Rudy Gonzalez sits in his Southern Baptist seminary faculty office and marvels how he got there from his days knocking on doors to spread the Jehovah's Witness faith.
"All of my life, I've been focused and I knew where I wanted to go, but I had to pay a price every step of the way," said the assistant professor of New Testament studies at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, Mill Valley, Calif. "I'm amazed to be here in California."
In October, Gonzalez became the first Hispanic elected full-time to teach biblical studies at a Southern Baptist Convention seminary. If it weren't for a few life-changing experiences while growing up in San Antonio, Texas, he said he would most likely be ministering inside a Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall.
Though his three brothers also went to Kingdom Hall services every week, he was the "only one who seriously adhered to the beliefs." With a sincere desire to study the Bible, he remembers getting up in those services, reciting Scriptures and delivering "discourses," or sermons, while growing up. He also frequently accompanied his mother every Saturday to propagate his faith around the neighborhoods of west San Antonio. However, a friendship in high school led to him making some life-changing decisions.
"My best friend Lee and I had planned to be friends for the rest of our lives, and he felt like a brother to me," he said. "But he died of a brain hemorrhage just weeks before our high school graduation, and that emotionally wrecked me. It threw me into a different way of thinking, and I ended up dropping out just short of graduation. Lee wasn't a Jehovah's Witness, but we were such good friends. I still think about him from time to time, and a tear comes to my eye."
Besides dropping out of school, Gonzalez did something no faithful conscientious-objector Jehovah's Witness would do – he joined the U.S. Marine Corps. "To this day, I don't know why I did that except that I was reacting to the emotions I was feeling. I wasn't thinking logically, so I put God out of the picture and got out of San Antonio. My mother thought I was crazy because this was during the Vietnam War, and it nearly destroyed her."
In standard practice, the Kingdom Hall excommunicated him for joining the military. After a year of service, he returned to San Antonio and started a business selling automotive supplies to gas stations. He thought to himself that later he would make things right with the Kingdom Hall, but he decided to spend most of his time and his money on "friends, beer, and going out."
However, one of his friends, David Reyes, stopped hanging around him. "He wasn't a Jehovah's Witness, but I heard that he converted to Christianity. This was during the Jesus Movement, and in my mind he was a Jesus freak. So I went to his house a day before my twentieth birthday to kid him about this change he'd made."
Gonzalez and a friend drove to his home in a barrio in westside San Antonio and honked the car horn. "We thought the guy wasn't going to come out, but he did with a Bible in his hand. It's as if he were waiting for us because he just jumped in the back seat of the car and started witnessing to us. I was half-drunk, but that was a powerful witness to me. My friend and I both realized that we'd heard a message we hadn't heard before, and that Tuesday night, April 27, 1973, David led us to the Lord in front of his house."
Gonzalez considers his experience a "radical conversion," but he interestingly credits his Jehovah's Witness background for helping him grow so quickly as a born-again Christian. "From one moment to the next, I was seeing life differently. I knew the implications of the message of the gospel right then and there, so I didn't need six months to figure out what it all meant. I took the Bible seriously, and when I accepted Jesus, I knew it was coming from Scripture. God took my knowledge of the Bible and gave it a new light. At that moment, the Spirit of God 'rebooted' everything in me like a computer because all the ideas were falling into place. I knew more or less everything I believed."
That night, he said he realized that what he had been taught all his life was wrong. "What I believed before was Jehovah's Witness doctrine. Right when I repented and got saved, somehow I knew that being a Jehovah's Witness was wrong. God helped me think through it all and showed me why the doctrine was wrong, and I was orthodox from that moment on."
He said he quit drinking, cursing, smoking, and fighting that night. "I had a brown belt in karate, and I loved to fight. When I studied karate, I did it not for its aesthetic beauty, but to beat up on people. When I realized that fighting was not in the job description of being a Christian, I stopped. I loved it, but I dumped it because of the reason I got into it. I've never since thrown a punch or a kick, even in exercise."
The next step was getting involved in a church. "I had a real interest in being part of one and no desire ever to step in a Kingdom Hall again. I find it hard to understand how when people convert they are so anemic and apathetic about church because I had the opposite feeling."
