For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
[Romans 8:38-39 NRSV]
Some 21 years ago, when I was an intern at Trinity Lutheran Church in downtown Canton, a man stopped by one Sunday afternoon looking for food and a place to stay. He spoke English with a pronounced accent, so immediately I put him at ease by answering him in Spanish. He told me his name was Fidel Montejano and explained to me that he had just been released from incarceration and the authorities dumped him off in Canton, which made no sense because he had no family here.
Our Sunday afternoon community meal had just ended, so I was able to provide him some leftovers and temporary housing through an arrangement we had with a downtown motel.
I told him about our Spanish worship service and invited him to visit us the following Sunday. We were developing a Hispanic/Latino mission (which eventually became my first call in ordained ministry) and he was welcome to become a part of our community. Like most people in need who come by the church in crisis situations, I never expected to see him again.
Yet, next Sunday, there he was…and the following Sunday…and the Sunday after that. In fact, he never missed a Sunday unless he was sick or out of town for some reason. Thanks to a local attorney who was a supporter of the church, he was able to find a job with a local printing firm and remained there until the company closed a few years ago. Fidel became an integral part of our congregation.
One photo which evokes fond memories was taken in 2007, when he dressed as one of our three Wise Men for our annual Epiphany celebration. As our musician played the hymn, “We Three Kings,” Fidel and the other two processed into the sanctuary to the amazement of the children, and after the service, handed out presents to the youngsters. It was one the highlights, if not the highlight of his life.
Even after I took another call, we remained friends, calling to check in with each other from time to time. Any time he needed to book a flight to Washington state, where some members of his family lived, or to visit other family in Mexico, he would stop by the house so I could play travel agent and help him purchase his ticket online.
A couple weeks ago, he had been in a serious car accident, suffering severe bruises. He had spent the next couple weeks in significant pain. We spoke the Monday after the wreck.
Several years ago, he had asked to list me as his emergency contact, to which I agreed, never thinking how that would ever play out.
And early in the morning of Friday, February 18, I found out. I received a call from Aultman hospital that he had been found in his car at the parking lot of his workplace, unresponsive, apparently having suffered a heart attack. I am still stunned.
This week, his brother and one of his sisters came to town to make funeral arrangements. It has been a non-stop couple of days as we have gone from the funeral home to his place of work, we’ve gotten legal advice on how to best settle his financial affairs. His family has gotten to meet some members of the community who have all echoed consistent message of what a wonderful person Fidel was and how helpful and friendly he was to them.
The family returned to Washington state on Thursday to receive Fidel’s body when it arrives, and to plan for a funeral there. I am left alone with my thoughts.
What first comes to mind is that Fidel vowed to never repeat the mistake that landed him in prison, and he never did. Early in his time among us, he shared his story with others, in hopes it would help and counsel those who heard it.
That is not to say he had an easy path going forward. He had some rough edges that were at times disconcerting to some. Yet he was also generous to a fault, often to his disadvantage. However, through the ups and downs of his life while I knew him, Fidel’s faith and his few close friendships kept him grounded and focused on the road ahead.
One never knows how one act of assistance will affect a person. Little did I think that encounter one Sunday would spark a 20-plus years friendship. And more importantly, how life-changing that encounter would be for him.
I will miss Fidel. I will miss the random telephone calls, our occasional visits, and the long conversations. But I thank God for having given him to us to know and love as a companion in our pilgrimage on earth. And I will take comfort in knowing that he now rests peacefully in God’s tender embrace.