For one immigrant, challenges have included a treacherous journey north, an uncertain destination and a devastating auto accident that left him using a wheelchair. Luis Juárez has overcome them all.
Luis Juárez was 7 when he made the trek from Managua, Nicaragua, to Geneva, Ala. It was a journey of wonder, fear and faith.
He and his 5-year-old sister, Yessy, were led by their father, Pablo, a Catholic-turned-atheist who fought with the Sandinistas in the Nicaraguan revolution.
Hunger and poverty from a war-torn economy drove them on this desperate excursion in late 1995. They were also motivated by a longing to reunite with Luis’ mother, Jilma, who had gone ahead to find an apartment.
Luis had a vague understanding of the drama and the possible consequences facing the three of them. Their movements became increasingly secretive as they neared the United States. They faced capture, incarceration and possible separation on the one hand, and a new life on the other.
And their destination was a place called Alabama. It might as well have been Nepal or the Sudan, as far as the boy knew.
But on they went, through forests and deserts and mountains. They hopped on buses and trains when they could. They walked, too.
Sometimes, Luis enjoyed the journey with his father and sister. They spent a lot of time together. They talked a lot, and they laughed. There was also a lot of uncertainty. In those moments, he felt a longing for something much bigger than himself, bigger even than his father. One of those moments was so overwhelming that he yearned to connect with that power, whatever it was.
“There was a time in the trip when we were in a taxi and I looked at the mountains and I said a prayer. I didn’t know who I was praying to. I wasn’t an atheist. I said, God, help us reach our destination — to be able to hug mom. I said, God, help us through this journey.”
‘The future is bright for him’
God has done that and a lot more for Luis, he and others testify.
The prayer 7-year-old Luis offered up in that Mexican taxi helped lay down a bedrock of faith, and a spiritual pattern, that has seen him through challenges that would weaken the knees of many, if not most, people.
It’s also inspired Luis to accomplish more than many thought he could in just 29 years.
Despite a life-threatening injury suffered at 17, he has grown from a frightened undocumented immigrant to director of missions and ministries at Baptist University of the Américas in San Antonio, Texas, where he also is an adjunct lecturer in theology. And he serves as youth pastor at Sunny Slope Baptist Church in San Antonio.
He graduated from BUA with a degree in biblical and theological studies in 2011 and earned a master’s in Christian ministry from Dallas Baptist University in 2013. He began working at his alma mater as spiritual life director in 2012 and led the Baptist Student
Ministry there and at Palo Alto Community College.
In April, he’ll begin work on a doctorate in education at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, specializing in higher education. And in 2016, he was married.
“He inspires me in so many different ways and also our students here,” says Teo Cisneros, vice president for development at BUA. “The future is bright for him.”
‘That was the beginning’
For things to unfold for Luis, it meant Pablo Juárez needed a miracle or two in his own life.
Practically nothing looked good for Pablo in the 1990s. He was an agricultural engineer, but an unemployed one in the devastated post-revolution economy of Nicaragua. He had a family to care for, yet no prospects.
His hopelessness only deepened during the journey to the United States. Pablo was plagued by all the what-ifs a father could imagine with two little children in tow. The prospect of crossing the Rio Grande alone was a nightmare.
Tormented by fear during a stay in a Mexican hotel, Pablo remembered his long-abandoned faith. Atheism melted in the face of love for his children. He reached out.
“Everything my parents did was so my sister and I could have a chance to get an education in what is considered to be the best nation in the world. So I aspired to reach the highest levels of education.”
“When I prayed I said, ‘God, I don’t know if you really exist. But if you do, I need your help in getting to the U.S. and united with my wife. I will follow you if you do this.”
Father and children safely crossed into the United States and arrived at Jilma’s apartment on Christmas Day.
“That was the beginning,” he says.
‘To communicate hope and inspiration’
It was the beginning of a new life in the U.S. The family eventually moved to North Carolina where Pablo answered a calling to the ministry and became a pastor. The Juarezes eventually became U.S. citizens.
