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In early 2012, Wil Franco joined the staff of our church as After-school Youth Coordinator for Puente del Pueblo and Youth Pastor of Iglesia del Pueblo. With a heart for the Hispanic community and a passion to reach teens with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Wil is heading into a new ministry season this fall, leading Puente del Futuro—the after-school program for junior high students at the Timber Lake Apartments, as well as Iglesia’s Cross Training student ministry. We had the opportunity to get to know Wil better in a recent interview, and we share key portions of that conversation here.
I was born in Chicago, and we moved out to Bartlett when I was in about third grade. My mom was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico; my dad is from Havana, Cuba, and I have one brother. Both my parents came here as young adults. If you’ve heard stories about families who came here on rafts, that was my dad—out on the ocean overnight, risking his life, really, to get here. My parents met at a night class where they were learning English and were married about a year and a half later.
My mom grew up Catholic. My dad grew up with a Santeria background, which is sort of a mixture of Catholicism and African voodoo. I grew up attending Catholic school, but anytime things went bad, my parents turned to my dad’s religion.
I was born with Microtia (I was missing an ear) and had many reconstructive surgeries—something like thirteen—when I was young, so it would appear I had two ears and could wear glasses.
Anytime I was going to the hospital, my grandmother would sacrifice animals to get the spirits on my side. She would rub a dove on me where I was about to have surgery and then let the dove fly out the window—as if it would take away my illness. Then she’d sacrifice a live chicken, so that it would die and not me. I also had to be bathed in a certain way.
Now I can see that it was demonic worship. But my parents didn’t know any better. They just wanted me to be okay.
It wasn’t until I was 18 that I came to know the Lord.
My mom has worked at the same company, owned by Christians, since I was four or five. Co-workers there had Bible studies during the lunch hour, and my mom, thinking they were Catholic Bible studies, joined one.
Whenever the guy teaching the class taught anything that wasn’t Catholic, my mom argued with him—but she kept going. And when the teacher began to see God working in Mom’s heart, he invited her to church.
For a few months our whole family went to a Bible church, and we liked it. But it bothered my dad when someone called to see why we weren’t there if we missed a Sunday. He decided we weren’t going back.
Four years later, my brother, my mother, and I did go back, and during that time my mother came to know the Lord.
I wasn’t really very interested in church—but there was this beautiful girl in the choir. When I found out she was in the youth group, I starting going to that, too.
I went on their winter retreat, thinking maybe I could get that girl’s phone number. But on the first night—in the middle of the sermon—I felt this horrible conviction for all the stuff I’d done, stuff I had never thought twice about. I forgot about the girl—all I could think about was how sinful I was and how I had offended God.
It was so bad that I almost got out of my chair and said something during the sermon. I felt it like an itch—like it was something I needed to take care of right away. As soon as the talk ended, I approached my youth pastor, and he explained that I was experiencing conviction of sin. Then he told me why Jesus came and what He had done for me.
That day I accepted Jesus. I’d always known who Jesus was, but He seemed like a Santa Claus figure to me. That night I fell in love with Him. I just couldn’t believe that Jesus had died for me.
After that weekend I came back to high school, where popularity and the opposite sex had been my idols. But after Jesus became my Lord and Savior, everything—from my language to my behavior—radically changed. I lost a lot of friends. But God used that so I would have my fellowship with the youth group, and that sped up my spiritual growth.
Of course, I struggled, but I knew my life would never be the same.
Her name was Lylli. She had been interested in me since I first showed up, but she knew I wasn’t a believer. When I asked her out a few monthslater, she said yes.
Yes, and by that time I had already been accepted to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb to study accounting. And so I went to NIU for two years, and I got involved in Campus Crusade for Christ. And the moment I started teaching the Bible and started shepherding people and doing all the things that pastoral ministry involves, I knew I was never going to be an accountant or anything close to that. But I was scared to bring it up to my parents. They were both believers, by that time, but they were pretty new believers, and I was scared that they weren’t going to accept the idea that I wanted to go into ministry—that they would say, ‘No. You need a real job.’
But the moment I told my mom, she said, “Well, let’s figure out what we can do.” She and I were at Moody Bible Institute the next day! They had already finished accepting applications. But we met with an admissions counselor. He told us my chances were slim, but we prayed, and about a month later Moody called and said I had been accepted. I was at Moody the next semester.
Lylli also studied at Moody. We graduated in 2009 and got married shortly after.
During my time at Moody, I served as youth pastor at the church where I became a believer, but I wanted to go on to seminary. So we went to Louisville, Kentucky, and I took classes at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for two years.
My wife and I were driving down North Avenue, and I saw this church and said something like, “Man, this would be a great place to work.” But I was already one of two candidates for a youth pastor position at another church in this area and was also talking seriously with a church in Houston, Texas.
