1996. It's just another hot day in Orlando, Fla., another day when poor
choices fester and tempers flare. The result for 16-year-old Jonathan Melendez
is a rapidly accelerating life-or-death crisis.
Lying on a hospital bed, his mother standing nearby, he's still trying to figure out how a shotgun got mixed into a teenage brawl. His buddy was up against a tough scrap. Jonathan felt it his duty to back him up. But when the fists started landing, someone pulled that gun. Jonathan caught three bursts of scattershot in his back and legs.
And, dear God, his stomach is on fire! Problem is, every time Jonathan thinks of God, he is reminded of his own rebellion and the faith he has all but turned from.
When the doctor hears of the abdominal pain, Jonathan is given a CAT scan. The discovery of internal bleeding renders emergency surgery his only hope.
Perhaps, as she stands near her son, Milagros Melendez remembers another hospital some 10 years earlier when she was the patient. She was so sick. She remembers the look of concern on her husband's face. Staff Sgt. Roberto Melendez had recently moved his family to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. He and sons Robert, 9, and Jonathan, 6, felt helpless.
An Army chaplain came to the hospital to support the family. Chaplain John Houser prayed with Roberto and Milagros. She soon recovered. Roberto took note of the miracle in his wife's health, as well as the Christian faith she had demonstrated. Soon, he began taking his family to Fort Leonard Wood's Lieber Heights Chapel where John and Barbara Houser pastored.
The Melendez family's faith journey led to a baptism at Lieber Heights Chapel. Chaplain Houser baptized Staff Sgt. Melendez. Then, with Houser officiating, a joyful Melendez baptized Robert and John.
Flash forward to 1996, and Milagros Melendez is desperately praying for Jonathan as her son is prepped for surgery. What does a mother say at such times? She knows Jonathan has not followed the faith he proclaimed at his childhood baptism. How can she get through to him, make him realize he is on the edge of eternity?
Through her tears, she urgently whispers, "Ask forgiveness." In desperation, she repeats the appeal.
She is still pleading when the surgeon enters the room. The doctor hesitates. "I'm not a religious man," he says to Jonathan. "But do what your mother says."
If you talk to Chaplain Jonathan Melendez today, he will take you to that moment. You might miss a word or two from the story if the satellite connection throws the phone line a spike of static. Melendez's 2011 tour in Iraq has him ministering to young men and women who stare into eternity every day.
"Tears were running down my face as they put the anesthesia mask on my face," he says, recounting his Orlando ordeal. "Just before I fell asleep, I knew I was at peace with God, and I knew my life was His and that I would serve Him if I lived. When I woke up, I had lost 2 feet of my small intestine. I had 20 holes in one leg. I was a mess. That was my wake-up call."
Melendez sensed God's calling into chaplaincy ministry during his years in Bible college. He never forgot how Chaplain Houser's faithful ministry to his family reshaped their destiny.
"He was an instrument of God in my father's life, in our whole family, really," Melendez says. "He discipled us. As a new believer, my father was finding his way. Our family was just beginning our walk with the Lord."
For his part, Chaplain John Houser had no idea how impactful his ministry had been in Melendez's life until the two men met at an Assemblies of God Chaplaincy conference this summer in Springfield, Mo.
"He said, ‘Chaplain, I'll never forget when you baptized me,'" Houser recalls. "He said, ‘When I finally got my life straight with the Lord, I remembered you and how you really cared for us.' This was probably one of the most amazing things that has happened in Barbara's and my ministry. It's what the Bible says - just plant that seed. You never know what's going to come up. I think this is a hundredfold this time."
Retired from the military since 1999, Houser has transitioned to prison ministry and is now the senior chaplain at Kirkland Correctional Institution, South Carolina's largest prison and the state's reception and evaluation center for all inmates in its corrections system.
Kirkland houses 1,900 to 2,000 men, but because it enters all inmates into the state system, it represents a migrating population of 16,000 to 17,000 men every year.
"Our goal is that before every one of these men leaves our prison, he has a witness for Jesus Christ," Houser says. "And many of them have made professions of faith."
Among Houser's ministry team of 45 trained inmates, most are Spirit-filled.
"The warden has allowed us to set up a program where they go out every night and pray and conduct services with men in migrating population inmate dorms," Houser says.
Houser will celebrate 30 years of chaplaincy ministry in 2012.
"The calling God put on our lives has never changed," he says of himself and Barbara. "The same gifts that worked at Lieber Heights Chapel in Fort Leonard Wood also worked at Fort Benning, Ga., also worked in Germany, also worked at Camp Humphreys, South Korea, where I was senior chaplain. Just allow God to use you and use the gifts He's given you."
"And I see the same fire in Jonathan Melendez."
After enjoying a brief visit home in the summer for the chaplaincy conference, Melendez will spend the rest of this year in Iraq. Christmas will most likely find him sweating in body armor as he moves from ministry site to ministry site.
But with the holidays, he will warmly remember last Christmas with his mother,
brother and family, wife Maria and children Naomi and Josiah.
"We were able to watch the video of that baptism service again," he says. "There I was as a kid, and Chaplain Houser's ministry and his service to God in the Army in many ways are the reason why I'm here serving in the chaplaincy myself."