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From his late teens into his twenties, Gabriel Cardenas sought adventure. He enjoyed traveling to different lands—learning their history and experiencing their culture, music, and food. He loved challenging sports—downhill mountain biking, surfing, rock climbing, and more.
When a friend asked Gabriel why he liked rock climbing, he said, “Because I want to see far beyond what I can see from where I am normally standing. I want to see the distant view.”
Along with his adventures, Gabriel, a real people person, had a strong supportive group of friends and family. Then, to top it all off, he fell in love.
He was attending college in Chile when he met Elizabeth, an exchange student from Wisconsin. She enjoyed the same things he did, and together they had a lot of fun. When she went home to the United States, Gabriel followed—and a year later they were married. The happy couple soon settled in Wheaton, Illinois. Life was good . . . for a while.
After seven years of marriage, everything fell apart. Elizabeth left, and Gabriel experienced both deep grief and crippling embarrassment. He didn’t want to tell anyone what had happened.
Empty and Struggling
Far from his parents and extended family in Chile, he felt very alone, and no exciting activity or adrenaline rush could fill the emptiness he felt inside.
At the height of his despair, he was Skyping with his mother in Chile, pouring out his heart to her.
“Gabriel, you have to do something!” she pleaded with him. “Why don’t you ask Christ to come into your life?”
Through tears he agreed, and she led him through the prayer of faith, acknowledging Christ’s love and sacrifice on his behalf.
Gabriel’s mother knew what a difference Christ could make in someone’s life. Fifteen years earlier, when her own marriage was struggling, she had found comfort and direction in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Gabriel’s father had found faith soon after.
Mom and Dad’s New Thing
All of that had taken place when Gabriel was 19 years old— the point when he was starting his own life. His parents’ faith journey was in the background. To him, their spiritual transformation was “Mom and Dad’s new thing.” He hadn’t given it much thought—until now.
Now he needed what his parents had discovered so many years before. In truth, this was the moment they had prayed for since they came to faith in Christ themselves. Though they wished the circumstances weren’t so painful for their son, this was the answer to their prayer that their son would personally come to know Christ as his Savior and Lord.
A Remembered Invitation
During the next two weeks, Gabriel thought about going back to church. He remembered Katie Gottlieb, a young woman he worked with at the West Chicago Library. They had often talked about faith, and several times Katie had invited him to church. By now Katie had gone off to college, and Gabriel hadn’t seen her for two years—but he remembered the name of the church she recommended, the one she grew up in: Wheaton Bible Church.
On a November Sunday morning in 2012, Gabriel walked to the door of Wheaton Bible Church, smiling on the outside but still emotionally bruised within.
To Gabriel, the warm welcome by greeter Dave VanderVeen was like water to a thirsty soul. Later, during the service, Pastor Lon Allison was preaching. During his message, he referred to his loving family. Gabriel could feel himself slipping into a terrible place of despair. He felt so desperately alone. Then Pastor Lon read from the Bible. The words were originally spoken to King Ahaz, who was being threatened by his enemies, but on this day, those words from Isaiah 7:14 came as a personal promise to Gabriel: “Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid.”
As Gabriel heard those words, he felt as if everyone else in the worship service had disappeared and only he and God remained. In that moment, Gabriel felt a flood of God’s love, peace, and joy.
A Magazine Article
On his way out that morning, Gabriel picked up LIFE at Wheaton Bible Church. During the week he read the stories and looked at the photographs. He was especially struck by the story about the Sunday-morning prayer team. He knew going to the front of the worship center for prayer would help him, but week after week he could not get up the courage to walk forward at the end of the service. He was still too embarrassed and ashamed to tell anyone what had happened to his marriage.
Then one Sunday he saw the prayer-team leader, Sue Finch, praying for people after the worship service. He recognized her from her picture in the magazine. That was all it took to give him the courage he needed. That morning he sought Sue out and poured out his heart to her.
After listening, Sue placed her hand on his shoulder and prayed. Again a sense of peace flowed over Gabriel. He felt as if a great burden had been lifted.
As they talked, Sue recommended that Gabriel attend the Alpha class when it started up a few weeks later. He agreed, and the first night of Alpha, he was pleasantly surprised to see Dave VanderVeen, the man who had greeted him at the door his first Sunday at the church. As a matter of fact, Dave was serving as an Alpha table host, and he invited Gabriel to sit at his table.
The table group quickly bonded, and even though Gabriel was far from his family and his homeland, he felt loved and accepted. His broken heart was beginning to heal.
A few months later, Gabriel attended an informational meeting at the church about My Hope, with Billy Graham. Gabriel was eager to hear about this wonderful opportunity to share a video with others and tell them about the love of Christ. He immediately began to pray about how he could be involved.
In his enthusiasm he mentioned My Hope to a friend from another church. His friend, Jeff, said that coincidentally he had also gone to a meeting and was going to be the regional coordinator for My Hope for Spanish-speaking churches in the Chicago area. He asked Gabriel, whose native language is Spanish, to partner with him.
Together they spoke to more than two hundred area pastors, encouraging them to use the My Hope video to reach Spanish speakers with the Good News of Christ.
The desire to give people hope in Christ has become a major theme in Gabriel’s life. He allowed his story to be videotaped and shared during recent worship services and on the Wheaton Bible Church website. He says that sharing the pain he suffered is worth it if it will help people come to know God.
Last fall, Gabriel began serving as an Alpha table host—alongside Dave VanderVeen. Not long after the video of Gabriel’s story was shown, a woman named Lupe told him that she had come to Alpha after seeing Gabriel’s story in the worship service. Arriving late the first evening, she was hesitant to enter the room, but then, from a distance, she recognized Gabriel’s face. His warm smile was all it took to give her the courage to join in.
As she shared her story with him that evening, he encouraged her, “Put your faith in God. You aren’t going to see things as they happen, but in time you will look back and see how God was working. You will see how He was putting everything in place for you.”
Gabriel believes God has put everything in place for him. At one time he knew so much love. Then that love was stripped away, but in that dark time he found the greatest love of all. It is this love—God’s love manifested in Jesus Christ—that he wants to share with others. That love, he knows, will never fade away and will never disappear.
Gabriel says that his relationship with God is like climbing to the highest mountain and seeing the best view—getting the big picture of what life is really all about. And as a guy who knows what it is to experience the thrill of extreme adventure, Gabriel says, “Giving away God’s love is the biggest thrill of all—the excitement that every Christian was created to live for. The ultimate adrenaline rush!”