Sam Gonzalez (’93) remembers clearly the words he spoke when Bible professor Carl Spain called, inviting Sam to enroll at ACU.
That would be impossible, Sam said, because his family didn’t have the money. But Sam also remembers the words his mother spoke when Sam told her the gist of the conversation.
“You’re going to go,” his mother said.
And so he did, arriving on the “big, intimidating campus” in the fall of 1989. He was alone, having driven all the way from San Benito, not far from the Mexican border. Sam had one overwhelming impression as he gazed across campus.
“I really don’t belong here,” he thought to himself.
Fortunately, as he made friends and met professors, Sam came to see that he did belong and four years later, in 1993, he graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in biblical text and preaching. But he wasn’t finished – in fact he was just beginning.
Sam stayed in Abilene five more years, working and studying for a master of divinity degree, which he earned in 1998. Today, Sam, 49, is lead minister for the Alamo Ranch campus of Oak Hills Church in San Antonio where Max Lucado (’77), ACU’s 2003 Outstanding Alumnus of the Year, is the teaching minister.
To this day, Sam credits his professors at ACU for opening his eyes to understanding Scripture and for instilling spiritual disciplines that are part of his everyday life.
“They were spiritually minded people,” he said. “It created for me a foundation of how important spirituality is.”
Growing up, Sam’s family lived in San Benito but attended Eighth and Harrison Church of Christ in nearby Harlingen. The minister then and now, Jacob Vincent (’70), contacted ACU about Sam, urging the religion faculty to reach out to him. Vincent also saw something special enough in Sam that he introduced him to his daughter Ann Rosemary Vincent (’94) when they both were high school students. They were married on Jan. 1, 1994.
At the Harlingen church, Sam attended English language services and his parents attended the Spanish language services. That experience proved beneficial to Sam after he settled in at ACU. During his junior year, Sam was asked to work with the Spanish language service at University Church of Christ, doing everything from preaching to teaching and visiting with people.
“I was doing ministry even before I was out of school,” he said.
After graduate school, Sam got a job outside of ministry while “waiting on the Lord” to direct his next move. That came two years later when Richland Hills Church contacted him about being a missionary in Morelia, located in central Mexico. It was a dream come true to Sam, who wanted to serve in Mexico, his parents’ native country.
After 11 years in the mission field, Sam felt an urge to settle in San Antonio. He reached out to Oak Hills Church, learned there was an opening, and was hired.
He was named minister of the new Alamo Ranch congregation, with its 150 people in attendance on Sunday mornings. Five years later, that number jumped to 1,250. Today, Sam feels like his life has come full circle. He and Ann are the parents of four daughters – Victoria, Sofia, Olivia and Isabella. He jokes that the family dog, Jack, is his only male companion at home. Victoria is a junior speech pathology major at ACU and it’s a good bet the younger sisters will follow her to Abilene some day.
Sam is grateful that Victoria is at ACU, where she is getting the same academic and spiritual education he got. Most likely, Victoria’s literal trip to Abilene was much more pleasant than her dad’s. Sam worked summer jobs and saved enough money to buy a very used Datsun 240Z.
“I could see the road through the floorboard,” he recalled.
But he made it safely and enrolled. Sam originally planned to major in marriage and family therapy but a class he took his sophomore year changed his mind. The class, taught by Dr. James Thompson, was on 1 and 2 Corinthians.
“That class just opened my eyes to Scripture like I had never seen before,” Sam said.
And, it changed the direction of his life. He switched to a ministry degree with an emphasis on preaching. The next year, he got the job with the Spanish language congregation at University Church of Christ.
He also got involved with Hispanos Unidos on campus and signed up for global mission trips that opened a new view of the world to him. He took at least five trips to a number of South and Central American countries, where, thanks to being musically inclined, he got to lead choirs made up of other members of the mission team.
“That awoke in me a desire for missions,” Sam said, which he got to fulfill later in Morelia, Mexico.
Today, firmly settled in San Antonio, Sam often is invited to be a guest lecturer or keynote speaker at ACU or its sister university, Pepperdine. His father died in 1994 following a massive stroke a couple of years earlier. His mother lives with Sam and his family in San Antonio.
One of the happiest days of Sam’s life, and his parents’ lives, came when Sam graduated from ACU with his bachelor’s degree in 1993. His father couldn’t speak or walk but, thanks to assistance from friends at University Church of Christ, was able to attend the graduation, along with Sam’s mother. They saw their son get his diploma and receive the Dean Adams Achievement Award.
“I remember my dad being so touched by that,” Sam said. “That was a beautiful moment in my dad’s life.”
And what about his mom – the one who told Sam he was going to ACU when Sam didn’t see any way that was possible?
“She was so proud,” Sam said. “There were tears in her eyes.”