To Luis Torres, The Friend Who Converted Me To Christianity

Luis,

On the last day of SuCo, Robert, Deanna, Sarah, Carissa, Justine, Sharon, and Luke told me that I absolutely had to write this.

I remember the beginning of my sophomore year when you first joined our cross country team, and rumor had it that you were very religious and very Christian. My mind immediately jumped to conclusions that you would be some sort of “Bible freak” who imposed much of his beliefs on other people, the stereotypical type of person I wanted to avoid. Only a couple years ago, I was an atheist and one who bought into atheist elitism in thinking that I was intellectually above any person who needed blind faith and ignorance in organized religion.

And so it would shock sophomore year me to realize that we are two people cut from the same cloth. I say this now definitively: Luis, over the next year and a half, you converted me to Christianity. It was a long, gradual process, one that is still ongoing, but it has changed my life entirely. I never acknowledged it until I spent this week at RUF Summer Conference (SuCo) with our mutual friends, where I admitted that I was very drawn to the way certain people at RUF treated others with a basic sense of respect and non-judgment, whether they were Christians or not Christians. Especially for me, someone who didn’t grow up with the church, the fact that I was taken in with open arms meant a lot. You, Paul Austin, Tripp, and Stephen Maginas got me started on that path.

I’ve written before at length about your character before, but one thing I didn’t emphasize enough was your way of treating people. People feel instantly that they’re friends with you because you don’t judge them, you never impose your way of thinking on them, and you never act like you’re better than them. You walk through each day of life with a sense of humility and strong passion for following Jesus Christ.

It is so evident that one day, on a run with Holden, I asked him what he’s been most thankful for in college, and he said that was meeting you, as a mentor, as someone who suffered a lot and went through a lot of brokenness and struggles, but is strong not despite of that, but because of it.

As such, it’s time for me to also pay my dues.

Galatians 5:13–14, demonstrates the approach that I’ve seen you take in your interactions with others. “For you are called to freedom, brothers; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love. For the entire law is fulfilled in one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

In our last small group discussion SuCo, we were asked to discuss Paul and Silas’s conversion of the jailer in Philippi in Acts 16:25–40. While Paul and Silas were singing hymns to God, there was an earthquake that shook the jail and opened all the doors. The jailer, in discovering this, attempted to kill himself because he thought Paul and Silas had escaped. But they didn’t escape. They had unconditional joy and unconditional love in God, and stopped the jailer from killing himself. The jailer, struck by the joy of Paul and Silas, asked them, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

I contributed a bit to this discussion — that what struck out to me was how Paul and Silas converted the jailer. For jailers who lost their prisoners, the only punishment in Rome was death. A fundamental rule of writing well is show, don’t tell, and in this case, Paul and Silas showed the jailer their joy by being merciful — not leaving when they easily had the chance, saving the jailer’s life. “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” In this case, the Romans who imprisoned Paul and Silas, including the jailer, didn’t necessarily earn Paul and Silas’s love and mercy. But they had it regardless, because you don’t have to earn God’s love. They showed the jailer that he had that love and grace, which was far more powerful and effective than telling it.

When I thought of Christians in the past, I stereotyped them as largely hypocrites who often preached their faith but never practiced it. Again, I thought that by not buying into any religion, I was on some intellectual and rational high horse. I tried this Christianity stuff before, I tried praying, but that didn’t make good things or the things I wanted happen. It didn’t even fix the things that were completely messed up at home, so it must have been complete bullshit.

But that last part about not needing to earn God’s love is something I’ve struggled with in the past. It was something I knew, but that only through meeting you I was able to accept the past year and a half. Your persona completely defied these misconceptions and stereotypes I had in the past — because while I’ve always seen how strong your faith is in Jesus Christ, I never saw you impose that on someone who wasn’t as strong of a believer, or who wasn’t a Christian at all.

Your devotion to people manifests itself in loyalty, as I’ve written about before. You will not leave people behind and you will stick to them until the bitter end. I feel bad about the various terrible lifestyle habits I’ve imparted on you, but remember after numerous meets where you joined me in study and homework benders until 4:30 a.m., or Thanksgiving morning, when after only two hours of sleep, you openly volunteered to drive me, Eric, and Bobby to the half marathon, and stayed there the whole race. You’re one of the few people I can sit in silence with and have absolutely no conversation for hours. Probably most importantly, you’ve always been an open ear to my unrelenting struggles and mistakes with relationships, and you never gave advice or told me what to do — you just listened.

