Michel Aguinaga, often known as Pr. Mitch, serves as the sole pastor at San Bernardino Spanish Seventh-Day Adventist church. He currently lives in the city of Victorville, CA with his wife Angie and his two kids Micah and Chloe. Pastor Mitch was born and raised in Los Angeles and has been working in Southeastern California Conference since 2014. He is passionate about
I saw it with my own eyes, and it broke me down. And after all that I witnessed, my ministry was never the same again.
I was in my first years of ministry, working as a ministry coordinator in two churches. They were difficult years because my life was everywhere: I was working full-time in insurance, I was actively pursuing a degree in theology, I had my preaching, teaching, and administrative responsibilities in the district, and I was tending to a young family – my wife and I learning how to raise a newborn and a toddler. Looking back, I’m unsure how I survived all that: I thank God for the miracle he worked through me. But as tumultuous as my life was, God had placed incredible people around me for support, which made all this manageable.
Among those who helped me get through this was my mentor – my lead pastor – the individual I credit the most for opening doors so that I could minister as I do today. I learned a lot from him. He was a good pastor. He had depths of experience, a resolute personality, and was wholly committed to the church and the flock. I remember the conversations we had in his office. We talked about church, leadership, and preaching; he always gave good advice, gave heartfelt counsel, and would never forget to give tough criticism.
We became good friends. We could spend hours talking about anything. Frequently our conversations turned to sports: We would discuss baseball, soccer, Los Angeles Lakers basketball. We even went to a Clippers game (I couldn’t afford a Lakers game) and an Angels game (the only baseball team mentioned in the Bible) and thought of going to a world cup game (which definitely did not happen). His wife became a mentor to my wife; I learned to appreciate his family. And we developed a close bond that helped me as a person and as a young pastor.
Church administration was always a divisive topic among us. He had his way of doing things, and, naturally, they were different from mine. We also argued a lot. We would have disagreements in board meetings and difficult discussions in elder’s meetings. In our one-on-one sessions, we would say what we needed to, even if it was tough to hear.
But what I appreciated most was his toughness and grit never got in the way of our friendship outside the meeting doors. We knew that church business was church business – and it was tough business – but it did not have to divide us as brothers in Christ. From him, I learned to take criticism; but take nothing personally. Roll with the punches, but never let the bruises define you. He was a good mentor, a good friend, and someone worth looking up to.
The Phone CallAnd then, a phone call changed everything. It was about 8:30 at night. My phone rang, and the caller ID identified my mentor as the caller. I answered as I normally would, expecting a typical phone call – preparation for the weekend, potential meetings we had to attend, things of the like. But as soon as I heard his voice, I knew things were not right. His greeting lacked energy. His voice sounded shaky. Nervous. Sad. I could sense he was fighting back the tears. “I’m calling to give you some bad news,” he said. “I have been diagnosed with cancer. And it doesn’t look good.”
A flurry of emotions fell upon me. I couldn’t believe what he was telling me. As he explained the symptoms he had been feeling, the doctor’s findings, and the confirmation of the diagnosis, I started feeling angry in my heart. I could hear him battling through the details as I fought my heart on what to say and how to react. As he began to cry, he quickly ended the phone call, perhaps in an attempt to hide his humanity and show the strength I had always observed. Left with my phone in hand, I fell to my knees, and in anger and frustration, I cried, “Why Lord? Why him? Why curse your anointed? How does this make any sense? After a life of service, you repay him with this? How is this fair? Why would this happen? Why…? Why…?”
That day was the beginning of my mentor’s tough battle with cancer. He sought the treatments and followed the doctor’s advice. He went beyond what the doctor recommended, changing his diet, lifestyle, exercise routines, everything. Surgery was not an option, so radiation was the treatment of choice. Time off was taken from the church. There were good days. There were bad days. But slowly, inevitably, his body began to wither. His vigor of life that we had all come to depend on as a church began to slip from his fingers. The body was losing, and there was little we could do.
I saw it with my own eyes. I dreaded every visit. I knew every time I would stop by his house; I would see a weaker version of the man I wanted to be like in ministry. It hurt me to see him losing this battle. It hurt me to hear him respond to my questions without the snappiness and wit I had experienced. I prayed for him. I prayed over him. At his request, I anointed him multiple times – I believe he was seeking the assurance of forgiveness. I would share words of encouragement, not knowing if they were of any help. I prayed tirelessly for healing, knowing deep inside that the inevitable was coming.
And after my last visit, two days later, he passed away. My mentor. My friend. My pastor…
I didn’t realize it back then, but everything I witnessed in his battle against cancer changed me. It changed me as a person, as a father, as a husband, and especially as a pastor. I was changed because I realized that in this life, even our superheroes bleed. We sometimes look up to great individuals – we naturally gravitate towards them – and we forget that they are human and deal with the same struggles and battles as anyone. We lift our heroes up, only to find out that our heroes can be brought down – whether through a mistake, a moment of weakness, lack of health, or even cancer.
What I saw with my own eyes as my friend and mentor battled through this cancer reminded me that we can only depend on Jesus, even as pastors. Through that experience, I had to accept that life is hard – Oh! It can be so difficult at times – and sometimes, the strength we portray as pastors to our church members can be taken away instantly. Human strength can only take us so far; we need divine strength, the courage of the spirit, the peace of God – all of it to face the immeasurable challenges of this world.
I learned how important it is to share with one another our burdens; to help others carry the never-ending weights of life. Sure, we can’t solve each other’s problems, just like I wasn’t able to heal my friend with my prayers. But we can be there for those who are struggling. We can admit that we are battling through life as well. We as pastors and ministers can appear more human to others – which instead of bringing down the efficiency and power of the gospel, becomes an opportunity to highlight the grace of God in our lives.
The greatest biblical leaders have learned this lesson. Paul had this battle himself, also with a debilitating physical illness or defect, the proverbial “thorn in the flesh” that would torment him. But when he pleaded for healing, Jesus responded:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-11, NIV)
This is the greatest lesson I learned throughout that experience – and this has been the greatest lesson I have learned in ministry. I am nothing without Jesus. I am weak without Jesus. I am lifeless without Jesus. But with Jesus – WITH JESUS – my life has purpose, meaning, courage, and strength.
As Ellen White once put it: “We do not go forth in mere human strength. Christ has promised, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” (MS 25, 1897)
I miss my friend. I miss the pastor I once knew and worked with. His passing was difficult to process. But even in death, I keep learning from that experience. And I look forward to seeing him on that glorious morning.
And when I see him, I will thank him; because his life changed me in more ways than he knows. And his death reminded me that even my weakness, there is strength, mercy and grace in our loving savior, Jesus Christ.
Author - Jon Ciccarelli
January 28, 2021