If that was truly the case, there was little doubt he would not be happy with the results.
Sixty-five years old but looking much older, Alberto Javier Rodriguez fought the memories that danced through his mind, swirling together in confusing storylines that tormented an already guilty conscience. But each stabbing memory only reinforced his determination to blot out the past and deny the need for repentance or confession. If there was a God waiting to judge him, Alberto ricocheted between wanting to spit in His eye and curse Him for creating him in the first place…and lamenting that it was too late to seek forgiveness and restoration.
The pictures of his family were the clearest, and the most painful. How had it ever come to this? He knew, of course. After all, he was the one who had made the choices that led to such a tragic outcome. He had no one to blame but himself. If only he could bring himself to admit that to someone, but even when the chance had been offered him—more than once, for that matter—he had hardened his heart, sealed his lips, and refused to confess his faults and ask for forgiveness. Now he would no doubt die alone, unloved, unrepentant, and unforgiven. And deservedly so, he reminded himself. But oh, what a comfort it would be if just one of those whose hearts he had broken would be there with him when the time came!
For now, the only comfort he had was the drip of morphine that flowed at pre-set intervals into the vein in his right arm. He had indeed reaped what he sowed in his life, and now he wrestled with the fear that things were only going to get much worse….