Destino at Texas A&M

Students challenge their peers to be bold with their faith.

Jess Fong
Photos by Guy Gerrard

Ignoring the world around them, Diana Melendez and 2 others bend their heads over a little booklet. They barely notice laughter, a student playing his Persian santoor, and several women pounding traditional Honduran drums.

Diana and her friends form a tight circle at the student fair, a Thursday afternoon collection of international clubs recruiting at Texas A&M University. With a clear voice carrying over the din, Diana points to a page.

“The 4th point is that we can choose to accept or reject this free gift,” she says, explaining how God offers to take the punishment for human sin.

She begins reading through a prayer about surrendering to Christ.

“Have you ever prayed this?”

“I never, maybe I have…” says Luis Salinas, the junior tugging at his maroon backpack straps. He releases one hand and accepts the evangelistic booklet Would You Like to Know God Personally? to review the pages.

To Diana, Luis’ story is not new. Many of her Latino friends on campus attend religious functions, but it’s easily possible they have not considered faith as anything more than culture.

“Everyone thought he was a believer: He goes to church with many other students,” says Diana. “I asked him, ‘How sure are you that you are going to reach heaven?’ and he said, ‘Maybe 70%.’”

Diana is a petite, Puerto Rican senior majoring in sociology, with a silver stud in her nose and a heart tattoo on her neck. She’s usually the shortest person in the room, but you always know where she is: People gather around her.

She prayed and accepted Christ with her sister at age 3, in their bathtub. At college, she arrived unfocused on her Christian faith.

As she became involved with Destino, Cru’s ministry to Latino and Hispanic students, everything changed. She’s now one of Destino’s student directors, with a consistent and transparent relationship with Christ.

She’ll shout excitedly until she loses her voice, whisper intensely when she needs to get a point across, and grip her friends in a hug, pretending to not let go. Most of her sentences end with exclamation points.

Like today. Diana asks if Luis wants to become a Christian.

“Yeah,” he answers, simply.

“What! You want to pray with us right now?” asks Diana. “Oh my gosh! This is so exciting! We’ll pray with you.”

Luis begins reading, while Diana listens, eyes focusing on her multi-colored shoes: “Lord Jesus, I want to know You personally…”

According to the latest U.S. Census, 50.3 million Latinos live in America, comprising 16.3% of the population -- a 43% increase since 2000. At Texas A&M, there are 7,000 Latino students: 15% of the overall school.

Like Luis, many grew up attending church, but only in college did they first separate faith from family outings.

This week, Diana and 3 friends have taken up a challenge. Nationwide, Destino staff members have seen 1 out of 7 Latino students accept Christ when approached.

At Texas A&M, they think it’s 1 in 5. The 4 women decided to test the statistics.

Midweek, Diana emphasizes to her familia group, or Destino Bible study, that reaching the statistic is only possible through the Holy Spirit.

“The same Spirit that conquered the world, conquered death, lives in Jesus and lives in us,” says Diana. She then punctuates it with her favorite phrase, a mixture of excitement and surprise. “What!?”

If the math worked, they should have seen 2 new believers on campus. Instead, the Holy Spirit worked better statistics that week. Of the 10 Latino students approached, 7 accepted Christ, including Luis.

“Wait, if all 47 of our leaders shared…” says Diana, ticking imaginary people on her fingers, and then pushing back her shoulder-length brown hair.

“I was reading in Acts and they were like, ‘3,000 were added to their number in one day.’ We just have to get them to wake up and actually do it!”

But “doing it” -- actively introducing people to Christ -- can be challenging for some Destino students.

“I feel inferior sometimes,” said Patricia Garcia, a soft-spoken education major who leads a familia group. “Just a little.”

“In my high school, when I first went there, it was 25% Latino. By our senior year it was 75%. My mom was a teacher, and she heard another teacher saying, ‘Don’t send your child here because the demographics have really changed,’” Patricia recalls.

“I thought, Maybe I’m part of a group that’s not looked upon as OK.”

Diana understands Patricia, but inversely.

“The only reason I don’t feel that way is because I was raised with a bunch of white people,” says Diana, who grew up in a private school in Maryland.

“My fear was that they were not going to think I was Latino enough. They were going to think I was rejecting my culture.”

No matter which side of the coin, the bigger picture is this: Everyone wants to feel understood.

“You become all things to all people so that by all means you may reach some, like Paul,” says Jim Sautner, who leads Destino nationwide.

“In Greece, Paul spoke like a Greek. That’s what we’re trying to do. With that, there’s more openness to the gospel. It’s OK to do things differently to reach a different audience.”

So, each week, Destino hosts a free lunch with biblical training at the same time that Cru, another fellowship led by Cru at Texas A&M, hosts a training.

In fact, the lunches take place at the same time, in the same building, serving the same pizza. But they’re different, both in audience and in focus.

Last semester, the staff members and students of Cru and Destino offered free lunch together. But it didn’t work out. Destino students were rarely making an appearance.

“When we did it with Cru, there were 3 of us in my lunch,” says Diana, as she begins ticking people on her fingers again, scouring her memory. “No more than 12 Destino students total.”

This semester, they’ve switched back to different lunches, allowing for different material as well.

“When we started lunches on our own, it went crazy,” says Diana. Staff members counted 30 Destino students the first week, and almost 60 the next.

It makes sense: Everyone feels comfortable when they are with people like them. At Texas A&M, 4  other Cru fellowships exist: for athletes, Asian Americans, international students, and military students.

Destino is the first Christian ministry on campus for Hispanic Americans. And it’s grown.

While there are 2 solely Spanish-speaking familia groups, 8 groups have a mixture of Vietnamese, Caucasian and African American students with the Latino students.

“We say, it’s not a ministry to Latinos, it’s a ministry through Latinos,” says Diana.

“As long as we’re doing what God calls us to do, He’s happy,” says Diana. “We’re the same ministry, just different movements.”

“Can I have one of those booklets?” asks Luis, reaching out to Diana. She hands it to him, grinning, excited.

Diana grabs her backpack and they head to their next classes, leaving behind the international club fair and mixing into the wave of other students on campus.

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