by Naomi Zalabak
Bill and Mavis Sager were married September 2, 1951, at Oakdale Sanitarium, Oakdale, Iowa. After graduating from high school, Mavis worked in this Sanitarium where her mother was a patient.
During their early years together, Bill drove a delivery truck for Loma Linda Foods and owned a service station in Iowa. In December 1958, he sold the station and began working for the denomination at Oak Park Academy in Nevada, Iowa, where he wore several hats. Among them were: operator of a commercial laundry that serviced motels, hotels, and the hospital in the area; assistant boys’ dean; and bus driver for student trips. In 1965, he helped build and administer a 70-bed nursing home on campus that provided work for students.
In 1967, Highland Hospital, Portland, Tenn., called Bill to be administrator. During the 12 years he served there, the Sager’s five children grew up, and Bill became involved with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Tennessee, Rotary, and other community organizations.
In 1979, Bill accepted a call to become the administrator of Walker Memorial Hospital in Avon Park. He continued his involvement with Rotary and Salvation Army, and he served on hospital boards. He was also in charge of the building of Florida Hospital Lake Placid.
Bill and Mavis so loved their church family and the community they chose Avon Park as their place of retirement in 1991. For a number of years afterward, Bill served as treasurer for Walker Memorial Academy and, until this year, Mavis served as Sabbath School superintendent.
The Sagers have five children: Mark, Kyle, Scott, Jan, Brent, and Pat; 16 grandchildren; and 15 great-grandchildren.
Faith and Finance is a 12-lesson practical study on money management, prepared by the North American Division Stewardship Department. This guide to financial planning with a faith factor was edited by Edward Reid, former Stewardship Department director. Throughout Florida Conference, congregations have included Faith and Finance training among their small group ministry programs. “Our first Faith and Finance small group was life-changing and even marriage-saving,” testifies Miami Springs Church Pastor Glenn Aguirre. “It was so effective that leaders Ray and Damaris Mateo have been asked to start another class. I praise God for the lives and marriages this series has changed!”
An Ancient Institution With a Modern Application
by Conrad Duncan, Florida Conference Vice President for Administration
History of Tithing
In the early years of the Adventist Church, there were few settled pastors. Nearly all paid workers were evangelists, church planters, and overseers or administrators of mission. Lay members who served as volunteers conducted member care as well as ongoing local evangelism.
Because of the nature of this dynamic movement, a decision was made early in the Church’s history to send all tithes from congregations to the regional conference or mission office headquarters that coordinated mission expansion. Thus began a most effective system for church finance. As the Church has matured, it has continued to expand its perspective on mission.
For example, Christian education has become recognized as an effective and essential method for discipling young people. Today, Christian education is partially funded by tithe dollars, second only to pastors and evangelists. Other ministries such as literature evangelism and youth ministry are viewed as part of the mission of Adventism and, thus, are sustained in part by the tithe dollar.
Use of the Tithe
God established the tithe and further stipulated its use. Based on these instructions, the Seventh-day Adventist Church follows biblical directions for use of the tithe.
Nearly 80% of the tithe dollar remains in Florida Conference to advance the gospel in our territory. Of the dollars spent in Florida Conference, approximately 75% is spent on salaries and support for workers. Approximately 20% furthers the work of preaching and teaching the gospel around the world.
The portion of tithe dollars not retained by Florida Conference helps fund ministries such as:
- Overseas missions.
- Media broadcasts such as Hope Channel, Voice of Prophecy, It Is Written, and other radio and television ministries.
- Institutions of higher learning such as Loma Linda University, Oakwood University, and Andrews University.
- Publications such as Adventist World for members and Ministry Magazine for pastors and other church leaders.
Portions of the tithe dollar retained by Florida Conference go toward Christian education. Greater Miami Adventist Academy and Forest Lake Academy, as well as Southern Adventist University, benefit from tithe. Also, up to 30% of our elementary church school salaries are paid with tithe.
The preparation of curriculum for children and youth Sabbath School ministries, as well as courses taught in Adventist elementary and secondary schools, are supported with tithe.
Tithe pays for the quarterly Conference publication, Florida Focus, and contributes to the budget of Southern Tidings which is published monthly by Southern Union Conference.
Camp Kulaqua and Pine Lake Retreat benefit from tithe dollars. At these facilities, dozens of young people accept Jesus as their Savior each year and are baptized. Hundreds more recommit their lives to Him.
Florida Conference also uses tithe to subsidize the MagaBook program which hires young people for literature evangelism. Their earnings help pay for their Christian education while they work to spread the gospel.
History is filled with people who believed, accepted, and practiced Bible teachings on tithing. There is mention of patriarchs such as Abraham (Genesis 14:20), Jacob (Genesis 28:22), and even the whole nation of Israel—priests and people alike (Leviticus).
In modern times, there are stories of famous and wealthy people who credited the returning of tithe to God as the secret for their success and prosperity. Among these individuals are: William Colgate of Colgate Toothpaste, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., Henry John Heinz of Heinz Ketchup, Milton S. Hershey of Hershey’s Chocolate, and James Cash Penney of J.C. Penney.
As I write, myriads of people in Florida Conference, and around the world, are following this godly principle of tithing and experiencing God’s prosperity in their lives. Continuing this article, you’ll be inspired to read success stories of faithfulness and obedience shared by members of the Florida Adventist family.
Tithing: A Matter of Faith
by Rommel and Theresa Pageotte-Andre, Jacksonville Mandarin Church Members
It has not been easy, yet, by God’s grace, we have kept our three children, ages 17, 11, and 7, in Christian schools all of their lives. However, something was missing.
