Aiea, Hawaii, is far from home for a boy from Pharr, Texas.
“I never wanted to leave home,” confesses Brian Garcia, a 2020 Union College graduate. “I’ve always wanted to be home. I’ve always wanted to be with family in the familiar place I grew up. I love being with family. I love being home.”
But God had other plans.
A winding road took Brian (pictured above at right) from his home and family in Texas to a school he’d never heard of in Lincoln, Nebraska. At Union College, he learned that the church is not a building, but a body of believers that transcends borders and cultures. He discovered a new kind of family—the family of God.
Brian didn’t grow up in a typical Adventist home, but his mom did provide a firm foundation in the love of God, preparing a fertile field for his faith to grow.
And those seeds of faith grew and flowered into impromptu ministry at his public high school. Friends and acquaintances, recognizing a difference in Brian, called on him for encouragement, prayer, and advice on building a relationship with God.
“Never did I think I’d be a pastor,” Brian explains. “It was something I actively tried to run away from because my friends would always tease me by calling me ‘Pastor Brian.’”
Despite his reluctance, Brian listened to God’s call—even when it sounded a lot like the teasing of friends.
When it came time to attend college, he was unsettled, moving schools three times before deciding to study theology at Southwestern Adventist University.
“Going into theology was a kind of ‘thank you’ to God for keeping me alive through all the craziness of life I’d been through,” Brian shares. “I believe God orchestrated it all knowing that this is where I’m meant to be.”
While working as a counselor at Lake Whitney Ranch (an Adventist summer camp in Texas) following his sophomore year, a friend introduced Brian to the idea of Union College.
“Robert Leslie, Jr. (pictured above left) tried to get everyone to switch over to Union,” Brian remembers. “But he never tried to convince me because I was very happy at Southwestern. I loved every aspect of the school. But every time he would bring Union up, I was there, and I was listening. I felt like God was putting this open door in my line of sight. I prayed about it and God provided signs that were irrefutable to me.”
And when Brian walked through the God-opened door to Union College, he was welcomed with open arms. At Union he found something special, something his heart longed for, he found a family.
This new family included his professors, fellow students, and the wider community of believers.
One afternoon, sitting outside, struggling to guide a friend through a difficult situation, Brian encountered this family of faith in the shape of man.
“… in that moment, this man comes over and starts giving a Bible study, sharing the exact words we needed to hear,” Brian recalls. “I started to feel an appreciation for the character I saw in someone else. I saw this man’s character and I said, ‘I don’t know what’s different about him, but I want that; I want to be that.’ That character wasn’t just found in Tyler Morrison (an enrollment counselor at Union at the time),” he continues, “it was a communal thing. Everyone was amazing. They loved without expecting anything back. They loved with this family feeling. They truly cared.”
Brian found this family trait in his professors: “I was so different from the other students. I was still a little ghetto,” Brian confesses. “I don’t hide where I come from; it’s very different from Union’s culture, Lincoln’s culture, still they were able to work with me where I was and helped me grow.”
It blossomed in his fellow students: “We had a real brotherhood,” Brian remembers. “We navigated our faith together. To this day we talk about how we’re growing in Christ. We continuously edify each other. Union was the perfect place for me to grow spiritually.”
It flowed from the pastor of Allon Chapel where Brian interned. “Pastor Larivaux taught me that being a pastor isn’t just about being a pastor to the people who attend,” Brian says. “You are the pastor of the community. You are a worker of God in every single facet of your life and the area that encompasses where you live. Pastor Larivaux gave me that foundation of what it looks like to be a local church pastor, what it looks like to put in the work. Even today he advises me.”
And it was evident throughout the congregation of Allon Chapel: “The church family I gained from Allon Chapel is great,” Brian said. “They still encourage me and let me know I’m on their mind and that they’re praying for me. The Allon Chapel experience and family I had was nothing short of an enormous blessing.”
But this character of love didn’t stop at the Lincoln city limits, Brian also found it flourishing in Hawaii.
Because of the connections he made at Union, Brian was offered an opportunity to serve for a year as the volunteer youth pastor at the Aiea Seventh-day Adventist Church in Hawaii.
Despite COVID-19 restrictions, his new Hawaiian church family finds ways to connect. Like all good families, they feed him, teach him important skills (like surfing), plan Facetime and Zoom meetups, invite him to COVID-conscious events, and even ask about his love life.
“Hawaii reminds me of home so much!” Brian shares. “The climate, the family-oriented culture, the friendliness that can be found in the form of what we call southern hospitality back home, I have found in the spirit of Aloha here. They are truly a great bunch of people who have welcomed me in as one of their own with arms spread wide.”
Even though Aiea, Hawaii, is far from home, Brian found his ohana. And no matter where God calls him next, this extended family is waiting to welcome him into their hearts.
by Trena Reed, a Union College graduate and
freelance writer in Lincoln, Nebraska