I met my beauTu Papitiful wife at a Christian concert when I was nineteen years old. I’ll never forget the day my eyes were captivated by the way her hair flowed as she turned towards her friend Margarita; bursting in laughter. Margarita was also cute…but the moment I saw Liz, I immediately knew that God had predestined her to be my Christian wife and mother of my children.

Liz was not a dater. As a matter of fact, she never had a serious relationship with a man until she met me. Not because she wasn’t beautiful (actually, she was hot), not only because her family were traditional Cubans, but because she was part of a close-knit community of Christian immigrants with very, very, very high standards. Biblical standards that clearly defined the roles and expectations of Christian males and females.

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 10.52.49 AMWhen I met Liz I was AWOL (Absent Without Leave) from the Army- not because I was a coward, but because I was trying to find meaning to life. Little did I know that God, through Liz and her worshipping community, would give me more than what I was searching for.

Instinctively, I wanted above all else to learn what it meant to be a true MAN.

I was determined to not be my father. My father was a good man- hard working, and even loving at times. But he was a victim of that sort of “macho-man” philosophy that serves as a veil that hides a lack of righteous, self-confidence that is so prevalent in many Latino men. Yes, “machismo” hides many boys…

One thing was clear, that if I wanted to court Liz, I’d have to not only try to win the graces of her dad, Mr. Samuel Lima, but also all the “Misters” of her worshiping community.

It was choir rehearsal night at Iglesia Bautista Resurreccion, in Dumont N.J. Liz had already shared the news with Dr. Josefita Fraguela (our pastor’s wife), that a young, Christian man was going to visit in order to meet her church family. I wanted that beautiful, Christian woman…and I was willing to cross any ocean, climb any mountain, or fight any Goliath that crossed my path.

Little did I know at the time, that the Goliath I had to defeat was not a three-eyed giant, but the dysfunctional thought patterns I had inherited from my father. God knew what he was doing when he led me to Liz, and by proxy, to that little church in Dumont, N.J.

The news spread like wildfire. When I entered through the double doors, all the women of the choir looked at me, blushed and giggled (no, I wasn’t always FAT) while turning towards Liz and saying: “Ellie…SOMEONE is looking for you!” I have never seen a woman turn so red in an instant! It was nice to see all the mature women smiling and flirting with the wind…perhaps they were reminded of the day when they met their own knights in shining armor.

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 10.58.14 AMI sat on the back pew… Immediately I was surrounded by about 12 young men that had been brought up with Liz and who loved and respected her like a sister. Rather than feeling intimidated, I was inspired to see the great love they had for one another and the care they had for Liz. My first reaction was to think:

“If these young men love and care for her so much…it must be because she is an extraordinary, Christian woman.”

I was greatly impacted by an almost palpable feeling in the air of “belonging.” These were strong, young men who took their faith and their community, seriously. These were not ordinary, young men… They were the sons of the type of men that I wanted to become.

Fixing my issues with the Army seemed relatively easy, especially since I had found in that Christian community what I so longed for: a brotherhood of true, Christian MEN, who knew how to stand up to challenges, rather than running away from them.

When my military duty was completed, I returned to New Jersey…not just to Liz, but to the whole community that surrounded her. They helped me find a job…get a car… and quickly incorporated me into their church family. I will never forget the unity and the strong, committed love that the older men of the congregation exuded. It was obvious that the younger men were special, because their fathers were special. That made me want to become like them.

Anyone who visited, would clearly see that the church was there because of the men.

They were strong men…providers…protectors…They were the priests of their families and the ministers of each other.

(Although only some of them have passed away, I will refer to all of them in the passed-tense; reflecting the way I saw them when I was in my early 20’s.)

I admired Mr. Luis Vera’s wisdom…his deep voice; his knowledge of the Bible and his patience while teaching it to the youth. Luis Vera had the type of eyes that could pierce through the masks and see the heart. I was a “nobody” in the eyes of most people I encountered, but in the eyes of Luis Vera, I could see that he saw the potential of a great man of God. I saw true faith in his eyes. I will never forget, how although he was suffering from cancer, he came to church on the day of my ordination.

I admired Mr. Samuel Lima’s dedication to his family and the church. I couldn’t have asked for a better father-in-law. I will never forget the day that Liz and I could not travel from New Jersey to the church that we started in Long Island due to a snow storm. On that Sunday, Liz and I had “packed” our two boys into the car in order to travel through the snow…but we were only able to get to my in-law’s house. I will never forget how Samuel had a moment of silence as he sipped his espresso; he looked at me very seriously and said: “Juan Carlos, we are very proud of your accomplishments.” Those words have lived with me ever since.

I admired Mr. Jimmy Monserrat. An amazing, hard-working, extemporaneous leader who was man enough to always say what he thought, even if it offended you; but then throw his arms around you and tell you how much he truly, truly, truly loved you. Jimmy was one of those few “big-minded” men, who didn’t break friendships because of minutia. Jimmy loved to debate- but most importantly, Jimmy knew that a true man loves truly.

