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New family, new language, new culture yield new faith & courageous witness

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–A six-inch knife gleamed in the bright fluorescent lights of the discount store, just a breath away from Angelica Clem’s throat.

She didn’t blink.

She didn’t think.

She simply stared calmly at the young woman wielding the knife.

“I love you and Jesus loves you too.”

“Shut up,” snapped the teenaged thief, in the moments before she was finally arrested by the security guards who had watched on camera while she stuffed a handful of nail polish bottles into her bag.

Angelica and her 5-year-old son saw the whole thing too, and despite an initial reluctance to get involved, she knew she could not let her son see her simply nod and wink as the perpetrator strode smugly by.

The same intelligent 35-year-old mother of two, who more than once stood crying in an airport because she couldn’t speak English, didn’t lack words that day.

Angelica Clem, whose husband Tony is a second-year master of divinity student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., did not grow up in the United States. In Spanish-language Panama, she met and married “Sergeant Tony” after the U.S. invasion of that country in 1990.

Not only was Tony an American and a soldier — a hated invader to some — he carried around a Bible. He was Baptist and she was Catholic — and the fireworks were about to begin in this small country where the community virtually revolves around the Catholic Church.

“It was a little scandal for the family,” said Angelica in an interview. Her dad told her Tony was “bad news.” Insults rolled in and Angelica was called a traitor by others.

“Daddy, don’t judge him,” Angelica recalled telling her father. “I really want your blessing.”

When the blessing finally came, it was three months after Tony and Angelica were wed in a civil ceremony. The family insisted on their living apart until they could be married in a “traditional” ceremony in a huge Catholic cathedral. Within the year, Tony, Angelica and their new infant Joshua were on their way to the United States. Torn from her land of birth and her close matriarchal family, Angelica said she “bawled” the whole way, wanting to be a faithful wife, but also feeling inadequate to deal with the cultural changes she anticipated.

It didn’t help matters when Tony told her she would have to fly to Memphis alone with the baby. His parents would meet them at the airport and he would follow after traveling to Charleston, S.C., to fulfill a military obligation.

“Help,” Angelica inquired of another passenger in the airport, after the Spanish-speaking guide Tony had promised didn’t show up. When the passenger began to rattle off instructions in English, the terrified Angelica said she clutched her crying baby to her breast and ran as fast as she could down a huge airport corridor, trying to read the English words on her ticket through hot tears. Following the crowd down an escalator and into an airport tram, Angelica said she couldn’t believe when the door in front of her matched the number on her ticket, “104.”

That’s when Angelica said she knew something larger than her own will was at work.

“I was terrified. It was the first time I had a doubt,” Angelica said. “But then I got to the plane by the grace of God.”

The next three years were the worst, Angelica recounted, as she struggled to adapt to a new language, a new culture and a new family. Slowly she learned English. Not in a class, but through the consistent Bible study her husband led and through his careful placement of flash cards throughout their home. Word by word, sentence by sentence, until finally she felt bold enough to utter words, then phrases, now whole animated conversations.

It was during that time Angelica said she began to realize that although she was raised in the Catholic Church and knew a lot about God, she didn’t know him in the same way as did Tony. A student at Williams Baptist College in Walnut Ridge, Ark., he had moved his young family there after he felt God’s leading out of the military and into the ministry.

Angelica began to make friends and asked them to pray for her because although her husband was called to be a pastor, she said she couldn’t hear God at all. That was until they were there about a year and Angelica took her husband for a walk one crisp fall day.

“Tony, I feel bad. All these years the Lord has had his hand on the door right in front of my nose and I’ve been taking it for granted,” Angelica recalled telling her husband. “You are his servant and I want to be a servant too. We are called.

“I want him in my life as Master, Savior and Lord,” Angelica continued. It was a time of deep searching, but finally certain peace. Now the changes, moving from college to a church, and then from the stability of being a pastor’s wife to seminary student’s wife, became opportunities. As did a chance to witness to her family back home in Panama, and for the opportunity to share God’s love with a young thief, caught up in a lifestyle antithesis to true meaning.

In Spanish, and in English, Angelica says she thanks God for the opportunities, even when there is danger.

“The ministry is risky,” Angelica said with a smile, dark eyes flashing with mischief. “But I know where I’m going when I die.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: TRANSITIONS APLENTY.

    About the Author

  • Joni B. Hannigan