I grew up in Puerto Rico and then left home at age 24 to join the U.S. Air Force. I wanted to have a better life. Having grown up poor, I wanted a better opportunity. I also wanted to be “good enough”!
I went through the Air Force Undergraduate Helicopter Pilot Training in Fort Rucker, AL, where I endured being made fun of because of my strong accent and fractured English. And this was in Alabama, of all places! Every time I encountered a setback, I made an unconscious vow: “This will not happen again! I will get better!”
To me, this meant pushing back on my own culture in order to learn the new one. I avoided associating with Puerto Ricans throughout my 20-year career in the Air Force. Along the way, I became involved with the Navigator Hispanic ministry, but I avoided others knowing that I was involved in anything “Hispanic.” I considered any attempt to be linked to a Hispanic-focused ministry as meaning “this is what you are ONLY good for.” I pushed back on people like Mike Schmid from the Military Mission, Paul Reynoso from NavVida and Cesar Vega from CDM.
I considered it impolite whenever groups would gather at restaurants or cafeterias and speak their original language, in spite of other English-speaking Americans being around. Then eight years ago, in comes Christian Herrera to the base. He was a Peruvian soldier, who was referred to me by Tim Barta for one-on-one discipleship, and he wanted to speak in Spanish! You can imagine how I felt meeting up with him at eateries.
My wife, Amor, who is from the Philippines, and I quickly realized that we were “magnets” to people from different ethnic groups. This continued as we began ministry at the Air Force Academy Preparatory School in 2010, home to 240 cadet candidates, 50% from ethnic backgrounds!
Wesley Drake invited us to the Military Ethnic Summit in the summer of 2011, and we were discussing ways to advance the gospel in ethnic groups in the military mission more effectively. I remember saying to Paul Reynoso how there were some who reject their heritage, and it was then that God started revealing and whispering to me… “You are one of those. You rejected your heritage.” I was awestruck.
We continued to develop relationships with ethnic cadets at the Air Force Academy, where God used us to champion an ethnic initiative composed of mainly African Americans along with some Hispanics and Asian cadets. We kept asking God: Why us? I believed God had called us to all, not to a specific group—but in my mind I kept rejecting ethnic groups altogether. I didn’t want segregation or isolation in “my” ministry because that was not “biblical” in my mind.
Fast forward to June 2013, when we entered our first sabbatical, and I called my brother in Puerto Rico to tell him about our plans to return to Puerto Rico for a visit (it had been 8 years since our last visit). Suddenly, I started sobbing with joy as I was on the phone at the thought of visiting Puerto Rico. I thought of my family, the food, the beaches! My brother thought I had a terminal disease when he heard me sobbing. He thought I was coming back for that reason!
This “sobbing” dumbfounded me. I kept asking God: “What are you doing? Why do I get emotional whenever I think about coming back to my culture?”
We went to Puerto Rico in September 2013, our first time as empty nesters. I found the island green, fresh, and full of life. The streets were full of people and cleaner and calmer than I remembered. And of course the food was delicious—alcapurrias, bacalaitos, and MOFONGO!
Following our sabbatical, we arrived back to the quiet, brown, open land of Colorado Springs—a place God had called us to nine years prior, a place we learned to love, a place where we had raised our kids. However, something was different. I couldn’t help remembering Puerto Rico. As I drove my car, I imagined driving through the streets in Puerto Rico. I imagined sharing the Bible with my brother in Puerto Rico over his coffee table.
Then one day, as I met with Mike Schmid in my own kitchen, I remembered how 28 years ago I had said “good riddance” to Puerto Rico and how I had rejected Puerto Ricans in my heart—the same Puerto Ricans He loves so much. I felt a clear calling to go back to Puerto Rico, not as a child this time, but to join Him in what He is about to do in Puerto Rico. Isaiah 43:18-19 came to mind, a verse God gave us when we first arrived in Colorado Springs, a verse we thought was for our ministry back then:
“Remember not the former things,
nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.”
God in fact was saying: “I am redeeming you.”
Last May, Amor and I were invited to be part of The Navigators’ Caribbean team, renewing and continuing a discipleship ministry in Puerto Rico. We gladly accepted, and we plan to join this team at the end of 2016. To God be the glory!
I AM FELIX COLONNIEVES. I AM AN AMERICAN AND I AM A PUERTO RICAN!