The day after his conversion, he went to the Wednesday night service at the Hispanic department of First Baptist Church, San Antonio, to make his confession of faith public. "That's where I met my wife less than twenty-four hours after my conversion. Six months later, Virginia's father, who was the pastor, performed our wedding ceremony."
But the changes in Gonzalez's life kept coming. He led one of his brothers to the Lord three months after his own conversion as well as his mother around the time of his wedding. His father, an agnostic, became a Christian during a subsequent revival service. Just a year after his wedding, Gonzalez felt God calling him into the ministry.
"Instead of struggling for years with that, I knew that I had to become a full-time minister," he said. "I took the G.E.D. and passed it on the first try."
Shortly after getting his G.E.D., he became pastor at First Mexican Baptist Church, Hobbs, New Mexico. He was ordained just a year and a half after becoming a Christian. "Very early on, I realized I needed more training when one of our deacons died, and I had no idea how to do a funeral."
He resigned from the church and moved to Dallas to attend Criswell College, but his education continued to getting a master of divinity with biblical languages degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He later received a master of theology from Princeton Theological Seminary and is currently working on his dissertation to finish his doctorate from Baylor University. "However, I never went to school simply as a student. I knew God had called me to pastor, and going to school has never been at the expense of being a pastor."
During his education, he served as co-pastor and pastor at New Life Baptist Church, Garland, Texas; First Mexican Baptist Church, Waco; Nassau Christian Center, Princeton, N.J.; First Mexican Baptist Church, Dallas; and Oikos Baptist Fellowship, North Dallas.
However, God started tapping his brain again to try his hand at another field. "Somewhere, somebody told me after I'd been in the ministry a while that I ought to be teaching. I began to wonder why I couldn't one day teach at a school. In my field of biblical studies, I'd never studied under an Hispanic professor before and didn't know of any in Southern Baptist seminaries at the time. There were no role models in that sense for me, so I thought that perhaps Hispanics didn't have the temperament for it."
Nevertheless, he decided to take classes that would qualify him to one day fill a faculty position. "I took biblical languages when I didn't have to, knowing that someday if God opened a door at a seminary, I could knock and ask to teach there and prove myself."
While starting his doctoral work at Baylor, George Klein, a professor of Old Testament at Criswell, asked him to consider adjunct teaching at the Dallas school. He joined full-time in 1994 as an assistant professor of New Testament studies and then went to Golden Gate last year. "I know that all the work I've gone through has been in the Lord's will because I've never had to go and ask to teach somewhere," he said.
Gonzalez is the first full-time Hispanic professor to teach biblical studies at an SBC seminary. "It was in me to want to do this. I also wanted to be not so much a trailblazer, but just someone to show Hispanics that we can teach in an area where we've traditionally been under-represented."
He also hopes to challenge Hispanic church workers to seminary training. "The old mentality that being educated means not being spiritual is fading away. I'm trying to encourage Hispanics to realize the benefits of education – that it can complement our relationship with Christ. Just as life experiences help us in our ministries, we need to encourage education into our church members also, even for our teenagers to graduate high school."
Though it seems like Gonzalez has traveled a straight road with the next step clearly in sight, he said he has always struggled. "While at seminary in Fort Worth, I worked a graveyard shift at a secular job in Dallas to make ends meet, and then I would drive to class in the morning, be there until the afternoon, and then drive home again, sleep a few hours, and start all over again."
That challenge carries on at home with his son, Rudy, who turned 5 in January. He was born with developmental problems that have left him with an inability to speak and poor motor skills. "Though 'little Rudy's' hearing is perfect, he is learning to communicate through sign language. His mother and I are having to learn also because this may be the only way he'll ever be able to speak to us."
Gonzalez hopes one day to teach his son some of what he has learned both in and out of the classroom, but another one of his hopes is to do some writing in his field in both English and Spanish. "English is the language of academia, but I'd really like to write in Spanish in order to reach a sector of the world that English can't reach. It might limit my readership, but it will open up an awareness and some opportunities I wouldn't have otherwise, and I'm always eager to do that."