He was – perhaps next to my maternal grandfather Manolo who raised me – the most influential father figure in my life.
Last month my longtime pastor Mel Santiesteban (I simply called him Pastor) passed away suddenly at the age of 72 and like all great, real Godly men I’ll remember him most for doing his best preaching without preaching.
Pastor was the man who by his example taught me about authenticity, integrity, family, forgiveness, ingenuity, conflict resolution, pragmatism and nearly every other virtue that Christ personifies and that today I as a husband, father and human being strive to achieve.
Pastor did not possess college degrees but he was anointed with an astonishing gift for preaching and teaching the Gospel in manner that went straight to your heart and mind. In the decade that I regularly attended his Hialeah Church of the Nazarene I rarely witnessed a Sunday where his message did not prompt someone to step forward to reconcile with God. Pastor’s Gospel was a compassionate, aromatic one that neither condemned people nor compromised the politically incorrect message of Christ.
Pastor railed against denominationalism among Christians and was fond of saying that if some religious Christians had it their way Jesus would have to come back to Earth to be crucified all over again for them. Even though he was the preacher of a “Nazarene” denominational church Pastor reminded everybody that in truth he only followed THE Nazarene.
A Raw and Real Leader
Pastor’s most blessed legacy was also his boldest move. In the mid 90s – at the urging of his wife Nora, an ex-drug addict – Pastor took to the pulpit to attack his own religiousness and declared that it was time for his blue collar, living-paycheck-to-paycheck church to start feeding and preaching to the homeless. Pastor began a Tuesday night ministry of preaching and feeding the homeless in downtown Miami and after a few months decided that those men and women needed to come to church to sit alongside the “regular sinners.”
The next thing we knew the church was transporting one – later two – bus full of destitute people to church early every Sunday morning. Always the clever entrepreneur, Pastor set this ministry up so that every homeless person came to church, took a shower, had a sumptuous breakfast, attended service and then ended their day with a full lunch before heading back downtown. The religious riff raff gave Pastor grief for mixing “those people” with their cookie cutter families but Pastor didn’t back down. Even though several families left for “safer” churches almost everybody stayed and were transformed by the guts it took to serve God in the raw and real.
One Sunday two homeless men came to church and told Pastor that they didn’t want to be transported back to the streets. Touched by their plea, Pastor got on the pulpit and asked if anybody could give these men a house or apartment for temporary shelter. One deacon raised his hand and the rest is history. From that moment forward Pastor made it the church’s mission to take people off the streets with a Gospel-infused, one year, voluntary program that now shelters more than 70 people at a time in what is known as the Home of the Nazarene.
Hundreds of men – and their entire families – have been rescued and transformed by the Home of the Nazarene, the crown jewel of Pastor’s legacy and something that made him a father to many a lost soul.
Place Your Faith in God Alone
Pastor would be the first to say he had many faults but one thing I can tell you is that he didn’t have a “religious” ego. He served alongside anybody and everybody and on more than one occasion he would even warn his own congregation that it was extremely foolish to put their trust and faith in anybody, including him. “Only serve and trust God for the Bible itself says ‘Cursed is the man who trusts in man,’” he would say.
Even though I admired Pastor’s many gifts for preaching and leadership, what I most loved about him was his quiet, devoted service to his church and even complete strangers.
In the darkest night of my soul, a full year that included a terrible divorce and the deaths of my father, grandfather and uncle, Pastor was there for me and my family. Pastor routinely spent time going to the hospital, praying, supporting and checking on us during the difficult times we were going through. After my dad and grandfather both passed away, a day apart from each other, Pastor created a Bible study at one of my relatives’ home JUST TO SERVE my grief stricken family.
On the surface, the Bible study was a failure. Most of the time only two or three of us showed up. I used to feel embarrassed because Pastor would have to drive from other ministerial responsibilities – or even time from being with his own family – to be with us. In retrospect, I now realize that that full year Pastor did this for us was not about him trying to preach to anybody but rather about him being an encouragement to our heartbroken family.
It’s been a long time since I called Pastor’s church home but in my heart, even though it’s not practical for me to regularly assist that precious church in Hialeah that he led, that place is always my church home. Several months ago, the last time I spoke with Pastor, my wife and I took him to breakfast. I wanted to let him know that if he gave me permission I wanted to turn one of his most entertaining, universal stories “El Clavito” into a short film.
Pastor told me he was honored to know that I thought so highly of his short story but the truth is that I’m the one who is humbled and honored to be able to tell his story. God willing, somewhere between now and April of next year I hope to be able to add “El Clavito” to my Pastor’s great legacy in my life and to the lives of others.
Every father – every man, really – should have a Godly man like Pastor Santiesteban in his life. I thank God for Pastor, a father I will always treasure.