by | Apr 4, 2022

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
Hebrews 13:2

This weekend I got an email from Rev. Larry Ballenger, one of those great retired pastors who has so much love, talent, faith, and joy that he seems to have endless energy to serve and support folks in many congregations.

Larry emailed to tell me that our mutual friend Eddie Zabala was in the hospital and the family sadly had to have his life support removed. Larry was there to pray with him and his large family. Soon after, Larry forwarded me the email to say that Eddie died later the same night Larry visited.

The email came from Stephene Moseley; she and husband Clarke are the lead elders for Community Presbyterian Church in El Monte. I texted Rev. Dr. James Lee, president of International Theological Seminary, to make sure he knew about Eddie’s passing; Stephene had just texted him to let him know. Because Community does not have a settled pastor, James had been their moderator when ITS was up the street on Peck Road, and now Larry is their moderator. While I tend to think churches do better with a pastor, Community El Monte has taught me a few lessons. They do not have a pastor, but several of our retirees take turns preaching there. They are the site of one of our largest food pantries in San Gabriel Presbytery, serving about 300 families a week and 18,000 families per year. They are known for showing care and respect to their neighbors through their food pantry, giving them choices that meet their various cultural tastes, help them care for their pets, and provide diapers for their young ones. Community El Monte seems to have weathered COVID pretty well, I think because they have minimal staffing costs.

Several years ago, Eddie came to Community El Monte. Eddie had just been paroled, and the prison chaplain told him to look for a Calvinist church to help him on his new strong path as a Christian. (Interestingly, another of our small churches mentioned a similar visit from a parolee; I’m guessing there was a Calvinist chaplain at the local correctional center.) I don’t know the details, but by the time I met Eddie, he was a member of the church, was living on the campus and caring for the building and grounds, and was their best evangelist, sharing his joy in Christ with everyone he met, including anyone walking past the church when he was working in the yard. He was ordained a deacon, and then an elder of the church—in fact I was happy to see Eddie at several presbytery meetings. But I got to know Eddie best as part of the team that discerned how to utilize the funds from the El Calvario youth center property, which was sold after the center was closed down by the city. We took a photo at one of our meetings—Eddie is the third person from the right.

In our staid Presbyterian denomination, we don’t have enough Eddies among us. Though he loved the church, he was Pentecostal at heart. I learned early on that if we had time constraints, we could not ask Eddie to pray, because he did not pray in short snippets—it was full-bodied, expansive, and passionate. In fact, he once told me that he had to work really hard to stay in the back pew during worship, because he used to come up to the chancel during prayer time, filled with the Holy Spirit, and it scared people.

So he would hold on to the pew to keep himself in place, praying to the Spirit to behave (I’m not sure if that was for him, or for the Spirit) so that all may worship quietly in the sanctuary.

I once commented to Elder Clarke Moseley how lovely and unusual it was to see a Presbyterian church open themselves so fully to care for and connect with someone who is so far from a typical Presbyterian. In all earnestness, Clarke shared how grateful he was for Eddie, and how much Eddie transformed him, and the church. I can agree that Eddie transformed me, too.

All of us who knew Eddie miss him, and we pray for Community El Monte and Eddie’s family, who will not be the same without him. But more than I’ve ever felt before, I have a strong sense that Eddie is rejoicing in heaven, having run and jumped into the arms of his heavenly Father, and he is now dancing and shouting and kneeling and praying and praising and, I trust, watching and smiling over us, now that his earthly work is done.

It seems that every time we turn around, there are people looking for a community to receive and love them, give them a safe place to be and to serve, and to come alongside them in faith and mutual service, whether they are asylum seekers from Central America or Cameroon, refugees from Afghanistan or now Ukraine, or people who are treated with suspicion because of their past lives. As we come closer to the Day of Resurrection, let us remember who came to be one of us, who died for us, and who rose to tell us that we are to receive and care for others, to love them as if they are Jesus—because they are.

May we open our hearts and our churches to the unknown angels who come to our door. And every once in a while, may they be as special as Eddie.

In Christ’s peace,