He walked slowly with his head lowered, his bent back the result of a childhood no boy should ever know. He never learned to read or write. When asked to sign his name, he would shyly ask if an “X” would do.
As the details of his life unfold, the portrait of a man appears who possessed a depth of character only God could bestow in the wake of such abuse and personal pain. Juan survived hardships that would have left many drowning in a sea of anger and resentment. Instead, he chose to believe the promises of God: promises of plenty in times of need, comfort in times of sadness, and confidence of eternal life when faced with certain death. This man was my grandfather.
Born in the mountains of Puerto Rico in 1919, Juan was the apple of his father’s eye. His mother, however, failed to care for the infant properly, causing him to be malnourished and weak. After the untimely and suspicious death of his father, Juan’s grandmother pleaded with the young mother to allow her to take the baby and raise him as her own, since she loved the infant as much as his father had.
Mountain air, plenty of sunshine, and the love of his grandmother turned the sickly infant into a healthy young lad. The boy spent his days running outside, eating bananas, papaya, and other fruits that grew in the mountains of central Puerto Rico. The brilliance of the stars in the night sky caused him to smile as he stared from the window of his room. He thrived under his grandmother’s care until, at the age of five years old, his beloved Abuela passed away. His idyllic life turned into a nightmare overnight.
Now an orphan, Juan went to live with his uncle, who treated his nephew like an indentured servant. While his cousins went to school, Juan stayed behind. Neighbors watched in horror as the boy struggled to walk up the mountain trails with firewood loaded on his small frame.
“Juan, come here. Let us help you. Drink this water,” they would say.
“No, please,” he cried, “they will whip me if you help me.”
The weight of the pack bent his back so far forward that his grime-covered face was barely visible to those who tried to assist him. Scars covered his arms from his uncle’s beatings when he failed to perform a given order or when discovered taking food from the family kitchen after his hunger became too strong to ignore.
At the age of fourteen, his chance to escape finally came. “This man will take you away and give you a job. Go to him, run, and don’t look back,” he was advised.
With hope renewed, and his broken spirit mended, he took his flight in the middle of the night. The boy turned into a man, as he ran toward freedom in the mountains of El Junque, the rainforest located on the eastern side of the island.
Surrounded by the beauty of lush tropical foliage and the sound of waterfalls cascading down rocky cliffs, Juan worked hard for his small wage. He demonstrated a work ethic seldom found today. The young man grew strong, handsome, and kind with a smile that would light up a room.
Maria, a local girl, fell in love with his broad shoulders and strong arms. They married and became the parents of nine children. There was very little money. Food and medicine were hard to come by on such a small salary. Juan decided to make a better life for his family by moving to New York City. After working for some time in the city, he saved enough money to send for Maria and the children in Puerto Rico. At last, he had his wife, children, and a new life. However, he had no idea just how much his life was about to change.
While listening to his favorite music and enjoying a cold beer, his usual Saturday afternoon routine, he heard loud voices and a commotion from the street below. Alarmed, he called out, “Maria, I am going downstairs to see what is happening out there.” Juan made his way through the gloomy corridor, down the stairs, and pushed his way through the people crowding the doorway. He felt drawn there by some strange force.
A man was speaking to a swarm of people gathered on the street. Remarkably, the speaker’s voice carried above the din of city noises. He was sharing with the crowd how Jesus Christ had changed his life. Something inside Juan quickened with recognition. There on the streets of the Bronx, he accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior. He ran upstairs, turned off the music, and announced to his wife, “I have converted to the Christian faith.” She took one look at him and replied, “You won’t last three weeks.”
He was a new man. He attended every service. Being illiterate, he relied on others to teach him the Word. He was on fire for God. His desire to tell others burned inside of him. He embraced the promises God had made to him and hid them in his heart. Although his wife and children did not join in his enthusiasm, he continued to share his newfound faith with anyone who would listen.
One morning, he arrived to work to find a new supervisor on the job. This woman had previously worked in another part of the same company. She announced her promotion and warned she would be checking on each employee to see how he or she was performing. Up to this time, Juan would ask for help from fellow employees to read to him his list of duties. When the new supervisor found out about this, she told Juan, “I do not have time for an employee who can not read and only speaks Spanish. You do not deserve special treatment. Learn to do your job by yourself, or you’ll be fired."