With our income, as it was, we were not able to fully pay our monthly debts. We would pay what we felt were the required bills, and we would place tithe at the end. This meant that tithe was usually eliminated.
My wife attended elementary, high school, and college in Adventist schools. She felt strongly about an Adventist or Christian education for our kids. I did not. I believe the devil attacked me often by reminding me that our bills would be paid if the children went to public school. Tithing was always in the back of my mind, but I was ashamed to deal with it.
One day, I spoke with our pastor, Juan Rodriguez, about some family financial difficulties. He politely, but bluntly, told me that tithing is a matter of faith. This truth hit me really hard. I know God is faithful, but I was not obedient to Him. I consider myself a logical person. Logically, it did not make sense to pay tithe and have money to pay our bills. Remember, we did not have enough money in the first place. A few months passed by after talking with our pastor—still not returning tithe—and the financial difficulties remained.
Throughout our wonderful years of marriage, God has blessed us. We have seen and felt His grace. We have testified about what He has been and continues to be in our marriage and family life. Why was it so hard to simply trust that He would bless us financially? He had never failed us before. We knew it was our choice, and that we needed to make the right decision.
Approximately three months ago, my wife and I decided to trust God. We decided to return God’s tithe and let Him lead. The first week, tithe was the first item paid, and our account overdrafted as expected. The next week, our tithe was, again, the first thing paid. To our surprise, everything else was also paid. everything, with no overdrafts.
It didn’t make sense. It was not logical any way we looked at it. We tried to do the math, and it did not add up. Unbelievable! Yet, we are believers. How could we allow the devil to take our hard-earned money? How did we expect God to grow His people if we were selfish in what we wanted for ourselves and our children? He told us He would take care of us. We teach our children that God will always take care of them.
In our humanity, we do not know how, but the bills are getting paid. God has opened and closed the right doors, and He has clearly shown us He always does what He says He will do. Through human eyes, the God we serve is not at all logical, but He is our Father, our Redeemer, and our Provider.
Thoughts On the Fount of Blessing
by Elisa Rahming
The Lord loves to give gifts to His children and is always there to listen to our requests. While I was in college, two required courses for graduation were scheduled at the same time. After much prayer, the Lord worked it out for me to finish both classes and graduate on time.
This experience played a significant marker in my spiritual journey. My relationship with God was deepened, enabling me to experience God’s faithfulness and blessings firsthand. When I consider all He has done for me, how can I not give my time, talents, and tithes and offerings to Him?
Although I spend a significant portion of my day working with dollars and cents, true biblical stewardship is so much more than handling money. It starts with God as our Creator, our Owner, our Provider, and our Sustainer.
Stewardship is the lifestyle of one who has a daily, living relationship with Jesus Christ, accepts His Lordship, walks in partnership with God, and acts as His agent to manage His affairs on earth.
God is the owner of everything, and He is the giver of all good gifts. God is a God of blessings. He pours out blessings, and then He wants us to be held accountable for them. He expects us to act in good human stewardship and to act responsibly.
God wants us to act in partnership with Him. This close association reminds us that there are two sides of stewardship. One side is about embracing that desire for God and His relationship with us. The other side is when God initiates a relationship, and stewardship accepts and embraces that relationship.
For me, even though I was baptized in the ocean at the age of 12 in my home town of Nassau, Bahamas, I didn’t fully grasp the concept of Jesus Christ as Lord of my entire life until later in my walk with Him. In fact, I was in my late 20s. I fully understood Jesus as Savior, but understanding the concept of His Lordship was something that took a little while. I’m thankful that I understand it now. It’s not just one segment or two segments of my life, but it’s everything. It’s my time, it’s my talent, it’s my treasure, it’s my career life, and it’s my ministry life. It’s everything.
The Lord wants to be our Helper by guiding and directing us in everything that we do. Putting God first and foremost in everything and being fully committed and devoted to Him means that we move as He leads and go in the direction He calls us to go.
God expects accountability from us. He also expects faithfulness for what He has given us.
Stewardship is a lifestyle of service. Jesus set an example of a lifestyle of service, a lifestyle of ministry, and a lifestyle of giving. He wants us to do the same. What is lifestyle? It is a way of being and a way of doing. It is living God’s life in the way He did through Jesus Christ when He was here on earth. It is living the way that He would want us to live in every single area of our lives.
Stewardship is all of me in response to all of God. He’s given so much, and He wants all of us. That’s actually part of what gives me joy in giving all of me to all of Him, because He brings me joy in doing so. There are so many blessings that we receive when we give our all to Him, and I’m not just referring to monetary blessings.
We’re not just returning to an entity or an organization. Rather, we’re actually returning to Him. We’re not just returning money. Rather, we’re returning our time, our resources, and our talent. We’re returning all of us to what God is, because He is Lord of our lives.
God wants our heart. He does not just want the money from our pockets. He wants everything that we have, and I enjoy this relationship with Him in giving Him my heart and in giving Him everything that I have. Doing so truly brings joy to those who accept His Lordship and walk in partnership with God.
Elisa’s thoughts in this article are blended with those taken from a presentation by Erika Puni, Ph.D., director of stewardship ministries for the Seventh-day Adventist World Church.
Learning To Live God’s Way
by Mickey and Ana Cuesta
We were married in 2002, and both of us had children from previous marriages. It was a struggle to agree on how to cover our children’s expenses and our own. Each of us had a separate bank account, and this brought friction to our marriage.
A few months ago, our church, Miami Springs, decided to offer a 10-week seminar based on the book, Faith and Finance, by Edward Reid. From the start, Mickey felt this seminar was sent by God.
