by Craig McClure
I met Tomas Santana in the fall of 2011. Honestly, it was a non-event for me—he was one of hundreds of Dominicans that my disciple Omar and I had visited and introduced ourselves to when we began the ministry in San Jose. Tomas was around 69 years old when we met, and I was targeting younger men who could help in my church-planting endeavors.
Shamefully, I paid little attention to Tomas, a man who I thought to be too engrained in the cultural traditions to be interested in the gospel. But God, being rich in mercy because of His great love for Tomas, was about to write a story in the life of Tomas that would impact thousands and bring glorious praise to the name of Jesus.
Iglesia de la Gracia was launched in February 2012 and Tomas was one of the first to arrive for the initial service. From that day forward, Tomas was the first to arrive at every service with his New Testament in hand, ready to sing and listen to the preaching of the Word. During that first year of ministry, I was unaware that this faithful attender to our worship services was a well-known, respected man in dozens of villages around San Jose, responsible for leading and sending the spirits of the dead into the afterlife. Tomas was deeply involved in traditional forms of Dominican witchcraft and was paid well by families to guide and carry their dead loved ones through the judgment of the afterlife and into heaven. But during those first few months of hearing the gospel proclaimed, God began to open Tomas’ eyes to the truth of Jesus and expose the deception of the Enemy that he had followed all of his life.
Tomas describes that time like this, “Every Sunday I would sit and wait for the clock to reach 9am so I could be the first to arrive at the church. I remember Craig and Omar giving us Bibles and telling us to follow along verse by verse, and if they said anything that wasn’t written in the Bible, then we should not believe what they were preaching. Each Sunday they would preach and I would look at my Bible and say to myself, ‘This has to be true because everything they say is written here.’ I started feeling something deep inside of me that was changing, and I know now that was the Holy Spirit bringing me to Jesus. After some time a message was preached about Nicodemus and being born again. I agreed with Nicodemus, I did not understand how an old man like me could be born again, and so I asked Craig and Omar to come to my house and explain it. That was the day Jesus became my Savior.”
We had labored daily in San Jose for over a year when Tomas finally converted, and he was only our second conversion at that point. He had lived seven decades without ever hearing the “scandalous” grace of the gospel proclaimed, but on the day Tomas was born again, he laid at the feet of Jesus 70 years of alcohol abuse, gambling, adulterous affairs, and demonic witchcraft. I should have known Tomas was going to be special because when he prayed to receive Christ, he immediately began praying God would save others. He frequently shares with us the pain he feels for wasting his able-bodied years on the passions of this world, and he repeats in about every other sentence his deep gratitude to God for saving him and transforming his dead nature.
Tomas’ story is still being written, but in the few years that he has been a believer his impact and growth in the faith has been nothing short of supernatural. After being a believer for slightly over a year Tomas’ oldest son died just days after blatantly rejecting the gospel. Omar was with Tomas when his son passed away and Tomas’ first words were, “God you have done your will and I will praise you for the time you gave me with my son. Thank You Father, thank You for being so good.” At the funeral, Tomas, the man who had once been the centerpiece of all funerals in these remote Dominican villages chanting, playing drums and in a transcendent state carrying spirits through the afterlife stood next to his dead son’s body and proclaimed the gospel. “I am weeping here today because my son is receiving the just punishment that he deserves in an eternal hell for rejecting Jesus Christ. But I am also praying, praying that each of you would recognize what took me 70 years to recognize that Jesus is our only hope of salvation.” These were the words spoken by a man, who God has indwelt with the power of His Holy Spirit and is using to bring glory to His Name in the most tragic of circumstances.
Shortly after the death of his son, Tomas’ 90-something-year-old sister, Felipa, moved back to San Jose after living 20 years in New York so that she could die in her homeland. When she arrived in her home village she was reunited with her baby brother and moved in next door. It did not take long for Felipa to realize this was not the same man she had always known, something radical had happened to her little brother and she wanted an explanation. Felipa called for Omar and me to visit and when we made the visit she demanded we tell her what we had done to her brother. It was with great joy that we were able to tell her, like Tomas had already told her, that we did not do anything but Jesus had saved and changed Tomas and Jesus did the same thing for Felipa that day. Felipa passed away five months later and this time Tomas would share a different message at the funeral. He said, “I understand why you all are crying, throwing yourselves on the floor and screaming because you have no hope today of seeing my sister again, but I do. I was there when Felipa cried out to Jesus and He became her Savior. She is not in purgatory, she is not passing through a judgment, my sister is with her Savior Jesus and I will be there worshiping Him with her soon. Saints made with hands did not save her, praying for her soul right now doesn’t save her, Jesus saves her.” Although we cannot document it or definitively prove it we are relatively confident that Felipa is the first person in the history of the village of San Jose to enter into eternity as a disciple of Jesus.
There are many other stories that make up the story of Tomas. Stories about how he led the most violent drunk of the village to Christ. Stories of his unwavering faith in the midst of the persecution he has suffered for being a follower of Jesus. Beautiful stories of how others who make up the older generation of San Jose have died and entered the glory of the Lord because Tomas wants to take as many people to heaven with him as possible. Glorious acts of grace and mercy all because this former mystical man of witchcraft unapologetically, yet lovingly makes known that the Santeria, Voodoo and traditional beliefs that have bound his people for centuries only lead to death, but Jesus and Jesus alone gives life.