La Sierra University’s annual baptismal service is a treasured event for campus chaplain Sam Leonor. And this year’s celebration was all the sweeter with the baptism of the largest group in the ceremony’s history.
Last May, on the final Friday evening vespers of the school year before graduation, 19 students and one parent dedicated their hearts and lives to God in an outdoor service on Founders’ Green. Family members and friends, many of who had arrived from around the country, gathered around to witness the fulfillment of a life-changing decision on the part of their loved ones.
Leonor conducted the baptisms as one by one the candidates stepped into the water. Adam Hicks, associate pastor of the Hacienda Heights church, assisted Leonor. “It is by far my favorite event of the year,” said Leonor, who baptized 12 students last year. “I think about how beautiful the setting is on our campus lawn and how blessed we are to witness this amazing moment. I am always in awe and always grateful to God for the privilege of working with these students.”
For Christina Menard, a junior pre-physical therapy major and future Golden Eagles basketball center, the decision for baptism and commitment to Jesus Christ brought healing from the heartache of great loss. In 2010, Menard was studying pre-physical therapy at William Penn University in Iowa on a basketball scholarship when midway through the season she received news that her father, Jacky Menard, had passed away.
“It made me want to quit school and basketball,” said Menard, a resident of Rancho Cucamonga. “I took a year off.” During that time she attended a basketball game at nearby Chaffey College and ran into a long-time church friend and La Sierra student, Clifton Baker. He asked about Menard’s school plans and suggested she check out La Sierra University. Menard decided to follow his advice and ended up enrolling for the 2012-13 school year in a pre-physical therapy program, aiming for a career as a sports medicine physical therapist.
While her education was back on track, Menard’s spiritual life was in limbo. “When I lost my dad, I kinda lost my faith,” she said. She avoided the required worships and assemblies until a probation notice forced her attendance. During a worship service in early May last year, Leonor offered baptismal classes to students and the announcement caught her attention. Not long after that, while going through her garage, Menard came across her father’s Seventh-day Adventist baptismal certificate.
“It was like a wake up call,” she said. Menard began attending group baptismal classes with Leonor through the Spiritual Life department, then met one-on-one with the chaplain. “About the second meeting, I knew it was right [for healing],” said Menard. “Talking with Pastor Sam I figured out what I needed to do to come to peace with it. Just giving it to the Lord and putting it in His hands.”
About 15 of Menard’s family members attended her baptism. A grandmother and aunt arrived from Missouri and other family travelled from the Los Angeles area. For Menard, the service felt like “a wedding day,” an amazing experience, she said. Coming up out of the water “was like the first breath you take, indescribable,” she said. “I never understood God’s love or what He did for us.”
For pre-med major Hannah Garza, the decision for baptism grew out of a gradual spiritual renewal that took root over the past two years at La Sierra, and that was strengthened by a mission trip experience last summer.
Garza grew up in College Station, Texas, in a Seventh-day Adventist family. Because the nearest Adventist school was between 300-400 miles away, she attended a local private, Christian school where most of her friends were either non-denominational Christian or Baptist.
After high school, Garza was accepted to Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, Calif., an evangelical Christian school. But her parents told their daughter they would cover her tuition only if she agreed to spend at least one year studying at a Seventh-day Adventist institution. She chose La Sierra.
“Coming here last year was hard to do,” said Garza, “but the Lord completely changed my heart.” She is now aiming for a career of service as a medical missionary.
Last summer, Garza spent six weeks in London with non-denominational international missions organization Pioneers. She and five others participated in outreach activities in specific communities, striking up conversations with people that ultimately introduced the gospel message.
“Going there I prayed so hard that God would shape my heart. I didn’t realize until I came back how much He had done,” she said. She recalled how God took away her fear of approaching strangers. “Before, I hadn’t seen God act so immediately, in my life and in the lives of the people I was working with as well.”
After returning to school last fall, Garza became involved with the RASK@LS program — Random Acts of Sabbath Kindness @ La Sierra — as one of four leaders organizing events for upwards of 35 volunteers. Their activities included cleaning and making dinner for a women and children’s shelter, assisting with a youth program in San Bernardino and helping with a health fair. Garza’s participation with the group proved pivotal in her spiritual walk.
“A big part of my decision of being baptized came from that Sabbath school community. I think that’s what really started changing my heart toward Adventism,” said the future missionary. “God kept leading me toward Adventism and the church.” This spring she signed up for baptismal classes. Believing her family would be unable to attend the service, she waited until two weeks before the event to inform her mother.
“She started crying. She was so thrilled,” said Garza. Her mother, brother and grandparents attended Garza’s baptism. “The whole night was just perfect,” she said. “God was just so good to me.”