At the time, Ana was on disability. “Why should we share,” Mickey said, “if she is not bringing any money home? If we could not manage our finances when we both were working, why do it now?” Mickey was also struggling with faithfulness in tithing. His mentality was, “I don’t feel like it,” but Ana was always faithful in this matter.
During the first seminar session, nothing was said about money. It was all about God. He is the Creator, and He owns everything. We are just His stewards. Little by little, conviction came to our hearts that this was going to be a life-changing event. We had to learn to completely trust in God and in each other!
After several weeks, the reality hit home, and Mickey declared, “The hardest part is putting the ego into my pocket,” yet he was not ready for a full commitment. Among the 10 couples taking the seminar, six had separate bank accounts. A short while later, we decided, “We are going to have only one bank account.”
What a major shift in our relationship! Now, no more arguing about how to spend the money. We are consulting each other before paying expenses, purchasing items, and how to help our children. Credit cards were paid off or put in a drawer. “This was the hardest part for me,” confesses Ana.
Through prayer and commitment, we have learned that it’s about doing things God’s way and not our way. God has blessed us in many ways that are not necessarily monetary. We came to understand that faithfulness to God includes returning a faithful tithe. Our relatives and friends have noticed the tremendous change in our relationship—especially no more fighting. We communicate much better and on a deeper level. There is peace and happiness in our home.
We recommend that all churches offer the Faith and Finance seminar for their members. It is such a great blessing, and it will change lives for the better!
Forever Faithful Is Our Goal
by Brian Mori, Miami Springs Church Member
I am 34 years old and have been a Christian since I was a little boy. Yet, it was only about three years ago that I came to know Jesus Christ. Up until that time, I took my relationship with God for granted by just going through the motions. I didn’t have the fire for Christ that others talk about. Not having this relationship with Christ kept me from receiving the wisdom and knowledge necessary to make it through these economic tough times.
About three years ago, I found myself in an unfamiliar situation. Somehow, my wife and I had quickly accumulated more than $14,000 in credit card debt. I had never before in my life had credit card debt. This situation was causing even more problems in my marriage and family life.
I had just begun my new walk with Christ, and He allowed me to realize that Satan was trying to attack me and bring me down. I began listening to a Christian radio program about money. I kept hearing people in my similar situation getting and staying out of debt while, at the same time, staying faithful to God and being good stewards. Although I slipped many times, I tried to stay faithful to God and give Him 10% as I paid down the debt through making sacrifices while living paycheck to paycheck.
I continued praying and reading Christian books about debt and finances, as well as taking a finance class at my church. All of these resources showed me that only God can allow us to get out of situations we have gotten ourselves into, and we need to remain faithful to Him and do as He asks.
I now fully understand Malachi 3:10 where God talks about opening the floodgates of Heaven and pouring His blessings on those who are good stewards. One of the things I learned from this situation is that if we just ask God to give us a content heart, He will, and He will keep us from falling into the traps of needing earthly possessions.
I am blessed to say that it took a couple of years, but my family and I are now free and clear of the $14,000 credit card debt. We will forever remain faithful to God and keep being good stewards and managers of His money. Our goal now is to pay off all of our debt and ask God what He wants us to do for Him.
You Can’t Outgive God
Reprinted with permission from Jewish Heritage Scripture Studies
Jeff Zaremsky and Barbara Gurien met and fell in love—a real match made in heaven. Finances being one of the most important areas of marriage, they decided to find out how compatible they were in this area before they got married.
It turns out that both were already giving a full 20% (10% for tithe, 10% for offerings) of their gross income to the Lord. Even though they were both volunteers, earning just a small stipend at the time, they always had enough.
As plans of a wedding were birthed, they wondered how they could give tithes and offerings on their wedding gifts. How do you give 20% of a blender? Most of their friends did not earn much more than they did, and they were expecting mostly homemade afghans for gifts. They decided to figure out the value of the physical gifts and then give the appro-priate amount in cash. If they did not have enough cash, they would return a blender or something so they would have money for tithe and offerings.
When they finally opened all their presents, they not only had enough in cash gifts to cover their tithe and offerings on both cash and physical gifts, they had enough to cover the cost for their entire two-week honeymoon, including airfare, rental car, and hotels. In addition to the cash, they also received more than they needed for furnishing their new apartment—including two blenders. There was even a little money left over to put in the bank. Weeks after their honeymoon, they took a class on how to set up a spending plan that has kept them out of debt (other than their mortgage) and has helped to buy the things that they really need and often want.
For more than twenty years of marriage, Jeff and Barbara have never lacked for anything they really needed, nor have they even questioned whether they could afford to give 20% back to the Lord. Actually, they decided they couldn’t afford not to and have increased their percentage over the years to 25%. Today, they are totally debt free, including their home. God has always been faithful, and Jeff and Barbara have always had more than enough.
God Sometimes Works In Very Mysterious Ways
by Naomi Zalabak, Avon Park Church Member
Back in the 1930s, our family was suffering from effects of The Great Depression. Out of work, my father was trying to get established as a farmer on our newly acquired 40-acre home place.
We had a vegetable garden and could pick wild berries in our woods, but my mother was in need of essentials for preparing bread such as flour, yeast, salt, and sugar. I recall hearing Mother and Father discussing their need and whether, under the circumstances, it would be acceptable to borrow the money they had set aside for tithe.
Their decision was to not use the tithe. Right away, Father started walking the mile to church to give the tithe to the pastor so they wouldn’t yield to the temptation to use it.
Shortly after midnight, we were awakened by a strange noise in the field in front of our house. In the dim moonlight, I could see a shadowy figure from my window and heard plodding through the deep grass. As the figure approached the house, Daddy picked up something to use as a weapon, if necessary, and went out to confront the intruder who had started to climb the steps to the front porch. Father was about to strike when he heard a woman’s muttering voice.
