Juan Ca is witty, thoughtful, and kind. He is a graduate of Ozark Christian College and now works for a Christ in Youth, aka CIY, that presents the Gospel message in relevant and innovative ways to thousands of students all across the country every year. CIY headquarters are in Joplin, Missouri, but Juan Ca’s journey starts a long way from Joplin. Here is his story:
December 5, 2017
I was raised in a religious home. I’m from Costa Rica. It’s a very Catholic country. Growing up, my mom wasn’t around because she was going to college in the capital. She had me when she was very young. While she was going to college out there, I was living with my great-grandparents in a small fishing town on the coast. They were all very heavy Catholics so we went to Mass. I would volunteer with my grandma and the nuns and help feed people. I always had a good sense of what it was like to be a person of Christian beliefs.
When I was in third grade, my mom finished school to be a teacher and she came back to Limon, which was the town I lived in and we moved to the capital together. That’s when we started going to the Christian church. She enrolled me in a private Christian school that was planted by Americans. That school had chapel every Tuesday. They had normal Christian values versus Catholic. I think it was in fourth grade when we joined a Christian church. Everything was going great. We had a church barbecue and at the barbecue was when I talked to my mom … I was like, “Hey, I hear all of these people talking about Jesus. I know he’s real and he loves me, but I feel like I’ve been living under your wing for a while now and I want to do my own thing.” They were having baptisms later when the barbecue was over and she had me sit down with her and she asked me questions about why I thought I needed to be baptized and what I thought it meant to be baptized. She heard my answers and said okay. Later that evening, I snuck in line because there were people who had already been signed up for baptism for weeks. My mom talked to Chris, the lead pastor, and told him that she had a conversation with me and she thought I was ready. He was like, “Yeah, hop in line!” That was when I got baptized.
In sixth grade, my mom met my old step-dad. He was in Costa Rica for business. It feels like it was, like, six months later that they decided they wanted to get married. He proposed, she said yes. Everything sounded great. They had the wedding and then my mom told me we were moving to Arizona because that’s where he was from. We moved to Arizona and I think that was one of the most testing times where my faith was tested. He changed a lot when we moved back. He wasn’t a great Christian. He kind of just went through the motions for my mom. He became very, from what I can remember, verbally abusive. They would fight a lot. I can’t remember a lot of it, but it felt like every night … the same night. At that point, I just had to rely a lot on God and asking Him for peace and for something to change. I was in sixth grade, I didn’t know what He could do, but I knew that I loved my mom and somebody was yelling at her.
About a year of that happened, my grandma flew from Costa Rica to Arizona and my mom walked in and told me they were getting a divorce and we were moving back to Costa Rica. I lived in Arizona for about a year at this point. I had just started making friends and gotten used to only speaking English and not Spanish. I was just starting to put down roots and she was like, “Hey, we’re moving.” We packed up our whole lives and moved back to Costa Rica. We lived with my aunt for about two or three months.
I don’t know if this is something my mom told me or something that I imagined, but she was praying and talking to God … asking, “What’s next for us? What do we need to do?” She continuously felt pulled to move back to the States. She didn’t know why, but she felt like we should go back. I think I remember her telling me a story about how she turned on the TV when she got home that evening and the first thing that came on the news was talking about wildfires in Arizona. She felt like that was God saying we needed to move back because there’s something better there for us.
During that whole time, I had gone back to school [in Costa Rica] and they were asking, “Where have you been?” I was like, “Long story short, I took a year-long vacation from school.” I never really told anyone what happened. I came home from school and my mom was like, “Let’s pack everything up again and move back to Arizona.” It was weird because it’s not like we’re moving across town … we’re moving continents. We’re flying 12 hours to another place where we had only really experienced for about a year. The whole time we were in Arizona the first time, she was going back to school to be a teacher. She had to redo her degree so she didn’t have a lot of time to plug in and do stuff. I ended up calling one of my close friends, as a sixth grader and asking her if my mom and I could live with her and her family until we could get on our feet. By the grace of God, we were able to. He opened that door for us. We lived with them for a couple months until my mom was able to get a job and then we moved into our first apartment and dove back into life.
