My Calling: A testimony from Captain Luis Villanueva
I’m from Chile, South America. My parents are Salvation Army officers so I was able to experience a lot of the ministry with different cultures and backgrounds growing up. I was part of the Army pretty much every single day.
I got my degree in translating English and Spanish. I was asking God, “What next?” One of my sisters was reading the War Cry and she sent me an article about a new playground that Kaboom was doing with Home Depot for this corps in Salt Lake City, Utah. At the end of the article, the officers said, “We’re looking for a bilingual Salvationist youth worker.” So I emailed them that night. The next day I got a response, “You’re exactly what we were praying for. How can you get here? Do you have everything you need?” I said, “I don’t have a visa, a passport, and I don’t have money for the ticket. Basically, I have nothing.” After eight months of working through the visa process I stepped foot on US ground in Salt Lake City in 2007.
When I was working for the Western Territory all of a sudden my visa was terminated, and I had to go back to Chile. I was devastated. I was like, “Oh God, I thought that this is going to be it and we’re going to be here.” But the problem was that I focused on my position in the Army. I was a youth worker, then the corps assistant. I wanted more and more. Because I was looking to provide for my family. I knew God was teaching me something. I had to leave my apartment, brand-new car, all the things that I acquired and go back with a couple suitcases. It was horrible. The first night we went to my wife’s grandma, and she let us use one room. There was not even a bed in there for the three of us. Our first bed was Coca-Cola crates. I went from having a nice bed to just being here on this crate.
I was disappointed in myself, and I was angry at God. I was going to the Army, but I didn’t feel anything. There was a married couple retreat. I didn’t want to go. My wife said, “Let’s go.” At the end of that weekend, somebody was praying loudly and I was so annoyed by the prayer. I started praying, “God, can you make him shut up?” Then I went to a corner, and my prayer changed. I said, “God, if you are right now with me, can you just talk to me. If you’re here with me and you’re going to do something with me, please touch me.” All of a sudden, I felt a hand. I looked up. One of my friends asked, “What’s going on? God sent me.” He was at the other corner so he couldn’t know. He said, “Just let it go; whatever it is, just let it go.”
I went to the ground and started to cry like a baby. And then I felt this peace and love like I never felt before. I said, “God, I want to ask you for forgiveness. If you give me one more chance to go back to the States and just to do it right. I’ll be faithful to you. It’s not going to be about money or position anymore. It’s going to be all about you.”
One year passed, and then the Waxahachie Corps was looking for a youth worker. They saw my resume, called me and eight months later, I’m here in the Texas Division with people that I didn’t know.
I was in Chile and I was working in a jail with a program to rehabilitate prisoners. I was a music instructor to give them some skills. I was still trying to figure out my life with God, and I said, “God, I don’t know if this is for me. God, there’s something that I’m missing. God, what are you trying to say?” At the same time my wife was also having those things. She had a beautiful career as an elementary school teacher. She was having the same things. “I wish I could be at the corps doing this.” But we didn’t talk to each other until one night. I said, “You know what? I need to talk to you.” And she said, “I need to talk to you too. You go first.” I said, “Listen, I’m happy where I am. We’re stable. But there’s something missing in my life. I miss going to the corps.” She said, “That’s funny you say that because I feel exactly the same thing.” Then we knew that we had a calling to be Salvation Army officers but we didn’t know what was going to happen. We were in Texas, and met Major Betty Jo MacDonald, who attended our corps. After a year, she said, “I think you guys have a calling to be officers.” We talked about our calling, and she said, “Sure enough!”
Training can be the worst years of your life or the best years of your life, depending on how you do it. My wife and I decided to make it the best two years of our lives. My wife was happy that she didn’t have to cook or clean, and I was excited that my kids are having a great education. We made some long lasting friendships with our session mates. Training was an opportunity to see God working in our lives. I learned a lot of things. I had great Bible teachers who woke up my passion to learn more about the Bible.
One of the things that surprised me when I became an officer was the types of people you encounter. You have to be a pastor to all of them. You need to show patience and love. I love people. You must be grounded in who you are in Christ, because if not, you can lose it.
The best thing about being a Salvation Army officer is meeting new people. The Salvation Army has opened the doors that I would never have thought. I go to the mayor’s office, and because I was part of The Salvation Army, they open the door to the mayor, and we became good friends. He came to our farewell and said, “Here are the keys to the city because of the work that you have done.” I would never have done that on my own. It’s only because of God’s grace and through The Salvation Army, this uniform. That’s amazing.
The most difficult challenge is balancing your ministry and your family, your personal time, prayer time, office time. Nobody makes me accountable. I have to do that. My wife is the one who keeps me grounded. She says, “Okay, the office is done. Forget about everything. We need to sit at the table and together, have a family meal.” That’s useful for me. The Bible says: that everything has a time.
My advice to anyone who God has called to be an officer is to pray! Let God confirm you, at least two or three times. If you’re not sure that this is what God wants from you, instead of being a help it could be a problem for you and your family. Pray and ask God for confirmation through the Scripture and through people. It can be the greatest ministry in your life if it is a calling because God will sustain you in all those years, whether good or bad.
I have everything that I have, and I am who I am, because of God and The Salvation Army. The Salvation Army fed me through God. It sent me to school and to college. My parents loving the Army taught me how to take care of little things, like the chairs, and the couch, and the beds. “That’s The Salvation Army. That’s not you.” Even as a little kid, I learned how to keep the receipts.
I want to be proud of that uniform. My parents and grandparents wore their uniforms proudly and loved the flag. I love the principles and values we share. Our songs are amazing because they teach what it believes and represents. The Salvation Army has done so much for me. They give me the opportunity to be an officer for a corps that I never imagined to be in. I could destroy things, but they said, “Do your best.” This is not just paying back. I want to continue with His legacy. I want to continue serving God.
Being a Salvation Army officer is totally different than only being a pastor. That’s something I learned. It is a lot of work. But this is going to be the greatest opportunity that you have to impact as many people you encounter. The greatest joy is my officership. I have the opportunity to be around people. It is a challenge. We are going to have good and bad times. You’re going to hurt. But if you truly are grounded in God, you know that this is the greatest thing that God has bestowed you.