The woman was a patient who had escaped from the mental hospital 12 miles from our home. She intended to head toward a relative’s place in town, but a wrong turn brought her to our farm instead.
Father put her in the car and headed for the mental hospital. Upon arrival, those in charge rewarded him with money enough to supply our needs.
God sometimes works in very mysterious ways.
by Marti Jones, former Coordinator of Spiritual Nurture and Spiritual Ambassadors for Florida Hospital Orlando
It is always difficult to put into words the thoughts of one’s heart. It is such a personal and unique way we each sense and feel, particularly when it comes to our relationship with our Creator. However, it is important to share what has been a blessing and of deep meaning in our own life. It is part of our personal testimony and, therefore, may be of benefit to someone.
I am, by nature, an outgoing person. I love other people, but as much as I enjoy company, I also love and appreciate my time alone. It is in these moments of solace that I really find out what is going on inside my being. I have discovered how important it is to my spiritual growth to share meaningful time with God. It has been during these special visits with Him that He reveals through scripture what my soul is in need of, and He always does it with loving care.
When I first committed to a devotional time, I decided to do so in the evening. I have always been more of a night owl than a morning person. However, I noticed that frequently the day brought varied challenges for which I had felt unprepared. Quite often, due to the many necessities or urgencies of life, I had postponed time with God until fatigue prevented me from enjoying His company.
Since I have made my first appointment of the day with Jesus, He provides, through prayer and study of His Word, the support I will need in my very busy schedule. He even wakes me up without the alarm clock, and when I awaken, it makes me smile to sense His desire to be with me.
My early morning visits that include listening to His Spirit have become vital to me. It is a time to express joy and wonder at His gift of life—to praise Him and thank Him for my family, to sing songs in my heart, and to proclaim praise to the Father, Jesus my Savior, and the Spirit of Comfort who is my peace. Now, when things get crazy, and they still do, the Word of God comes alive in me to impart deeper wisdom, greater patience, or persevering effort to meet difficult moments.
Most importantly is where this time with Jesus has brought me personally. I am in the process of learning true surrender—something that is very challenging to our humanity. He has impressed me that this is perhaps the most important work in which God calls us to participate. He is able to do great things through His people. He has promised the outpouring of His Spirit, the empowering of His church before His coming, but this is only possible if we allow Him to prepare our temple.
In my personal time of prayer and study, I now seek renewing of heart and mind day by day. It is less difficult for me when I remember to cultivate an active and living relationship with Jesus. The more I come to commune with him, the lighter my load. His Spirit has blessed my role as wife, mother, and Pila (that is what my grandkids call me).
Outside the window where I sit to visit with my God in the early morning is a lovely fountain. When I look out at the new day and see the water bubbling over the top of the fountain in the yard, I am reminded of the appointment Jesus kept with the woman of Samaria. To her, He offered the Water of Life, Himself, when He said, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water…. Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” —John 4:10, 13–14 (NIV)
In the coming months, look for a how-to list of ways/experiences in which our readers have found special meaning to their devotional time. We invite you to share your thoughts. From them, we may select a sentence or two or, possibly, your story.
by Dana Amatangelo
Every pew of the Orange Cove, Florida, Church was filled with members and guests awaiting the beginning of a new journey for a couple who, only a few months before, were without a home, without direction, and consumed by broken hearts and shattered dreams. The picture was so bleak that their two children were taken from them when they lost their home.
On March 25, André Van Heerden, Orange Cove pastor and volunteer president of The Mercy Network of Clay County, was involved in a county-wide outreach to help the homeless. He met the Smith family of four who were, then, using their car as a home.
When Jerry and Bonnie asked Pastor André if he would be willing to help them, he assured them he could take on their case. They became residents of one of the group homes sponsored by The Mercy Network of which Orange Cove Church is a member. Invitations to church services and other activities were extended to the family.
Two months later, a celebration of renewal took place where Pastor André baptized Jerry and Bonnie. This day would mark two covenants. The first promise was demonstrated for all to witness as the couple were lowered into the water and brought up again, signifying their new birth and commitment to the Higher Power that had brought them so far in such a short time.
The next covenant, just a few minutes later, would be to one another in a marriage ceremony. While every person in the congregation rose to their feet, Bonnie stepped into the sanctuary as her soon-to-be husband, Jerry, stood beside the pastor and watched his waiting bride with tears in his eyes.
Two lives, changed because of kindness, are now beginning a new life together that will change their future, the future of their children, and possibly many generations to come.
Visit the Orange Cove Church web site ministries page for an update on the Smith family: http://www.orangecovesda.org/ministries
by Chet Jordan
Hastings and Norma Bean celebrated their 80th wedding anniversary with their church family at North Lake Church, Leesburg, Florida, on July 2, 2011. Much of their married life was spent providing care and housing for relatives and church friends who were in need.
Born on December 22, 1909, in Marysville, Tennessee, Hastings was a fourth-generation Adventist. When his parents moved to Avon Lake, Ohio, he met Norma Buswell, and they were married in St. Mary County, West Virginia, on July 3, 1931. Norma also became an Adventist in 1936. “I’ve always believed the Lord sent Hastings to my door,” says Norma, 99. “I don’t think anyone I know has had a happier marriage.”
After the wedding, they lived in Avon Lake for the next 54 years. Hastings’ entire working career was with Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company. Upon retirement, the Beans moved to Eustis, Florida.