I knew about an opening for a youth pastor on the English side and had applied for that position. But when Kris Annen, who coordinates Human Resources for the church, read my résumé and saw how passionate I was about Hispanic ministry, she called Local Impact Pastor Chris McElwee.
Chris called me even before the position was posted and started the conversation that eventually led to my hiring. The timing—before either of the other churches had called me—confirmed that this was exactly where we needed to be.
Cross Training is Iglesia’s student ministry. Our goal is to help our students see the Gospel not just as something that “gets you in the door” as a believer but as something you continue to grow in. I think a lot of times we treat the Gospel as if Christianity is a school building and the Gospel is kindergarten—and once you learn the basics, you go on to bigger stuff.
I want our youth to see that the Gospel is not just kindergarten; it’s the whole building. You never move past the Gospel because Jesus’ death on the cross and what He accomplished for us should impact us on a daily basis.
So if I ever feel my pride is being attacked, I need to realize, my acceptance doesn’t come from what these people think; it comes from what Jesus did for me. So I’m preaching the Gospel to myself on a daily basis. My acceptance is not determined by what I own or who likes me or how great my sermon was. I find my acceptance, security, significance—everything I am—in Him and what He has already accomplished.
I wanted our name to reflect that, and I wanted our students to realize that and train themselves and make the cross and Jesus’ work the center of everything they do. Not something they move past but something they grow to understand and experience in a deeper way.
When I got here, I wanted to make this youth group like my old youth groups, meeting once, twice, or even three times a week. But at first I failed to realize that Iglesia del Pueblo is unique in terms of what we offer and in the quality of leadership and teaching, so a lot of people come from far away.
That means that only two or three of my young people live within ten minutes of the church. Some live forty minutes away, and some live an hour away—in places like Bolingbrook, Chicago, and Melrose Park—so meeting midweek is almost impossible; their parents get home from work at five or six o’clock, and driving an hour or more here is just too difficult.
Fridays are a little better, and we can go a little later. So the first and third weeks we meet on Friday, and the second and fourth weeks we meet on Sunday morning. Those weeks, the students worship with their families, and then I teach
them during the sermon time, usually from the same passage that Hanibal or Sergio is preaching from upstairs. So they’re hearing the passage applied specifically to them.
Yes, I’m the middle school and high school coordinator. Right now, that’s mainly our after-school program, Puente del Futuro. It picks up where Puente del Niño—the after-school program for elementary kids—ends, providing the same kind of program for the older kids.
The students come in from school about 3:00 and take out their assignments for that day. We sit down with them and help them with schoolwork. After that, the kids spend thirty minutes reading—that’s been really good for them. We also include a recreational component—games and other activities. One day someone plays chess with them—and I can’t believe how much they look forward to that! And hip-hop dance instruction, which grew out of our Fine Arts Camp this summer, has been really fun for them.
We also take time to talk about any life issues the students might be having. Our goal is not only to develop them as students but also to develop them as people—including the spiritual dimension of their lives.
It was really amazing to see that in our first semester—when we were just expecting five to ten kids—that by the last day we had fourteen students enrolled in the program.
And by the end of the program this spring four of the fourteen had come to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior!
If we get a really strong team of volunteers, we hope to have as many as twenty-five kids, depending on middle-school teacher referrals and on how many volunteers sign on to work with the program.
You’re talking about when my parents were sitting withanother couple at a wedding reception. It was during the time I was feeling God calling me to Moody and to be a pastor. My mom was telling this lady about me. My mom didn’t remember the lady’s name, but she remembered that she was Romanian and spoke with an accent. The woman said, “Well, I promise that I’m going to pray for your son every day from here on out.”
My mom was shocked that someone she had just met would make such a big commitment, but the lady said, “Don’t worry about it. What’s his name? I’m going to pray for him.”
I don’t know if my mom even mentioned that story to me at the time, but when I came here and started working at Puente del Pueblo, we found out that the couple my parents were sitting with that day were Glenn and Cornelia Mueller, the owners of the Timber Lake Apartments. Cornelia Mueller has been praying for me for the last five years—and God in His sovereignty arranged for me to work at that very apartment complex!
Puente del Futuro depends on volunteers who will commit to one afternoon a week, 3:00 to 6:00 pm! Want to learn more? Contact Puente Volunteer Coordinator Rachelle Wistrand, firstname.lastname@example.org, 630.876.6684
- Help with homework—offer encouragement and accountability.
- Get to know these junior high students personally.
- Work with them on academic skills where they struggle.
- Silent reading with one or two students and listen to them read aloud.
- Share an activity you enjoy. Are you passionate about a board game? soccer? video editing? something else?
“The kids know you’re different,” Wil says. “All they have to do is look at you to know you’re different. But as long as you love them and you’re there for them—it doesn’t matter if you’re the best teacher in the world. What really counts is that you care about them—that you show up. If you’re there and show your concern for them—I don’t care who you are or what your background is—kids will be drawn to you, and you can be an influence their lives.”