By Michael Ashcraft —
Once while drunk with co-workers in a cantina after hours, former Christian leader Otoniel Rodriguez began to defend the gospel against their trash talk.
“Don’t mess with the gospel,” growled Oto, who, despite being backslidden himself, respected the truth profoundly. “Men make mistakes. But the gospel is something that God has given and is perfect.”
The argument grew heated, and he and his boss fell to blows. The police came, and Oto punched a cop. They wrestled him to the ground and handcuffed him. If it weren’t for a friend who just happened to be a friend of the cop, he would have been carted off to jail.
Whew! What a way to come back to Jesus – by way of a beer brawl!
Living next to city dump
The next day he woke up hung-over and spied a dirty Bible in the corner of his ramshackle sheet metal and wooden post house in the poorest neighborhood of Guatemala, only four blocks away from the city’s dump. Over time, he managed to block out the repulsive stench wafting from the dump, he says.
All he got out of the Bible that day was more condemnation for his sin. He cried out to God. For two and a half years, he’d gone from being a respected church leader to a heavy drinker and womanizer.
“God, I don’t want to go to Hell,” he cried. “If You can give me a chance, do it.”
Then on Sunday, his neighbor happened to invite him to a church unlike any he had ever visited. People welcomed him with love and warmth, rather than the cold shoulder.
“From that day, the Lord reached me with His grace,” says Oto, who at 52 today pastors that church, the Potter’s House, which is part of the Christian Fellowship Ministries church-planting mission. His church in Guatemala City has planted eight churches across this tiny Central American nation so far.
“I never imagined what God would do with my life,” Oto says. “I never thought I would ever leave the place where I was born in San Marcos. But God has opened doors for me to preach in Mexico and Central America.”
Once he even preached in Indio, California, and Phoenix.
But the best part of his testimony is that God saved his marriage with Violeta. When he was falsely accused of flirting with a young lady in the church in San Marcos, his marriage came under strain, he says.
Without bothering to prove his guilt, the church clamped down three and a half years of discipline on him, he says. He was kicked out of his music group, dumped from Sunday school ministry and stripped of vice presidency of the 90-member youth group.
Oto had to sit in the last row of the church. He wasn’t allowed to sing, to clap or to pray at the altar, he says. The only thing he was allowed to do was pay his tithe. He endured the draconian “discipline” for a year but then fell away.
“Church members told me that I was good for nothing, that the world was the place for me,” he says. “Every time I got drunk, I wished the earth would open its mouth and swallow me. I felt ashamed before God.”
He and his wife almost divorced. In an effort to save his marriage, he moved to the capital city in 1990 seeking a fresh start. He got a job with the National Housing Bank building prefabricated houses in conjunction with a charity from Italy.
Surprisingly, he was NOT fired from that job for fighting his boss in the cantina. He was fired when he got saved and started attending Bible conferences and got fired up for God.
“I never wanted to preach because of the slander I suffered as a leader in the previous church,” Oto confides. “But it was the time of the Persian Gulf War, and people at work asked me what the war meant. I began to talk about the End Times of Matthew 24. This guy went out and got saved.
“Then people began to ask me for advice for their marriage,” he says. “They stopped calling me by my name and started calling me ‘pastor.’ That’s how it occurred to me that God might have something for me, that He could use me for big things.”
Fired, then blessed
He got permission from his boss in 1992 to miss work and instead attend a week-long Christian Fellowship Ministries Bible conference, the engine behind the church-planting movement. Even with the permission, on Monday when he reported for work, he got laid off.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Oto relates. “Such powerful things were happening in the conference that I thought God had bigger things for me.”
Shortly after that he was named assistant pastor and also began selling cleaning chemicals, making three times as much as he did in construction for the bank.
He accompanied his pastor, U.S. missionary Frank Amado, on preaching forays in the countryside. Once in 1993 on a trip to the guerilla-scourged region of Playa Grande, his pastor was praying for sick people when, all of a sudden, a child scampered up the aisle and climbed up on the stage.
The kid stared at the drums, then at the guitar, at the lights, at the people, while his grandfather came forward sheepishly to retrieve the child. There at the front of the church, he explained to Oto that the little one was born blind. He hadn’t received prayer but had received his sight for the first time in his life.
It was a miracle that would motivate Oto forever – and keep him on track through difficult times.
In 1994, Oto was ordained a pastor and sent to Villa Nueva, on the outskirts of Guatemala City, to “pioneer” a church.
For six months, he and his wife and children passed out fliers and evangelized daily without a single soul coming to church services. Oto preached to his wife and children.
“One day in desperation during the worship service, I simply stopped singing and threw myself on the ground and cried,” Oto remembers. “I asked God if He or my pastor had made a mistake in sending me into the field to preach.”
Preaching to the ‘multitude’
In the next service, he found new strength.
“I preached about reaching the nations,” he says. “I preached with everything, as if I had a multitude in front of me. After finishing, I asked if anyone wanted to receive Jesus in the building. That was crazy because only my wife and children were there. Then I asked if anyone outside the walls that could hear me wanted to receive Jesus. I asked them to repeat the sinner’s prayer after me. Then we closed the service.”
At 6:00 a.m. the next morning at the morning prayer service, the neighbor with her granddaughter knocked on his door.
“Pastor,” she said. “How many people were in the church service last night?”
“Why?” he responded. “It was just my wife and kids.”
“That can’t be,” she replied. “While you were preaching last night, we were listening through the wall, and we heard voices that shouted ‘Amen!’ and ‘Glory to God!’ We thought there was a multitude in the church. And we accepted Jesus. And here we are. We want to be part of the church.”
The breakthrough came with a miracle!
After three years of pioneering work, his pastor returned to the United States and Oto was named head of the church in zone 8. Today, he has seven children. The churches he oversees spread from Eastern to Western Guatemala: Villa Nueva, Coatepeque, Escuintla, Santa Maria de Jesus, Chajul, Playa Grande, Coban and Villa Hermosa.
His story demonstrates that backsliders can return to the Lord and by His grace and abundant mercies be restored to fruitfulness in their ministry.
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