Every now and then I experience what Steve Goyer terms a “God moment,” as I expect you do. At the Presbytery meeting in January, I met Ricardo Green, the new pastor at Nueva Esperanza (New Hope) Presbyterian Church in Orange Park. Our meeting led to a God moment for me.
Ricardo was recently installed as pastor to that little church, which is striving to succeed and grow. He moved from Atlanta, in advance of his wife and son, to Orange Park to begin his ministry.
One Sunday recently, he met me at Riverside for early worship and attended our confirmation class. Diane Tuttle and I alternate Sundays teaching the class, and that Sunday was my turn. I had prepared the lesson based on Jesus’ three parables about being lost: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost boy (prodigal son). We read each of the parables, and I talked about my impressions of their meanings in a fairly simple way. Then, Ricardo asked if he could tell his story.
He began by sharing that he was one of nine children who grew up in a fatherless family in Honduras in the 1960s. At age 16, a friend encouraged him to join a group of boys traveling through Guatemala and Mexico to the United States to seek out a living. He was reluctant, but agreed. Their journey, much of it on foot, took two months. During the trek he was often hungry. At one point, having gone without food for three days, he found a dried tortilla on the floor of the old bus in which he traveled some of the way. No food, he said, had ever tasted so good to him.
After Ricardo crossed the border checkpoint into the U.S., he was “found” by a small Hispanic Presbyterian church, which took him in, fed him, and helped him to find work and complete his high school degree. He sensed a call to the ministry and proceeded to obtain a college degree, completing his education at Princeton Theological Seminary. Subsequently he married and became a father to three daughters and a high school son. All three of his daughters have graduated from college and moved on to successful careers and families.
Ricardo had been like the prodigal son, traveling to a distant land with hope for a different life, fatherless on his journey. In America, among a Presbyterian community, he found welcome, inclusion, and help. For Ricardo, the modest little church that found him, like the prodigal’s father, became a welcoming parent to him. As with the prodigal, metaphorically speaking, the church placed a ring on his finger, slew the fatted calf, and granted to him a life of grace and joy he had never before known.
As Ricardo spoke, I watched our confirmands spellbound, following his words carefully. I sensed the strong presence of Christ in the room, surprising me and bringing tears to my eyes. Something remarkable was happening. Ricardo’s telling was so modest, authentic, and real—just as Jesus’ telling must have been. How I wish I could be more like that!
All the next week, I considered my own prodigal journey, as many of us will consider this Lent. It is a journey each of us takes in one way or another. I remembered again that God, in whatever form our Creator comes to us, is always the prodigal’s father waiting with open arms at the end of the long walk home.
I don’t know what our confirmands will write in their faith statements this year, or even (because of rescheduling) when Confirmation Sunday will be. But I am certain that in writing their statements they will remember Ricardo’s moving story of finding, in a little church, his father. I hope they will recall that we are all prodigals and remember that, collectively as Christ’s body, the church, we can be a father, too.
Written by Chris Wrenn