Distraught, Juan tried to pray. How would he feed his children? He needed this job. He made his way home and closed himself in his room.
The words of the psalmist rang in his heart
“He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him.” (Psalms 91:15)
Loud cries met the children’s ears as they pressed against the door, “Dear Father, You said You would deliver me. Please, help me.” He prayed believing the answer would come. Night soon fell, and morning came. How would God answer?
Tentatively, he entered the building. He walked to his station to get his assignment and start to work. The supervisor from the day before was not around.
Suddenly, he heard his name, “Juan.” As he looked up, he saw the owner of the company coming towards him. Straightening his back as much as he was able, (injured from the weight he had carried as a young boy, his back was permanently bent), he looked at the man into the eyes and waited for whatever would come.
The owner, a kind man, heard of the treatment Juan had suffered at the hands of the new supervisor. Moreover, he knew Juan’s work ethic was rare, and that he would be hard-pressed to find someone to replace him. With the help of a translator, he started to speak.
“Juan,” he began, “I want to apologize to you for the incident that occurred yesterday. I want to assure you that your job is safe. When I heard of the threats made to you, I called the supervisor into my office. I told her that I consider you an excellent employee with strong work ethics and morals. Do not worry. I have demoted her and she will not be returning.”
Years passed by quickly. The drug culture found its way into Juan’s home with tragic consequences. His oldest son died as the result of an overdose of heroin. The upheaval in the home was devastating. The other children, now grown, were reeled in sadness. Unfortunately, the calamity repeated itself when another one of his sons died in a drug related murder.
It was too much to comprehend. He had lost two of his children. What was next? He prayed continuously. His wife was inconsolable. His other children were speechless with grief.
“Tell me, Juan, what have you done to bring this disaster on your house? I thought you were a Christian. You must have done something to have lost two sons in such terrible ways,” was the accusation from a close family member.
On two separate occasions, this same relative visited the distressed household to charge the father.
Could this be true? Heartbroken beyond words, he did not leave his home. Did the church believe this of him as well? Sobs wrenched his chest and tears streamed down his face. To bury two children was tragedy enough, but to face the possibility that God had turned His face from him was too much to bear. On his knees, he gripped his Bible and held it up to God. “Throughout my life I have been abandoned. Am I to be an orphan again? Will You leave me, too?”
Days passed slowly. Sunday morning, the brethren anxiously waited for Juan to arrive. His absence loomed in the minds of the others as the service ended. Great sadness filled their hearts. Prayer broke out for their brother. Twenty men left the church and made their way down the noisy streets. Faces grim and steeled for battle, they knocked on the door of Juan’s apartment.
A young girl opened the door. “Papi! It is for you.” Determined to intervene for their wounded brother, they laid hands on him and prayed for God to deliver him from the enemy’s snare. The glory of God filled the tiny apartment, and the Holy Spirit pulled him out of the pit of depression. Juan’s heart overflowed with “joy unspeakable and full of glory.” God had not abandoned him. No, God loved him.
There was no doubt. How true the words of Paul became to him:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8: 38-39 NASB)
As the years went by, cancer invaded Juan’s body, until he was forced to bed. The sound of his favorite hymn filled the bedroom while his grandson spoke softly into his ear “Abuelo, take this medicine. It will ease the pain.”
Juan opened his eyes and smiled. “Miguelito, I am going to see Him.” He swallowed the elixir, and put his head back on the pillow. His battle with the cancer had ended.
Fear and loneliness, gone. Tears and confusion, absent. Eighty-two years after his birth, Juan left this earth and to run the streets of glory. Standing straight and tall, he sings with the choir of angels a song he knows by heart.
When I feel disgraced and hurt by someone who may have done me wrong, I think of my precious grandfather. “God has promised you all the grace you need to forgive. He has promised you many things, but it is only through faith that you can hold on to those promises when life’s tragedies threaten to rob you of the things you hold most dear.”