Viva Cha Cha, Roberto, and Pudge!

It was about 10 years ago or so.

We were one van in a caravan of 5 in Juarez heading to our campsite after crossing the border. There were probably 10 or 11 of us in the van I was driving.

We’d crossed the border minutes before…one of my students, Liz, asked what a word on a sign meant.

“‘Chicken.’ ‘Pollo’ means ‘chicken,’ Liz.”

“Wow. It’s like Mexico has a different word for everything.” She was a freshman at the time. She rebounded nicely and is a college graduate taking Master’s level classes now so no need to worry. It’s best as the youth pastor to just chuckle to yourself at that moment and glance at your assistant sitting next to you, who will, in turn, chuckle to himself.

Well, on the way to the campsite, the route we took pushed us through several roundabouts. In the middle of each was a statue, usually in some way indicating military significance. Occasionally, on this particular route, we’d pass a park with some other statue outside the park of monks or whoever else the park might be named after.

Needless to say, one of the students who keenly observed the subtle differences between Spanish and English or who said something like, “Man. I’m glad I took Spanish this year. I knew it was required to graduate but I never realized that it would have a practical application!” would take the time to ask, “Hey, who’s that statue of?”

While I’m flattered these students think I might have some knowledge of Mexico’s history, each and every time I was on these roads I was more interested in successfully navigating the roundabout than I was in learning the reason for the statue. I can’t read Spanish anyway, much less at 35 m.p.h.

So, more to entertain myself, I’d answer something like, “Orlando Cepeda.”

The kids would reply, “What’d he do?”

“Military general. Led the victory at the Battle of Juarez.”

“Oh. Cool.”

Little did they know Orlando “Cha Cha” Cepeda was a 7-time All-Star first baseman for the San Francisco Giants. I don’t know that there was ever a Battle of Juarez or not. I feel certain that if there were, Orlando Cepeda had nothing to do with it, seeing as how he was from Puerto Rico and began his major league career in 1958.

Repeat process.

“Who’s that statue of?”

“Roberto Clemente.”

“What’d he do?”

“Started an orphanage here in Juarez that gave thousands of kids a better life because of the school he funded.”

“Oh. Cool.”

Really what he did was be a 12 time All Star player for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He, too, was Puerto Rican.

“What’d that guy do?”

“That’s Ivan Rodriguez. He was the first mayor of Juarez.”

“Oh. Cool.”

“WAIT A MINUTE!!!!” from the back of the van. Wes, a staff intern at the time and avid baseball fan, takes note of the Texas Ranger’s 14 time All Star. I have no idea why I recall Puerto Rican born ballplayers with such consistency when passing a statue.

“Ivan Rodriquez is the Ranger’s catcher,” Wes continued. “And I know Roberto Clemente is in the Hall of Fame, but I thought maybe he was named after the founder of the orphanage and maybe that’s why he was always doing that kind of stuff in Puerto Rico! And I’m pretty sure Orlando Cepeda was a baseball player, too! YOU’RE MAKING ALL OF THIS UP, AREN’T YOU???!!!!”

Nathan and I laugh out loud and playfully chide Wes about blowing the game for us. The kids are now in playful revolt and certainly doubt any and all historical knowledge we dispense for the next four years whether it’s true or not. We try to pull off the same thing every year after that, but the kids had all remembered Wes’ discovery and warned the incoming newbies, “Don’t believe Nathan or Brent! They make up stuff about the statues! Don’t fall for it!”

So yesterday I get a text message from Nathan.

He’s now a youth pastor in the Pittsburgh area and a choir from his church was singing the national anthem before the Pirates’ game and their church had a block of seats. The text message read something like, “Looking for the Roberto Clemente statue. Going to send a photo to Wes if I find it.”

I laughed out loud. I hadn’t thought about that afternoon in the van in years.

But then another thought hit me: This was a random afternoon on an hour-long van ride on a mission trip that took place nearly a decade ago. The fact that there was a Roberto Clemente statue to be found, photo taken and sent to Wes, was a reminder that we’ve done life together.

Wes and Nathan have since gotten married, gotten mortgages, had children and dogs. Moved away. Become part of other church families. It happens.

But I think it’s a cool occupational hazard that a simple text message reminds me that we’ve got mileage together. That we’ve sharpened each other. A reminder that we did that particular part of our journey together. And yesterday, I was really thankful for that reminder.

And that I get to do what I do for a living.

And that I get to do it with others who are gifted, talented and funny and who have become family.

Even if part of our history is falsified information about Puerto Rican born major league baseball players.