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Deacon who once fled civil war now spreads Christ's peace in Reston

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deacon 50th anniversaryThis is the fifth in a series of articles throughout the year celebrating the 50th anniversary of the reinstitution of the permanent diaconate in the United States.

Atanacio Sandoval never met a permanent deacon. He grew up in El Salvador, where the only deacons were seminarians on the path to the priesthood. As a father of two, he never imagined that he would be ordained, baptize children, officiate at marriages, preach the Gospel at Mass and counsel parishioners of St. John Neumann Church in Reston.  

It was a simple invitation from Sandoval’s pastor, Oblate Father Thomas E. Murphy, that changed everything. 

“Why don’t you become a deacon?” Father Murphy asked Sandoval one night during a dinner at the parish hall. He knew that Sandoval and his wife, Celia, were devout Catholics.

“I didn’t know at the time how much I was able to do as a deacon,” said Sandoval. But he was intrigued by the opportunity “to help the community.” 

The leap of faith would change his life — and the lives of many others. Deacon Sandoval was ordained in January 2015 and is now the sole Spanish-speaking member of the clergy at a parish with a large Hispanic population. And while the 48-year-old deacon stresses that he ministers to all parishioners, not just Spanish-speakers, the need for his service stretches far beyond the boundaries of his Reston parish. In a diocese that is about 45 percent Hispanic, only 11 out of 93 permanent deacons are Hispanic. Calls come in from as far away as Manassas. 

To meet this need, Deacon Sandoval typically rises at 4 a.m. each week day and goes to his job working in office renovations and construction. At 2:30 p.m., he goes home. Then from 4 to 7 p.m., he spends time in appointments, often with teens whose families have reached out because of depression, drugs or friends who are bad influences. 

As the parish Hispanic Coordinator, Celia has become a key part of his ministry. Once, she took a call from a man who was in the hospital. He needed a Spanish-speaker, so Celia called her husband, who was making dinner at home. “OK, I can do it tomorrow,” Deacon Sandoval told her. “No, you’ll go today,” Celia said firmly. As it turned out, the man died the next day — with the spiritual consolation he had sought. 

“She gives me so much work,” Deacon Sandoval said with a smile. “Or rather, the Lord gives me so much work through her.”  

Deacon Sandoval sees his long journey from a young boy serving at Mass in El Salvador, to a married man ordained as a deacon, as part of something much larger. 

“God has his plans for us. His plans are not our plans,” said Deacon Sandoval. “He called me back to the road that he wanted to walk.”

A long road

In 1989, in the midst of a civil war, 19-year-old Atanacio was forced to join the Salvadoran army. 

“In El Salvador they recruited on the streets. They would get you off the buses and if you were 18, you were eligible to give your service,” he said.

More than 75,000 civilians died between 1980 and 1992, during a conflict between the leftist revolutionary group, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, and the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government. A United Nations commission later found that government forces were responsible for more than 85 percent of murders, torture and kidnappings.

Sandoval seized an opportunity to desert the army during training, not long after he was recruited. He would join tens of thousands of Salvadorans who fled to the U.S. for safety. It took him two and a half months to reach Texas, with much of the journey on foot. 

“The coyote — or trafficker —  that we paid, he took me to Guatemala,” said Sandoval. “That was the first hardship that we faced: he went missing.” 

The trafficker checked Sandoval and other immigrants into a hotel, paying the bill for a two-week stay. On the day the hotel was about to kick them out, the trafficker suddenly showed up. Sandoval continued the walk to Mexico at night. He slept by day in the woods and in banana plantations. Then suddenly, disaster struck. The Mexican police had found him and the other immigrants he was traveling with.  

“They were waking everybody up, and I was just making myself dumb,” by pretending to sleep, Sandoval said. “They were poking me like, ‘You!’ They were calling me bad names and bad words. ‘Wake up! We know you’re listening!’” 

He can laugh now at his desperate attempt to evade notice, but their discovery had real consequences. 

“They took every bit of money that everybody had,” he said. But they were allowed to continue on their way. 

A week later, they reached the Rio Grande. The smugglers said they would need $250 from each person to cross in a makeshift floatation device. The money would be collected from the immigrant families later. A smuggler lay down in a tube, pulling the others across the river. Suddenly, a man fell into the river —  but the water only reached his knees. 

The smugglers were “just trying to get easy money,” said Sandoval. “So everyone took off running across the river. They didn’t make any money.” 

Once Sandoval reached Houston, he called his cousin who had given him a loan to come to the U.S. He had expected to join her in Miami. 

“When I called her from Houston, she said, ‘I just got into a new relationship. My boyfriend is very jealous; he doesn’t want you to come to my house,’ ” Sandoval recalled. “I said, ‘OK, what do I do now?’ ”

The cousin called Sandoval’s uncle in Washington. It turned out to be a fortunate twist of fate. “That’s how I got to D.C. and met this beautiful bride of mine,” said Sandoval, who is now a U.S. citizen. A roommate introduced him to Celia a year after he arrived. They dated three months; then he proposed. They’ve been married 26 years. 

Giving back

The Sandovals’ daughters were in high school when Atanacio began the formation process for the diaconate. For Celia, it was an easy decision to support his unexpected vocation. 

“Ever since I was little, I was involved in the church,” she said. “I loved the church all the time. So for me … It’s good if he wants to do it. I’m very happy to support him.” 

Working together is “an unusual arrangement, but a blessing,” said Deacon Sandoval. “I’m doing my part as a deacon and she’s doing her part as the wife of a deacon.” 

“Our culture is different,” said Celia. “We have many things we believe or ways to practice our faith a little bit different. Maybe a secretary who speaks English she can (not) understand, but in my case, because it’s a cultural thing, I understand.” 

Today, Deacon Sandoval often encourages other men to think about the permanent diaconate and asks families to pray for vocations. 

“Especially to my Hispanic community, I invite the guys that I see that have the potential or the call,” he said. “I say, ‘Do not be intimidated.’ I explain, ‘Where did I come from?’ If they do speak some English, they will do well, as long as they are really responding to the call of God to be what he has invited them to be.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018