I admired the suave Mr. Verdi Avila. He always dressed up for church- shoes shined, fedora hat, three-piece suit. I used to call Verdi “the Godfather,” because although he wasn’t a tall man, he exuded a loving confidence and leadership that I’ve seen in very few men. He wasn’t loud (like me), but in his own way, he was an extemporaneous and cheerful man- a true father figure and leader; an example of committed godliness.

I admired Mr. Luis Muñiz. He was fiery like Jimmy…and just as loving too. Another big-minded man who knew how to be a true friend. If something had to be done in church, he was the first to volunteer. He was a proud, black man who had suffered discrimination for his skin color…but he was an overcomer. Sometimes when he would see me in the church parking lot, Luis would throw a karate kick in the air in order to show me, that if he wanted to, he could still kick my ass. (haha) I loved the fact that he was so playful. A real man knows how to not take himself so seriously.

I admired Mr. Mario Martinez. An extremely intelligent man who was extremely involved in the administration of the church. He was patient and kind…and strong enough to not be afraid to shed tears of love for Lord Jesus Christ and for the Gospel. He always reminded me of the prophet Jeremiah. After my ordination to the pastoral ministry, I foolishly demanded from him to refer to me as “Pastor.” His only “crime” was to call me by my first name. He did so because he truly loved me…but ordination to the ministry does not make one wise. Only life can do that… I wrongly scolded him in a corner…I was still immature and filled with youthful pride. As I rebuked the older man, he looked at me with eyes of compassion and humility, and apologized. I so regret cornering him that day…How stupid I was! But God showed me through him, that sometimes an example of wise humility is more effective than forceful, self-defense.

I admired the Reverend RafaScreen Shot 2015-02-10 at 10.48.20 AMel Fraguela. Barely five feet tall… but his knowledge of Scripture and his depth of thought was captivating. Although fragile in body, Pastor Fraguela was a giant in The Faith. It was as if the Bible was etched in his mind and heart…Pastor Fraguela was a “living Bible.” Our Pastor was a survivor of one of Fidel Castro’s political prison camps. Like many other Evangelical pastors, our Pastor had been accused of working for the CIA against the Cuban Revolution. The conditions at the prison camp were so severe, that our Pastor suffered a mental/emotional breakdown. After he came to the United States, Fraguela overcame his illness and became the great mentor and unifying factor of our church.

To me, Pastor Fraguela is in the same league as St. Peter and St. Paul. Not because he was super-human… but because he was able to overcome his humanity, and become divinity through his disciplined life in Christ and his loving dedication to save souls.

I will never forget these men. These men knew that the survival of their families and their church, depended upon their determination to proactively build the Kingdom of God in their midst.

They knew that if they faltered in their responsibility as men, that their offspring would perish in the filth and decadence of this world. If their children were “the future,” their brotherhood was the foundation upon which future generations would be built.

I am what I am today because God placed those men in my life- or rather, because God took a boy that was LOST, and immersed him into a tribe of real men.

I confess… sometimes I feel lonely because I miss the camaraderie of like-minded men with high standards and who emanate a vibrant, almost fanatical passion for Christ. I found in those men what I was looking for in the Army… a transcendent brotherhood of true warriors for righteousness.Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 10.50.11 AM

I miss being part of a brotherhood that is determined to build the Kingdom of God, shoulder to shoulder. I miss the feeling of strong handshakes and pats on the back. I miss talking about God with other godly men. I miss godly, fiery arguments about what the Bible says, or about whether we should buy a new broom for the church or not…and then go fishing, or eating, or throwing kicks in the parking lot…just for fun.

Although I miss those men… they ALL live in my heart. I carry them wherever I go. I am the enemy of anyone who dares to desecrate the memory of “my” fathers. Yes, these men were my fathers too.

I will never forget the day I saw my loving father-in-law die. I loved him so much- especially because in his last years of life, I saw him love my children like I never saw a man love before. Samuel’s friend, Mr. Luis Vera, was suffering through the battle with cancer that eventually became the door to paradise.

As my beloved father-in-law was drawing his last breath, Luis stood up from his wheel chair, touched his friend of many years and said:

“Go in peace my friend. Thank you for your friendship…your friendship has been so sweet to me. Oh my dear friend, go in peace, for I will meet you soon! Wait for me in paradise…I will meet you soon. Please tell Jesus that I love him.”

I pray that on the day With RaRaI die, I pass away surrounded by strong friends who love me in the same way that those men loved each other and the burden of responsibility that was placed on their shoulders.

No “American Sniper” can ever compare to the courage of these elite, Christian warriors.

Thank you God for teaching me what it means to be a true man, by the example of those true heroes of The Faith. I would not be here, writing, unless you had immersed me into their brotherhood.

I am saved because you saved me through them.