I was always a good student and involved with the church. I was always at youth group on Sundays and would be there Wednesday and Friday nights. I basically lived at the church. Mom worked long hours. She gets up at 7 a.m. and be gone until 10 p.m. – at least that’s what it felt like because she was just trying to make ends meet. My dad wasn’t really in the picture. He does what he can, but he lives in Costa Rica. He’s pretty removed from my life. He’s always been good about sending money to my mom when I was growing up, but obviously … the salaries are a little different between countries. My mom would get up and she’d have tutoring sessions before school, teach all day, and then drive all over town for five or six more tutoring sessions after school. She did whatever she could so we could live. I don’t remember one time, as a kid, wanting something. My mom always did whatever she needed so that I could have whatever I wanted or needed. At one point, I think she also worked for a cleaning service – so she would tutor, go to school, tutor some more, and then go clean houses because she knew that’s what she needed to do to make things happen. During that time, I relied on God a little more then, too, because I didn’t know why she had to do all of these things. I spent a good time alone. I’m an only child. I think that’s why I refuge in church because my youth pastors were very open to me hanging out with them. I would ride my bike to church after school and sit in my youth pastor’s office for four hours while he was working on his sermon. I would nap there while he was working or go run errands with him. God was always prevalent in my life in the sense I was always involved in the church.
In high school, I probably wasn’t the best of people. I had two lives. I was the guy who was at church every Sunday, at every event and volunteered with junior highers, but every other Friday night, I was at a party. I would wake up on Saturday and go home, shower, and hang out with my mom for a little bit, and then I’d leave Saturday afternoon and go to another party. I’d wake up Sunday morning, go home, shower, and then go to church. That seemed to be the cycle for the last two years of high school. I was very much living that double life.
That continued into college. Once I graduated, I went to Arizona State University. My roommate at the time, he was in a fraternity so a lot of those guys would hang around. With that, came several open doors for me to do whatever I wanted to. I lived, what I thought, was a very normal college life. I went to parties, stayed up late, and did things I shouldn’t have done during my first semester there. After that, I signed up to go on a mission trip with my church to build a house in Mexico. My buddies were going and I just wanted to hang out. We went and during that time, I was the only Spanish speaker on the trip and they needed me to translate. I got a lot of leadership experience just because I could speak the language. I think that is where the bug for doing ministry was planted. I started thinking, Maybe I don’t want to be doctor … My whole life I had wanted to be a doctor. My great-grandfather was a doctor and I wanted to be like him. He was the closest thing I had to a dad growing up. After that, I came to the realization that maybe I just wanted to be a doctor because he was and my family was expecting me to because of all the talk I had done. My mom moved us to Arizona so I could have a good education. She wanted me to have that really bright future – the American Dream if you will.
I came back and was in my dorm room and I was by myself and I was praying about it. I talked to God and was like, “If this is something that you want me to do, I need you to tell me because I suck at reading signals and I need something that is crystal clear.” I was there on a full ride because of the fact that I’m Latin and they needed to increase their diversity. They gave me a full ride that I didn’t work for. I was a good high school student, but I didn’t graduate top of the class or anything like that. I was very lazy, so my mom actually got me that scholarship. She’s the one that filled out the paperwork so that I could go there on a full ride and I was basically wasting it away.
I went home and found out that 1) the scholarship was going to be taken away, so I was going to have to find a way to come up with $48,000 a year, or something like that, for school and 2) my mom had lost her job. So that hurt us in other scholarship ways. I remember being so angry when she told me that because my mom was such a hard worker. She was such a good person. She always gave. She never withheld from anyone. She helped people left and right. I was like, Why is God doing this to her? Why is God doing this to me? I remember being so mad and punching the wall when she told me and she grabbed me, smacked me, and sternly and lovingly told me, “Don’t you ever dare to get mad at God like that because He’s a good Father and He’s always provided for us. We’ve never needed anything that He didn’t provide for us.” Me being mad was disobedient and dumb. I’m glad she did that because, to me, that was my sign. I wasn’t going to be able to go back to this school unless I came up with $50,000, so I knew it wasn’t going to happen. A week after that, I called her and told her, “Hey, I’ve been thinking something about school …” and immediately, she started crying her eyes out because she thought I wanted to drop out. I was like, “No, no, I think I want to go do ministry. I want to go be a youth minister.” She thought the reason I wanted to do that was because med school was hard and I was struggling in my classes. She thought I was being lazy and wanted to get out of it. She said, “If you really want this, you’re going to do all of the work to get yourself into that school and you’re going to do all of the financial work to get yourself scholarships. I’m not going to lift a finger for you because I did it for you once and you need to prove to me that this is what you want. If you make it in, I will support you 100%. Prove to me that you want it.” That next semester at Arizona State, I could have cared less about the classes I was taking. I was just doing what I needed to do so that I wouldn’t have a bad grade. I applied to come to Ozark Christian College (OCC) and got in. I told my mom and she was overjoyed. Her whole life she felt like God was telling her that, at some point, I would end up in some sort of ministry. So she saw that coming to some sort of fruition.