Their daughter, Carol Fife, says, “To think they have lived all these years together, gotten along so well, and shown such love between them is amazing.” Also included in their family are five grandchildren, ten great-grandchildren, and five great-great-grandchildren.
by Naomi Zalabak
The location was a beautiful scenic spot, and romance was in the air as Burton Wright handed Myrna Jensen, the young lady by his side, a silver dollar with a request to read what it said.
“E Pluribus Unim,” Myrna softly read.
“What else?” he questioned.
“In God we trust,” Myrna read.
“United we stand,” Myrna read.
“Can we make that our motto for life?” Burton questioned.
Myrna was thrilled but a bit hesitant, because, although they had corresponded via letter for some time, they had only been together for a few weekends. With glistening eyes, she answered, “I think we need to pray about this, and I need to talk to my family.”
After Burton’s graduation from college, they were married in the Washington Sanitarium and Hospital Church, Takoma Park, Maryland, on July 29, 1951, with Burton’s father performing the ceremony and Myrna’s father singing.
And then the silver dollar began a journey of a lifetime as it traveled with the Wrights as they spent their lives in God’s service as follows:
- Mount Pisgah Academy, Candler, North Carolina with Burton as dean of boys and Bible teacher, and Myrna was a hospital supervisor.
- Spencerville Junior Academy, Silver Spring, Maryland, where Burton taught.
- Forest Lake Academy, Apopka, Florida, with Burton teaching Bible and Myrna serving as school nurse.
The coin then traveled half-way around the world as the Wrights were called to the continent of Africa as follows:
- Bethel College, South Africa, with Burton teaching ministerial students and church pastors.
- Malamulo Secondary School, Malawi, with Burton teaching academy students.
- Northern Malawi with Burton serving as principal of the boarding school and Myrna as the dispensary nurse, accountant for Mombera Secondary School, and home school teacher for their three younger children.
- Solusi College, Bulawago, Zimbabwe, where Burton taught ministerial students and Myrna taught home economics to 100 girls.
After twelve years of service in Africa, the silver dollar journeyed with the Wrights as they permanently returned to the United States in order to benefit their children’s education. They continued to teach or pastor at the following: Holbrook Indian School in Arizona; Joliet, Illinois; Elizabethtown, Kentucky; Lake Placid, Florida; and Arcadia, Florida.
At last, the silver dollar found a permanent retirement home in Avon Park where the Wrights remain busy in the Lord’s work. Burton has helped with Prison Ministries while Myrna has worked with children’s divisions of the church. For three years, she served as Assistant Director of Children’s Ministries for Florida Conference. She continues to use her storytelling skills to touch the lives of children.
After the church service on July 30, family, members, and friends gathered to help Burton and Myrna celebrate their 60th anniversary. Their four children, Judy, Jim Jeanie, Jon, and their families planned a celebration that included a potluck meal, anniversary cake, and insightful glimpses from the past.
by Cocolo Rivera
“I walked with Satan, but my God delivered me.”
I was born December 15, 1946. I was only six when my father separated my brother and me from our mother. From that moment on, I became a rebellious, disrespectful, and skeptical child. I reached adolescence with the same characteristics. Not knowing much about my God, since my father never took me to a church, I only heard about God in school.
I decided to enlist in the Armed Forces. In 1965, when war began between the United States and Vietnam, I wanted to unleash my anger on the battlefield. Those who knew me branded me as a madman. In April 1966, my wish came true, and I was deployed to Vietnam in southeast Asia.
Although I had never visited a church, I talked with my God every morning. Each day, I felt protected. I survived many dangerous situations for eight long months until, in November, I was struck by a sniper. For several weeks, I remained in a coma.
One day after I awoke, the attending doctor asked me, “What religion do you belong to?”
“I have no religion,” I replied. “I just talk to God every day.”
Smiling, he replied, “Well, you have very good communication with Him, because He brought you back to life.”
I was discharged from the Armed Forces and returned to my home town. My faith grew, and I felt safe. Although I was addicted to marijuana, alcohol, and prescribed morphine, I sensed that Christ would help me again. He gave me a wonderful wife, a young woman from my neighborhood named Margarita. We grew up in the same neighborhood, almost under the same circumstances.
Poor girl! She had no idea that, by marrying me, she would have to face a tough test. She would have to deal with a rebel, addict, and mentally ill person. In 1968, a month before our first daughter was born, I lost my memory. I was admitted to a mental institution with a syndrome of combat.
Only Margarita’s love and faith in God could give her strength. By 1972, we had our home and three other daughters. Margarita continued struggling with a madman. Though I never physically assaulted her, I did with my attitude. She believed in a powerful God and instilled her faith in our daughters. In my spare time, I worked with children and youth. I did not want them to become addicts like me.
In 1989, we decided to move to Orlando. It was a positive change for our family, because our daughters learned more about God and began a close relationship with Him. That led me to visit the churches they were attending. In spite of my condition, Margarita and my daughters were determined to take me in the path of the Gospel. It was an arduous task, but they never gave up.
In 1991, I met the owner of a radio station and started working as a sports commentator, something I had not studied or known. Now, I believe God was leading me in the path He wanted me to go.
In 1992, Don Manuel Toro gave me the opportunity to collaborate in his weekly newspaper, La Prensa, as a sports columnist. My God allowed me to succeed in the media and, for a time, on the small screen. However, with this success, my ego grew, causing more problems for Margarita and my daughters.
My friend John Torrado, owner of radio broadcast La Fantástica, gave me the opportunity to work in his program. My popularity with the Hispanic audience was tremendous. I met many people of faith who prayed for my salvation. By the end of 2000, I met Lucimar, producer of a morning program, and started working with her. By 2009, my popularity had grown. I was awarded on several occasions. Apparently, God had an ongoing plan, although I did not see it at that time.
