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It was far more than a fashion statement when Wil Franco dramatically changed his hairstyle this past summer. In fact, the Iglesia del Pueblo Youth Pastor’s new look was his personal response to an important spiritual lesson he was teaching to the teens in his youth group.
The Back Story
Wil was born with microtia—a congenital deformity that involves an underdeveloped ear. His growing-up years, beginning at age five, were marked by more than a dozen surgeries to reconstruct his outer ear. The process involved a series of operations to take grafts of skin and cartilage from other parts of his body to build a new ear.
There was a heart-breaking setback in the process when Wil was eight years old. While at home recovering from what was to have been one of his final operations, he pushed at the bandage in his sleep, destroying what three years of surgeries had accomplished. As a result, the almost-completed process had to start all over again.
The new round of surgeries created a whole new set of scars, and because of Wil’s age and the need to keep him in school as much as possible, the procedures were undertaken primarily during school breaks and stretched over the next ten years of his life, including his middle-school and high-school years.
Going to school with bandages in second and third grade had been bad enough, but as Wil entered his teen years, the teasing he encountered was nearly unbearable.
“I went through that struggle for years, but in seventh and eighth grade it was especially bad,” Wil says. “I tried to compensate by being outgoing and being the class clown,” Wil recalls, but inside he was hurting.
“I was always trying to hide that side of my face, always making sure I was sitting on the right side of the classroom, with my bandages and scars toward the wall. I was really self-conscious about it.”
That was when he started letting his hair grow. In Wil’s mind his hair served as camouflage for his surgically created ear, and for the scars on the skin around it.
“For years I even used a permanent marker to cover up my scar so people couldn’t see it,” Wil said.
Getting older didn’t make the pain go away.
“Even as an adult,” Wil admits, “with all the surgeries and bandages long behind me, I would mentally go back to how I felt in school, and what it was like to go to class with a big bandage that the other kids stared at.”
Outside of the people closest to him—his parents and his wife, Lylli—Wil did all he could to hide his imperfections. No one could know the fear he had that people would look down on him.
Then, early this year, Wil was leading a retreat with his Iglesia del Pueblo youth group—teaching the teens about the dangers of fearing what other people think more than what God thinks—when a personal application of that lesson entered his mind.
“I try to make sure I’m practicing what I’m preaching to the kids in my youth group,” Wil said, “so I started looking at my own life to see where I had evidences of the fear of other people. I felt God nudging me in this whole area of my scars, but I wasn’t ready. There’s no way, I thought, that I can deal with that.”
What really caused Wil to turn the corner a few weeks later was thinking about his nine-month-old daughter.
“One day she’s going to be a teenager, and she’s going to be finding her identity in how she looks and what people think about her outward appearance—and I’m going to be a hypocrite when I sit down and tell her, ‘You need to find your identity and your acceptance in Jesus,’ if I’m not doing it myself.
“When I fast-forwarded to that future conversation, I said to myself, I can no longer be a hypocrite. I can no longer preach something that I’m not living out myself. I can’t say, I’m giving God all of me except this—I’m saving this little area for myself. That’s the one thing that I need to hide.”
Those thoughts led to a conversation with Lylli, Wil’s wife, as he told her what he’d been thinking. One evening not long afterward, the two of them agreed that it was time to do what a few weeks earlier would have been unthinkable: They began to shave Wil’s head.
“You could have told me I was going to win a million dollars,” Wil said, “and I would have believed that before I would believe that I was ever going to shave my head.”
“For the longest time,” Wil said, “I was convinced that the scars that I had on my body were what defined me. That’s how I measured my self-worth. But as we were shaving my head, in that moment I realized that if God loves me—if in Jesus, God already fully loves me, fully accepts me, and is fully proud of me—then who really cares what anybody else thinks? Why do I care about how many looks I get or if people are wondering why I look the way I do? None of that matters to me if everything I need is already mine in Jesus.
“Whether I’m bald or have a full head of hair, my acceptance comes from Him, not from my appearance. It never did. I just needed to see that. Satan had been feeding me a lie, and I was eating it up. It wasn’t until I took that step that I realized my scars were never what defined me.
The evening Wil shaved his head, God also gave him another, even deeper, insight. “As I shaved my head,” Wil says, “especially the section around my ear—and I finally got to see the surgery scars for what was really the first time—I realized I had been right the whole time in the sense that, yes, scars are what define me. But it’s not my scars that define me; it is Jesus’ scars. My worth and my value are defined by His scars.”
“The world we live in is constantly telling us that we need to perform in order to be loved. If you are a student and want to be acknowledged by your teachers, you need to get straight A’s. If you’re an athlete who wants to be valued by your coaches, you have to perform. Sadly, sometimes kids even feel they have to be the best child to be accepted by their parents. But the Gospel doesn’t work like that.
“With God, it’s not, ‘You perform, and then I’ll love you.’ It’s ‘Jesus has already performed.’ The Gospel says, ‘You can get off the stage. You are already loved because of what Jesus has done.’ And now you and I can live in light of the fact that our acceptance and our approval come from what Jesus did for us, not from what we do or how we look.”
Wil’s experience has translated far beyond his own life, touching the students in his youth group and even parents and other adults in the Iglesia del Pueblo congregation.
“My plan was to shave my head once and then let it grow back—because I didn’t think I was going to like it, and I didn’t think Lylli was going to like it either,” Wil admits. “But once I did it and shared with others what it meant to me, the response was amazing!”
After several months with his new haircut, Wil has no plans to let it grow out anytime soon. Why? “Because it represents more than just a scar now,” Wil says, pointing to his head. “It’s more than just my own baggage. To the people I minister to, this represents Gospel freedom.”
“I’ve heard from kids who say, ‘I have my own scars that I’ve been hiding. Thank you for doing this.’ And ‘Thank you for living what you teach us.’ Some of them have been through tough things, bullying and teasing and more. And I tell them, ‘Whether it’s physical scars or emotional scars or something else, you can do the same thing that I did with my scar if you give your scars to Jesus and allow Him to transform them for His glory.’
Today Wil finds it ironic that the flaw he thought he had to hide—that would keep him from having an effective ministry among teens—has been the very thing God is using to demonstrate to Wil’s students and others that the Gospel is real and that the power of the Gospel is at work in his life right now.