And it was the beginning of a life in faith for Luis, whose uncertain prayer at 7 flowered into dreams of a career in education.
“Everything my parents did was so my sister and I could have a chance to get an education in what is considered to be the best nation in the world,” Luis says. “So I aspired to reach the highest levels of education.”
He also dreamed of playing basketball, ideally with the LA Lakers, his favorite team.
“Yes, I had a serious desire to play. I loved basketball. When a friend and I played pickup games, he would be Shaquille [O’Neal] and I would be Kobe [Bryant].”
Watching how his father overcame obstacles fueled the belief he could achieve his own.
Pablo “has been the person God has used the most to speak promise into my life, and to communicate hope and inspiration.”
‘Let this not be the end’
That promise, hope and inspiration were in great need the evening of Feb. 13, 2005.
It was a Sunday. Luis was 17 and the worship leader at his father’s church, Eglesia Christiana Emanuel in Wallace, N.C. Everything that happened that night is a blank spot in Luis’ mind. His memories of that night are pieced together from friends and family.
Luis led an adrenaline- and spirit-filled youth service. Afterward, some of the teens piled into a friend’s car and headed first to another student’s residence, then to a sleepover at the Juarez home. Luis was in the back seat. Something went horribly wrong. The driver lost control. The one-car crash ejected Luis through the back window.
He regained consciousness in a room at what was then Pitt County Memorial Hospital in Greenville, N.C. For hours and days he struggled to understand what happened — not only in the wreck, but to his body. He could not remember what a doctor had told him: that he would never walk again.
But it finally got through to him.
“I wake up and see my friends surrounding the bed and I ask, ‘can you touch my legs?’ And they said, ‘we are touching your legs.’ And that’s when I realized the predicament
I was in — and that I was going to be in. My diagnosis is paraplegic.”
In a flash he saw the possibility of career aspirations evaporating. But he knew what to do.
“I said, God, help me continue with my life and to continue with my dreams. Let this not be the end.”
‘Let them see my heart’
By no means was it the end.
Professionally, he has continued to achieve in academic and ministry pursuits. Luis travels the nation speaking at youth camps and conferences. A young man with a faith capable of overcoming disability, it seems, is in high demand.
It was also attractive to a young woman attending a conference in Nashville, Tenn., in 2015. During a praise session, as others jumped and sang, she offered to jump for him. In July 2016, Luis and Cesia were married.
“We don’t know how he does it,” Pablo says. “He preaches and he sings and it seems sometimes that he doesn’t know that he is in a wheelchair.”
He witnessed the same determination in the months after the accident. The father was frustrated at the time that prayers for his son’s physical recovery weren’t being answered.
“My wife and I discovered that every morning, when we went to Luis’ bed, that he was praying to God every morning and we were getting frustrated because we didn’t see what we wanted.”
The son who was inspired by the father has returned the favor.
“I needed to step back and let God work the miracle he wanted. That is when we started having some peace.”
Peace, service and ministry. Not ambition or success. These are Luis’ present life goals.
“Whenever I am a good steward of the opportunities God gives me, then I am better equipped to serve God and his people,” Luis says.
His calling is to serve minorities, and particularly Hispanics, in the field of education. He remembers well the barriers to learning he faced — and overcame — as an immigrant and a one-time undocumented. He wants to help others do the same. Getting the doctorate in education will equip him to do that.
“I see this next step as a calling for me. I believe God has called me … to better serve him and his people.”
One of Luis’ biggest challenges today is getting others to see him, not the wheelchair. With most, the eyes go straight to the disability rather than his spirit.
But as he has for everything, Luis has a prayer for that challenge, too.
“I ask God that people see God in me rather than my physical appearance. ‘God, let them see my heart and everything you are doing in me and through me.’”
— This article will be published in the Spring 2017 issue of Herald, BNG’s magazine sent four times a year to donors to the Annual Fund. Bulk copies are also mailed to BNG’s Church Champion congregations.