One morning as I was preparing for the radio broadcast, I heard a sublime voice that said, “It is over.” I thought it was Margarita, but it was not her. Two weeks later, at the same time, I heard the same voice, this time more assertive, “Enough, now you will work for me!” My hair bristled; yet, I understood the message. It seemed like, in my heart, I was already wanting to quit. I did not resist or feel discouraged.
I went to the station and told my colleague that this would be my last week on the radio. She was surprised and asked me what happened. I gave no explanation, for she would not understand. At the end of the week, I said goodbye to my listeners. There were a lot of callers wishing me a restful retirement. At the same time, I was struggling with cancer, diabetes, and hypertension, so many listeners thought that I was retiring due to health problems..
During my 18 years in sports communications, I met three of the Gonzalez brothers: Oscar, Pucho, and Samuel, who are Seventh-day Adventists. They, like me, are sports fans. Oscar invited me to attend the inauguration of the new Spanish Seventh-day Adventist Church in Deltona on April 19, 2009.
Although I did not belong to any Christian denomination, I was a believer in Jesus Christ. Every morning, I communicated with Him and thanked Him for his kindness to me and my family. After my retirement, in my conversations with Jesus Christ, I asked Him, “Now, what shall I do? I do not know much about the Bible.”
When the inauguration date came, Margarita and I decided to go. Upon our arrival, we noticed a large number of people in the church’s courtyard and I looked for Oscar among them. When he saw us, he immediately came to greet us and introduced us to his wife, Gisela, his in-laws, retired Pastor Julio Cesar Rivera, and his wife, Fela. I also had the honor to personally meet Oscar’s parents, Guarionex and Santi, and other relatives. I was introduced to many members of the church, and some recognized my voice from the radio. Margarita and I felt welcomed and warmed by the hospitality of the Seventh-day Adventists.
After the traditional ribbon cutting, we went inside the temple—a beautiful building worth offering to our God! After listening to the words of gratitude from several pastors, including Oliver Mastrapa who was the leader of the congregation at that time, Florida Conference evangelist Rolando de los Ríos presented the main message for the occasion. The words of his message touched me deeply!
At the end of the meeting, we all went to the social hall, where they had prepared a hearty Adventist-style lunch for everybody. I met the rest of the Gonzalez family and others who later would become very important friends to us: Carmen and Víctor Rodríguez, Carlos and Rosa Matos, and singers of the quartet, Harmony.
After leaving the temple, I told Margarita, “I think I found the church that I sought.” She nodded firmly, “Me too.”
We decided, in spite of the distance from Orlando, to attend services every Saturday at the Deltona Spanish Church. Pastor Julio Cesar Rivera offered to instruct us in Bible studies. I was beginning to see God’s work in me. Although I was a miserable sinner, He was offering His forgiveness and parenthood to me.
The third Saturday we attended, the preacher was Carmen Rodríguez. Incidentally, that day I learned that she is Executive Secretary at Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Her message was very spiritual, and it touched my heart. After the service, I told Margarita, “I want to be baptized,” to which she answered, “So do I. For 42 years I have been waiting for you. Thank you, Lord!”
That day, as we gathered in the social room, we informed Oscar about our decision. You can imagine his excitement! Both Pastor Oliver Mastrapa, and Pastor Julio Cesar Rivera volunteered to help in the preparation for this solemn moment. The joy of Carmen, Victor, Carlos, Rosa, and the Gonzalez brothers was very evident.
We agreed that the date for our baptism would be June 20, 2009, the same week of our 43rd wedding anniversary. I knew that during those 43 years, Margarita had always wanted to confirm our marriage vows in a church. And the Lord said, “This is the time.” I wanted to surprise her and made the arrangements with the pastors to have the confirmation of our wedding vows before the baptism.
The long-awaited moment came. I will never forget that date. It was a joyful moment for my wife, Margarita; my daughters, my brother, Victor, and his wife Mari, a Seventh-day Adventist all her life; and their daughter Dana, my darling niece.
Confirmation of the marriage vows took place first by Pastor Mastrapa, and the baptismal ceremony was officiated by Pastor Julio Cesar Rivera. The temple was full of brothers and sisters. We felt the presence of the Holy Spirit throughout the church. Thank you, my God!
The same day, Margarita had a very pleasant surprise. Pastor Rivera arranged to reconcile her with her sister in Puerto Rico. They were distanced for many years, but her sister sent a letter which was read at her baptism. It was a very emotional moment for Margarita.
We became Seventh-day Adventists! My God released me from the chains that bound me to drug addiction, alcoholism, and bad eating habits!
Some weeks after that great event, Margarita and I enrolled in the Hazkell Institute. This seminar to prepare lay Bible instructors was taught by Pastors Oliver Mastrapa and Emilio Ruiz every Wednesday night at the church. Finally, we graduated.
Weeks later, I was approached by Oscar Gonzalez who informed me that a brother in Christ was interested in hosting a Christian ministry on the radio, and he had recommended me for that purpose. During the week, I was telling my God, “Aren’t you going too fast? Remember, I do not know much about your Word.”
I made arrangements with the owner of La Fantástica radio station to have a space every Sunday from 7:00 to 8:00 pm . With the blessing of the Lord, the radio program launched on November 1, 2009. Exactly one year later, the Lord had confirmed the panel of participants: Joel and Aitza Ruiz; Jose Acevedo; Gabriel Fragos; Margarita, my wife; myself; and guest speakers, Pastor Oliver Mastrapa, Pastor José LeGrand, Carmen and Victor Rodríguez, and others. On the last Sunday of every month, the youth ministries of our church, under the leadership of Juan Rivera and myself, host the radio broadcast. A number of other brothers and sisters in Christ who wish to remain anonymous help with monetary contributions to pay the expenses of the radio program.