I’ll say this too — you were the first person that taught me that suffering wasn’t a bad thing. A minister at SuCo said these words: “every time you suffer, and come out of it, you come out looking a little more like Jesus Christ.” And those words resonate with me, because you were the first person I knew who put such profound past suffering in your and your family’s life so openly and plain. You showed that you are the human being you are today not despite that suffering, but because of how you’ve grown from that suffering.

That changed the game for me. I’m a man prone to addiction — whether it’s to alcohol, video games, or other things that gave that temporary escape. But there was one real addiction that lied beneath all that: emotional suppression. It’s a controversial viewpoint, but I reject the notion that drugs and alcohol are a way of numbing and not feeling emotions, but rather they are temporary cures for suppression. When I drink, I know I’m certainly not emotionally numb — I feel those emotions a lot more strongly than any other point. For me, there are no regrets. Those addictions were necessary steps to get me here.

For the first 20 years of my life, I saw all the suffering, trauma, and abuse of my childhood as a mark of shame that would cripple me in many ways forever. Now, I see it as a source of pride, strength, and resilience.

You were the first person who taught me what it was to own that suffering instead of trying to hide it and keep it within. You gave me the path to make the most important decision of my life in opening up about my past. That has helped others break the power of shame, and now I can finally sit my ass down and really listen to people instead of trying to flex and carry myself with a chip on my shoulder, and stop my addiction to emotional suppression.

Luis, you maneuver life with joy — a joy that’s unconditional in your devotion no matter the circumstance. You don’t stop smiling. You seemed to have things figured out — unlike myself, unlike the average student walking through Emory’s campus. While people base their identities on results, such as how many awards they won or what grade they got on an exam. You were free of that — you base that happiness entirely in your devotion to God, and I’ll be honest — I was a bit jealous of how you could be so happy no matter what happened in your life, or even because of what happened in your life.

So I followed your and Paul Austin’s advice after I made that pivotal decision — I talked to the RUF minister, Stephen, and I didn’t realize this at the time, but I appreciate it so much now. Stephen never tried to get me to start coming to RUF or tried to convert me at all. He was just a guy great at listening, who had some wise insights into my situation of being vulnerable. That was all first semester this year, and then some words Stephen said stuck with me: “the danger is in letting the vulnerability stop here,” and initially in my head, I felt some pushback — being vulnerable, for how rewarding it is, is hard as hell.

So I made a decision at the turn of 2018 to make that my New Year’s Resolution — to keep pressing forward with that vulnerability, and so far, in bursts, I have succeeded. I started coming to RUF because, again, I was drawn to the way you and Stephen treat others, and I wanted to pay you guys back for all you did to help me process my situation. After SuCo, I can say that behind that one October night that I sent the team the letter, joining RUF was the best decisions I’ve made in college. And that October night? Something I can’t ever explain came over me. Looking back, there’s no other way I can rationalize that.

Now, instead of praying for outcomes or results, I pray to thank the Lord for gracing me with great people in my life, whether it’s my family, whether it’s the team.

I didn’t convert earlier because I say this with assurity: not all Christians are like you, Stephen, and the people at RUF. But the people that fit into that stereotype I had — that tell and impose rather than showing and letting people make that decision on their own? The type that put labels on people and put them into boxes, that blame, judge, and act like they’re superior to others? The type that sin themselves and they can condemn others for their sin? Now, I realize this: those people aren’t real Christians.

I will do my best to walk your path, and show, don’t tell as I go on my mission and journey. I will do my best to love my neighbor as myself, much like you do, because who am I, after all the mistakes I’ve made and all that I’ve sinned, to act like I’m better than anyone? One thing that will always ground me is the fact that I know I have doubts and I might be wrong, very wrong. But now, even if that’s the case, for the first time, I’m wrong for the right reasons.

Your way? It’s the work of Christ. There’s another quote that I think embodies your approach to treating others that I put on my phone background so I can follow it too. I’m sure we’ve had our disagreements, but that never stopped you from treating me like a brother in Christ. It’s from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“To be kind is more important than to be right. Many times, what need is not a brilliant mind that speaks, but a special heart that listens.”

That way is grace, humility, unconditional support for others, and giving them not only the space, but the encouragement to be vulnerable. That’s not only the Christian I want to be, but the person I want to be. Luis, thank you for converting me to Christianity.


Originally published at www.theodysseyonline.com on May 21, 2018.