I came to OCC the fall of 2011 and I was studying to be a youth minister and then psychology and counseling, as well. My years there were pretty normal. The culture shock was pretty big for me because I was coming from a state school – one of the ones that were rated one of the Top Five Party Schools in America. I was living on a co-ed floor. I didn’t have a curfew and didn’t have any rules about what I could or couldn’t do. I didn’t have to be in class if I didn’t feel like it. I just had to pass tests. Then, I come to a school where I’m living with 39 other guys and the closest girl is half a mile away… [laughter] … I have to be in my room by 10 p.m. because I have devotionals and then the other days by midnight. I can’t drink even though I’m 21 years old. All these rules and stipulations to me seemed, to me, dumb because I was an adult and I can do whatever I want. I think God humbled me through those years. He was like, “Okay, you may be an adult, but you may not be able to handle these things.” I disagreed with some of those rules, but it didn’t matter because I saw the reason for them. I could see that it was to protect everyone – a few sacrifice for the good of everyone else. I had a little bit of culture shock. I remember: I had my freshman interview with the dean of students and I was told beforehand that I had to dress up business casual. I showed up in a tank top, board shorts, and flip-flops just to go against the grain and to “prove a point,” which was just dumb of me.
I would say the most I ever grew in my faith was definitely while living on my dorm floor – Boatman 3rd. Having that kind of community, I don’t think, is ever going to be matched by anything. I’m pretty sure that most people that come to OCC would probably say the same thing about their dorm floors and the friends they had. Having 39 other guys that you live life with every single day and laugh with and cry with and pray with … like, those bonds … there’s never going to be another time where you get that. My RA always told me that, but I never believed him until the day I left that floor. I was challenged constantly in different decisions and different things I thought were right because that’s how I grew up doing them. God put awesome leaders in the way that would smack me around and tell me, “You’re just being a knucklehead.” Because of those guys, I grew a ton. I remember the day I moved off the floor … bawling my eyes out because not only was I losing this close community but, I felt like I was losing a connection to God because I was around so many Christian people that were going through the same thing as me. I felt like my connection was almost stronger there. That was a facet of my life that I had to come to terms with … ya know, my faith is my faith. My bond with God is my own bond; it doesn’t go through these guys, although I felt like it did.
There towards the end of my time at Ozark, that’s when I met my wife. Elke has helped grow my faith even more. There was a summer where I found out the church I was interning at was going to spend four weeks in a row at a camp, which her parents ran, and she worked at. I was there four weeks hanging out with her and students. That’s when we started dating. Two years later, we ended up getting married. One of the coolest things that have already came out of that time: I’ve always struggled with pride and tithing. I feel like, I’m the one that worked for the money, so I shouldn’t have to give it up if I don’t want to. My mom always told me [that I was supposed to tithe] and was a great example: she never missed a tithe. Even still, I didn’t want to do it. My wife is very quiet and very much a people pleaser. When we got married, she wasn’t having any of it. When I told her I didn’t want to tithe or we would give it the next week, that was the first time I’ve actually seen her put her foot down and was like, “No, this is something we do.” It was scary because I was losing financial security, but I remember, six months after that happened, God blessing us financially in ways that I couldn’t have imagined. It was around the holidays so we were pretty low on money because we were traveling and buying gifts. Money kept happening and I didn’t know why it kept happening. Ya know, I suck at Fantasy Football and I was in my first league where it costs money to get in. It cost me $25 to get in. I’ve never won in my life and I somehow ended up pulling this one off and got $400 right when we needed it the most. We got discounts in places that I didn’t think would work. We got into an apartment that was giving us low rent because of who we were and the season of life we were in. God kept putting all sorts of financial blessings in front of us, which was awesome. That was another big leap in my Christian life … I had seen God’s faithfulness, but mostly through my mom. This time I could see God’s faithfulness directed right at me and not through someone else. That was awesome.