This year, 2011, I became a Sabbath School teacher. Day after day, I knelt down to talk with my God and said, “God, I think I’m going too fast, but I trust you and with your help, I’ll move forward in your name.” I thank God for allowing me to be His son.
Now, I understand God’s purpose in directing me down the road of communication for 18 years, even though I interpreted it wrongly. My life has had a 180-degree turn. Although Satan, the enemy, will not accept that God has delivered me from his chains, I am convinced that my life belongs to my God. Thank you, Father!
by Jacqueline Flottmann
(Reprinted from 3ABN World, March 2010.)
Hermya Smith walked into Jacksonville Mandarin Seventh-day Adventist Church and immediately began to cry. “They were deep sobs,” Hermya recalls, “so deep I was unable to talk. But when the words finally came out, all I could say was, ‘I’m lost! I’m lost!'”
This dramatic moment was the end of her old life, and the beginning of a new one—of a life touched by divine grace!
Resentments, and Questions
“I don’t know much about my father, except that he was a staff sergeant in the Army,” Hermya begins, “but my mother was an educator. When I was three my parents separated and my mother took me to live in Florida, where she cared for my grandfather. We were a black middle-class family, mostly made up of educators and pastors. My father insisted on christening me a Catholic at an early age, but I mainly attended the United Methodist Church while testing the waters in other denominations. I never really was into church, preferring to stay home watching television. Then a pastor’s remark one Sunday caused my mother to leave at the end of service and never return until the day of her funeral.”
Many years after her mother’s death, Hermya decided to come back to that church, and eventually became their secretary. But even while she attended church, she struggled with questions of doctrine. “I’d ask why we worshiped on Sunday, since the Bible always speaks of the Sabbath as Saturday,” she says, “but I never felt I got a proper answer to my questions.”
The Crack Trap
Hermya was about to take a turn down a very dark and difficult path. “I began smoking weed in my twenties because my husband tried it,” she says. “But when the police busted his supplier, he became frightened, and we quit. Later, in my mid-thirties, I began smoking it again, feeling that as long as I loved God and didn’t hurt anyone, it was okay to live my life as I wanted. My idea of righteousness was, It’s not what you do, it’s the way you do it.
“Then I met a new friend whose husband smoked crack cocaine and I tried it. I liked the smell, and it made me eat less. It had a high that was quick and powerful, but it also made me very sensitive to sounds. Rhythm was my thing, and crack caused the music to come alive! Before I knew it I was smoking more and more.
“When I moved to the other side of town it became hard to find, so I stopped for about five years. But then one of my girlfriends wanted to smoke some without her husband knowing, and we set out to find the drug on our own. This time I made my own contacts and continued using the drug until God impressed me that if I didn’t stop I would die. But because I thought I belonged to Him, I believed Satan couldn’t have me. Little did I know he already did! Even then, the Holy Spirit kept impressing me not to use, but my flesh always won out.”
Hermya eventually was arrested and spent the night in jail, but the judge dismissed the charges, and she managed to get off without a criminal record.
“I was careful to carry myself in a certain way, and I worked everyday,” she says. “You meet people like me all the time—in church, in business offices, as employees. Many drug addicts are people you’d never suspect. I was a ‘functional’ addict, and was generally able to pay for my habit. Of course most of my paycheck went towards my drugs, so I was always behind on bills. I constantly begged my family for money, which always left them angry with me. They’d ask what I was doing with my money, and I’d lie, of course. But most of the hell I lived through was with bill collectors who kept calling and calling. After a while it all began to get old.
“I realize my story is not typical,” Hermya admits. “Most crack addicts end up on the street, stealing, and selling their bodies for drugs. But I actually thought I was somebody, and that my family owed me something because they had a little money (which they had worked very hard to obtain). I rationalized they should give some to me, because I wanted it! (There is that ‘I’ again.)”
Not a Pretty Picture
Hermya’s life was not a pretty picture, in spite of her seemingly normal appearance. “I lived with my uncle after I was divorced,” she says, “and we lived in a nice home. But my personal living space was a dump! There were clothes and videotapes all over the bed and the carpet was crud because of all the perfume and air freshener I constantly sprayed to camouflage the odors of crack, weed, and cigarettes. No human being should have to live in the room I survived in daily. It was a pigsty—broken crack pipes hidden in drawers, empty crack and marijuana bags, cigarettes—the walls yellow from the smoke, and the furniture black and sticky from the aerosol spray mixed with perfume. My former friends told me they always knew what I was doing because they could smell the perfume and air freshener two blocks away!”
However, Hermya’s 30-year addiction to crack cocaine, marijuana, and cigarettes was about to come to an end. One day, as she was channel surfing (and smoking crack), she stopped on Three Angels Broadcasting Network’s (3ABN) downlink television station in Jacksonville, channel 50. Although she thought she was watching a cartoon show, what she saw was the opening of Pastor Stephen Bohr’s program, Cracking the Genesis Code. Suddenly realizing the program was about the change of Sabbath worship to Sunday, she was amazed at how he was answering one of the questions she’d had for years. Soon she could be found in front of her TV every Tuesday night, eager to see what Pastor Bohr would say next. She watched more and more 3ABN programs, eventually to the exclusion of any other stations.
Then came the day we began airing the first-ever Ten Commandments Weekend from Washington, D.C., “and that’s when God began shouting at me! I kept thinking, He’s real! His Commandments are real! And the Sabbath is real!
“I wanted to read the book they were giving away to see for myself if what was written measured up to what I’d seen.”
