Mario, The Fig Tree, and the Promise of New Life

When we moved into this house nearly 32 years ago, our backyard was a disaster. It was much like what I described in my latest blog post about a garden that was dead. The slope was barren. There was a single sprig or two of ice plant which later consumed the yard. There were only a few trees: a strange tree-like bush that grew on the hillside, two peach trees, and an over-productive and very messy plum tree.

Our backyard is now teeming with life, natural, living, organic, and human, social, and loud. A fig tree planted itself right in the middle of our slope, and we have literally given away thousands of figs over the last 20 years. We have probably eaten less than 100. We barbecue them with feta cheese and balsamic vinegar, eat them raw, given them to friends, neighbors, and especially to our Arabic friends. I’ve put them on the Next-door app, and literally, they were gone within minutes. One day I gave away over 300 in less than two hours.

I’ve mentioned Mario many times before here in this blog and on Facebook. Mario is an interesting case study, and I would love to tell his story one day, but it is his story to tell, and it is a tragic one. What happened to him should never happen to any kid. His father abandoned him. His mother did not show up for his high school graduation. Still, every teacher and aid did, and so did every youth leader from our church, Orange County First Assembly. His youth leaders, along with some students, were there with balloons and whistles. We cheered him on. If I had placed a bet on any kid that would have graduated from high school, it would not have been Mario. Not for lack of trying, this kid is smart, much smarter than his own good, but the circumstances surrounding this kid were not in his favor. If you wanna argue about white privilege in need of specific affirmative action, I will do so fiercely. I will do so passionately because I know immigrants.

Mario would never ever admit to being apprehensive. It is not his way. But I look at that tree every late winter and notice the leaves as they begin to emerge. As they grow and eventually shape my backyard, I think of how God has promised new life tomorrow.

I know plenty of pro-life people who change their minds when their daughters got pregnant.

I have read the story of many people who believe in capital punishment until someone they knew was wrongly accused.

The cries for the borders to be shut because we “cannot afford to help” changes when you meet an immigrant.

Gun violence changes Second Amendment rights proponent’s minds quickly when someone who is mentally ill legally gets ahold of a gun and kills their son.

I personally changed my mind about illegal immigration when I went to the Shalimar Learning Center in Costa Mesa and a neighborhood filled with drug abuse when I saw kids flip off their parents and say I was born here legally, and you weren’t. I can do whatever I want and if you don’t let me I will report you! Gang problems flourish in that neighborhood because no one wants to address the issue until they meet the likes of a Mario.

For me, everything changed when I met Mario. I did not understand that slumlords pack apartments with multiple families and don’t try to alleviate the situation because it might threaten their bottom line.

There are legal businesses that are allowed to take up to 50% of hardworking immigrants’ paychecks because they have nowhere to cash their checks. That exacerbates crime in those same municipalities.

We have had Mario come to our house numerous times to work, and then spend the night to give him a sense of belonging. We even had family discussion about adopting him even though he is now 22. A recent incident over money made me question that, but never made me question the relationship. He calls us mom and dad. He was here in late winter, just as buds began to sprout from the fig tree. Before he left that weekend, the first leaf emerged. Small, but green. It had wick (reference to The Secret Garden). I pointed it out to him. Now, every winter, when the leaves begin to emerge, I think of Mario and the new life in him. I had the opportunity last year to baptize him. Now that was a story!

As a pastor, we were only given four Sundays a year to take off at my church. I didn’t want to give up one of my Sundays, so we drove up quickly after church to attend the 11 AM service in Santa Ana. We arrived just as the baptisms were beginning. It had been arranged that I would be conducting Mario’s. I moved as quickly as I could to the backstage area and asked someone to put a 5 pound weight on my left leg so it wouldn’t float (stroke legs are light!). I didn’t even have time to change clothes so I went straight into the water. I have to admit that up until this point, I don’t believe he completely understood the Jesus of history or the New Testament’s Messiah.

When he first visited the church, he immediately friended me on Facebook and went home and then wrote on the youth group page that he effing loved tonight! Pastor Dave that and told me to take it down and probably asked me not to let the kid return to church. I refused. That was perhaps the beginning of my insubordinate behavior. The pastor relented and Mario stayed and caused huge problems every so often. Eventually, he called one of the adults a whore and was asked to leave the church, under protest by the leaders and me. I said that I would continue meeting with him on my own time, meet with him weekly, and help him study the Bible. He still didn’t get it, but he loved the Kings Hawaiian rolls I brought him.

I met Mario when he was 12; he’s now 22. He was a kid then; he’s a man now. He was irresponsible then; he’s a responsible man now. He’s got a job at Whole Foods. He skateboards or walks to work to save bus money. He was thrilled to find out that he’s eligible for Covid relief. His mother was here illegally, but he is not.

When he was 14, we were driving down 17th St. in Santa Ana, and he looked at me and told me that one day he was going to speak in church and say these words, “Pastor Perry took a chance on me when I was a kid. I’m going to take a chance on another [teenager]. I love Jesus.

I pray Mario’s family is raised outside of of the inner city, and that they have a big yard with a fig tree in the backyard that blossoms In late February, showing the promise of a new life.

Your old life is dead. Your new life, which is your real life—even though invisible to spectators—is with Christ in God. He is your life. When Christ (your real life, remember) shows up again on this earth, you’ll show up, too—the real you, the glorious you. Meanwhile, be content with obscurity, like Christ.
~Colossians 3:3

12 thoughts on “Mario, The Fig Tree, and the Promise of New Life”

  1. Perry – this is such a beautiful story. I love everything about it – your honesty, compassion and love are so evident in this story. Keep up the great work my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember you baptizing me Perry, I was a struggling teenager as well. You and Judy have always had a wonderful way of loving and accepting everyone. Thank you. God works through us, and I truly believe that we are here to love one another and support one another. That is the blessings that we can give to others, our love and support.

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  3. Taking a chance on a kid who is at the mercy of their environment can make all the difference. Someone took a chance on me once and God gets all the glory.

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  4. Good story and a true act of continued kindness. Blessings for the immigrants who truly want simple things, the ability to live in peace, liberty and opportunity.

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  5. Mario is more than a case study, but a beautiful creation of God made in His image. His parents are too created in His image but broken from this world filled with sin. His teachers and youth workers are living out the calling God has given them. Hope is made tangible when God’s people share their love. Pastor’s are not perfect, but are in need of God’s grace too. Perry you are blessed by Mario’s friendship as he is yours. This story illustrates both the brokenness of this world and God’s grace, love and mercy to everyone.

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