I graduated from OCC. During my last year, I started thinking about whether I wanted to be a youth minister. At the time, I was working at Best Buy. I was the assistant manager there and I was making really good money. We were pretty financially secure. I started thinking about whether or not I wanted to plan a youth lesson every week. It seems kind of tiring. I remember sitting down with Elke and saying, “Maybe that’s not it. I want to do ministry, but I don’t know how I want to do ministry, but I want to do ministry, but I don’t think it’s being a youth minister.” That’s right around the time that I spoke to a couple of churches and thought about a different position in the church – maybe young adults or something. Nothing was lining up. I had a couple offers from different places that were looking for youth ministers. A lot of times, I ended up saying no. I didn’t know what God was keeping me for. For a while, I actually thought, Man, maybe I am just being selfish. Maybe it’s not what not what I want to do, but maybe God is saying, ‘Hey, I’m opening these doors for you … please walk through them.’ I remember meeting with Cody Walker, the lead pastor of Hope City, and I looked Cody in the eye and was like, “Man, am I being an idiot? Am I running away from God?” He said, “No, God’s got a plan for you here, but I don’t know what it is. I don’t think you’re running from Him. When you know where you need to go, I think there’s going to be overwhelming peace in your heart and in Elke’s heart that this is where God needs you. I don’t think there’s going to be any turmoil or uncertainty – at least not as much as you’ve had about these other places. Just stay there. I know you want to leave Best Buy and retail in general, but maybe what God is calling you to do right now is to live in that friction in the in-between where you really want to move on, but God is just holding you back for a reason and you don’t know why.”
I lived in that friction for probably six or seven months … where I was blessed by the job I had, but I wasn’t enjoying it. Going to work was a bit of a struggle every day. It’s a great company, but it wasn’t where my heart was. That’s okay. I went through that stuff and then finally, I found out that Christ in Youth (CIY) was looking for someone for their customer service development department. Elke’s boss told the guy at CIY about me and he reached out to me and he started the process of asking if I’d be interested. He said, “I don’t know if I have a job for you yet, but is this something that would ever interest you?” I jumped on it. I grew up going to CIY events since sixth grade. I never thought about the fact that I could ever work for this company, let alone that such a big company was stationed in Joplin. We went through interview processes and in June of 2017, they called and offered me the position. I took it without a doubt. We had to dial back some of the things we were doing because … it’s ministry, but that was fine. To me, just the ability to wake up and enjoy was doing was worth it. The quality of life definitely went up ten-fold because I finally had something I was passionate about. It was sales and customer service. I love talking to people. I love helping people. I’m just a people person. I wanted to do ministry, but I didn’t want to be a youth minister, but I love kids. It was just this weird thing where I was like, I don’t know how I’m going to find the perfect job for all of this. Customer development at CIY has filled that for me because I’m still in a type of sales, but I get to deal with youth ministers every day which is awesome because those are my people. When I go to events, I still get to hang out with kids. I still get to volunteer at my local church and I get to pour into those kids’ lives. It’s like I’m getting the fun of a youth minister, but I’m not having to plan lessons every Sunday. It’s a tough job and I knew that I probably wouldn’t be able to do it. God really just shaped this position to be something that I love. It’s been awesome. I’ve been there [for a while] and some days it feels like work because every job does, but most days it’s just fun. It’s a good family atmosphere. I get to laugh. I’ve made good friends in this little time I’ve been there.
It’s really cool to go back and see every little nudge that God has given me to get me to where I’m at today. If my mom would have never thought to come back to Arizona, I don’t know where I’d be, honestly. It’s weird because I look at other friends I grew up with in Costa Rica and a lot of them have chosen to do nothing. Sometimes, I think that could have been had God not nudged us this way. Because of my mom’s faithfulness, we moved back to Arizona and I started going to Chandler Christian Church … and everyone that went to Chandler Christian Church had gone to OCC … and because of that influence I went to OCC … and because I went to OCC, I met my wife … and because of my wife’s job, I got a job at CIY. It’s awesome. It’s one of my favorite things … to look back.