Lost and Found
Several days later she looked in her phone book for an Adventist church, but found only one—the Jacksonville Mandarin Seventh-day Adventist Church. “I jumped in my car right away,” she says. Then I noticed two doves flying across the street while I was stopped at a light. I watched as they flew across and landed on top of the light pole, and the one in front began to peep at me over the street sign. ‘I’m going! I’m going!’ I told God!”
After finally finding the church, Hermya saw the secretary, Barbara Mills, and two deaconesses, Carolyn Relaford and Sue Smith, as she came in. The ladies were tidying up the fellowship hall after a funeral luncheon for one of the church members, but came over quickly when Hermya began to sob.
“She was crying so hard that we started crying with her!” Carolyn says. “She kept saying, ‘I’m lost! I’m so lost!’ and we thought she meant she was lost in the city and didn’t know where she was going.”
Hermya explains, “I was on the road to condemnation, even though I thought I knew God. Now I realized I was really lost!”
The ladies tried their best to console her. “We gave her tissues, hugged her, and talked at length,” Sue says. “Barbara gave her a gift bag of books, and then we invited her to our prayer meeting the following night.”
Hermya was back the following night—and on Sabbath, too! But most importantly, she asked God to remove her terrible addiction to crack. God impressed her instead that He would take away her desire for cigarettes and marijuana as well, and from that night on she was delivered from her addictions—without any withdrawals!
Winston Relaford, the church head elder at the time, began to mentor her by focusing on God’s grace. Meanwhile, Sue began Bible studies with her as well. “She was an eager learner but never took anything I saw as gospel. Instead, she checked every Bible test for herself,” Sue says.
Three months later, Hermya’s dream came true as she was baptized and joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
“It was a very emotional day for us all,” Winston remembers, “and I was overwhelmed with the privilege of helping to bring another child of God into His kingdom.”
Today Hermya is more active than ever in her church, serving as head deaconess and leading out in Wednesday night prayer meetings. “She’s like a ray of sunshine in our church, and being around her makes us all want to do more for our Lord,” Carolyn says.
But Hermya has helped her fellow church members in other ways, too. “She’s helped us understand the value of people,” Winston says. “She’s taught us to love everybody, regardless of their backgrounds. Piercings, tattoos, drug addicts—this is a place where they’re accepted and can grow in a safe environment. Jesus is being lived here. People come in and always come back because we love them.”
Pastor Juan Rodriguez agrees. “Our congregation is very multicultural,” he explains. “We have many different worship leaders and we afford them a lot of freedom, so each of them brings their own flavor to the worship service. Those who visit us for the first time find no one looking down on them for the way they dress, or whether they still smoke or not. We tell them to come as they are, and we trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in their hearts if they come our way. We really strive for transparency—to be real no matter what. It’s not unusual for us to have someone share a testimony about the difficulties they have had in their lives.”
Like so many others, this story has no end. “Immediately after Hermya’s baptism, two women approached her and asked about being baptized,” Sue says. “The pastor said he would like for both of us to study with them, which we did once a week. They were both baptized, too!”
“She’s the kind of person who is sold out to God,” Pastor Rodriguez adds. “She’s a woman of prayer, and she moves forward on her knees.”
If you’re in the area, why not stop in at the Jacksonville Mandarin Church? By all accounts, if you do, you’re life will be changed as you experience the warm embrace of fellowship from your brothers and sisters in Christ!
The Jacksonville Mandarin Seventh-day Adventist Church is located at 10911 Old St. Augustine Road, Jacksonville, Florida. Why not worship with them? And if you do, be sure to say hello to Hermya and her friends. They’ll be looking for you!
by Gladys Neigel
“I thank God every day for my talents,” says Heather Clark, 18, a Saint Augustine Church member. “I’ve never been able to understand why I can do the things I do, but I’ve decided to go ahead and accept that God knows what He’s doing with me, and I want to follow Him wherever He leads.”
Heather uses her gift as a classical guitarist to provide special music for worship services by playing her own hymn arrangements. She’s an integral part of a youth group that meets Friday evenings for Bible study. Recently, Heather played for a youth-organized Daniel Seminar.
“She wants to use her talents to help others,” says Thomson Paris, youth leader. “Her goal is to become a music therapist. Heather gives a deeper and fresher meaning to the songs she plays and sings, like her rendition of Lord, I Want to Be a Christian, which is powerful.”
Heather also has opportunities to share Christ at her high school such as playing for beginning music classes to give them a feel for classical guitar. In addition, she participated in spring and winter concerts at her school which are still rebroadcast on local television.
Known as one of the top 27 classical guitarists at the high school level in Florida, she was selected as one of four students from her school to participate in the All-State Guitar Concert held during a Florida Music Educator’s Conference in Tampa. Heather has played guitar for seven years and started taking classical lessons three years ago from guitar instructor Trey Brewer who says she is one of the students “who eat, drink, and sleep guitar.”
by Gladys Neigel
Sylvia Torres-Thomas, Winter Springs Church member, is one of 18 students to receive University of Central Florida’s (UCF) most prestigious student award—Order of Pegasus.
Sylvia is a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Nursing. She received a Bachelor of Science in nursing from Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, and a Master of Science in nursing from UCF. She presently serves as vice president of the Organization of Doctoral Students in Nursing and holds memberships in several honor societies.
The Order of Pegasus award honors outstanding academic achievement, university involvement, leadership, and community service. As a doctoral student, Sylvia has participated in National Institute of Health funded research and presented her findings in the area of Hispanic health issues at a national nursing conference in Washington, D.C. Service in the community includes involvement in family and children’s ministries at Winter Springs Church and volunteering as a nurse for Shepherd’s Hope Clinic.