Altar Boy Becomes Saint


By  José María (Yuyi) Iturriaga.

Never had I been so thrilled to see a well-known face. Here I was, 14 years of age, pretty lost in the big city of Corrientes, northern Argentina, hardly knowing anybody, certainly not having any friends, and …, all of a sudden, there I was face to face with Aníbal … Though three years older, he had been my friend in the village, out in “gaucho” country, where we grew up. We had also been altar boys together, helping the local priest in the mass. Then, two years ago now, he disappeared from view, as he went to study in the city. When he’d got wind that I too was now in town, he sought me out in the small hotel where, as a receptionist, I was earning my living. I had been allowed a small room there (sharing it with the hotel’s waiter), and I could eat what the kitchen produced. Everything else, like my laundry (which was all done by hand), I had to see to myself, with my studies claiming the rest of my time. God knew that I was badly in need of a true friend.

And wasn’t it great to see Anibal’s friendly face?! But little did I realize that behind his interest as a friend, there was a deeper interest…

Life in the village had been pleasant enough for me, though not so pleasant for my mother. She had gone to live there with my grandmother when my dad walked out on us. I was six then. I hardly had any recollection of him as a friend. And I hadn’t seen him since.

In my teens I began to long to stand on my own two feet, so, when I turned fourteen, I felt the time had come. My mom and grandmother weren’t so sure, but they let me go, reluctantly.

How often, since I’d arrived in Corrientes, starting my new life, had I wished they could still surround me with their loving cares, but they were far away and I had to battle things out on my own. Go to one of the many Catholic churches in town? My sense of duty told me to attend mass, but I didn’t. Intuitively I realized there would be no help for me there. And, ignorant of the Gospel, I had been brought up to look on these “Gospel people” (evangélicos) as simply deranged people.

Now, in the excitement of seeing this friend, I suggested: “Hey Aníbal, when my next free weekend comes up, why don’t we go to a disco and have a good time …!”

His answer nearly floored me. He said that he sure wanted to be my friend, but that I couldn’t count on him anymore for discos and all that! Jesus Christ, he said, had changed his life. Politely I listened, but didn’t grasp much of what he said. It also dawned on me that according to the priest’s definition and that of my family, Aníbal was deranged …!    Was he? No, I decided he couldn’t be.

For a whole year Aníbal kept me supplied with Gospel literature, which I read avidly. Realizing I would never understand things properly without a Bible, I went and bought one. I had nothing against the Bible, but neither had I ever read it. Now I wanted to study for myself these verses, which kept on popping up in the leaflets and “tracts” that Aníbal gave me. Hours were spent daily, just reading the Bible. Then, eventually, Aníbal, who didn’t know this was going on, gave me a separate Gospel of John. I did the same as I had been doing with the tracts, I managed to find John’s Gospel in the Bible and began to carefully check to see if they were the same. It was then God’s Word started to really strike home. I saw my desperate condition, but also that God was calling me, not wanting me to perish. My heart opened to him and to his love.

The change that came over me was unbelievable. More and more did I want to get into the Bible, and talk to Aníbal, but, afraid to be classed with the “evangélicos”, I decided not to say a word about having received Christ as my Savior.

From time to time Aníbal had invited me to the meetings in the home of his friends, the Ramírez family. I had always declined, but now after my experience with the Lord, I couldn’t wait to go. So, when he brought it up again, I eagerly accepted. Still, I didn’t feel comfortable in that first meeting and kept watching out for strange teachings and practices. But everything was done in great simplicity. There was some singing, a Bible study, and at the end one of the men asked me point blank if I had received Christ as my Savior. Put on the spot like that, I couldn’t very well deny my experience, so I told them, and my story brought general rejoicing.

It was the first of many meetings with my new found family. A few months later I was baptized. Most of us were young people. Aníbal had been won to the Lord by one of the sons of the Ramírez family, when they studied together. The chain reaction continued. We spent much time together, often just studying the Bible, and whenever there was opportunity, we went out to evangelize, especially through literature.

Two years passed and I began to sense that God might want me in full-time Gospel work. Thinking it might just be a passing thought, I never mentioned it to the others. However, I found that the longing to be one of those workers alluded to in Matthew 9:37-38, kept on growing. Finally, High School finished, also a course in accountancy, and having to decide whether or not to go on to College, I could see the importance of putting things to the others and see what they would advise.

They were very happy that God was dealing with me on these issues. They assured me of their spiritual support, should I go in for a worker’s training.

In 1987, nearly 6 years after my conversion, I spent 8 months in the NTMU’s training program, called EMA, or “Roving Missionary School”. On my way to the town where this was going to start, my bus stopped for a while in one of the villages. As I stood outside, waiting to board it again, I suddenly found myself face to face with my father. Fourteen years had passed and he did not recognize me, but great were his surprise and emotion when I spoke to him and told him who I was. The contact has continued since then, also with his other four children.

After EMA further training was obtained by accompanying several missionaries in their work in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. In 1990, in a joyful meeting, hands were laid on me by elders and other workers (cf. Acts 13:3). Then, after a year’s itinerant work in Argentina’s north east, I moved to Temperley, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. The NTMU’s office there was in need of an additional worker and I understood the Lord was directing my steps in this regard. Not that office work was all I’d be doing. There was a lot that was waiting to be done in and through the two congregations in the area.  Moreover, I had gotten to know a young lady in one of these whose heart I knew to be equally exercised about the Lord’s work. We felt increasingly drawn to each other, and in 1993 Liliana and I were married.

In a very poor district, a long way from where we lived, we started a work among the many sadly neglected children. This was done with local believers, who opened their homes for meetings when the weather was rainy or cold. We took a course with Child Evangelism Fellowship, but most was learned directly in the work. Many of the children who used to come, around fifty, were from single-mother homes. Many at six years of age had already been through more than some of us in a life time. It was quite normal for a number of children to have the same mother, but all of them a different father. Stepfathers are notorious for abusing the children, little girls may be raped by them on a regular basis. Three little kids in our meetings had seen how their mom had killed the stepfather with three stabs of her kitchen knife.

In 1995 I became the editor of our Spanish bi-monthly El Noticiero Evangélico. Then, in 2000, we moved, office and all, to Puerto Iguazú, in the north east, where we border on Brazil and are very near to Paraguay, and even nearer to the famous Iguazú waterfalls. We are surrounded by congregations in the 3 countries, some near, others quite far. One thing we are doing, is seeking to motivate them and teach them to reach out to the children in their towns.

God has blessed us with 2 little ones: Ángela Noemí of five and Cristian José of nearly a year.