Technically, María José Díaz was eavesdropping. The second-year Chilean university student listened over her friend's shoulder to the conversation brewing with an American in an English-department classroom.
María José, addressed as Cote (Ko-TAY) by friends, listened on as her friend asked why the American, Jeff Parr, was in Chile. Jeff, along with 14 other U.S. students, had trekked to South America to experience a Cru summer mission trip to the University of Concepción.
Jeff explained a little about the trip, then, switching to broken Spanish, read through an evangelistic booklet about how a personal relationship with God can change one's life.
The scene was a foreshadowing of a day when María José, in smoother Spanish, would tell other Chileans the same good news.
"I believed in God," María José remembers, "but didn't know that I could be close to Him."
Jeff invited them to the weekly gathering of Cruzada Estudiantil y Profesional para Cristo, the university's Cru group. María José arrived solo. Surprised by the warm welcome, she signed on to attend the advertised weekend spiritual retreat.
There, puzzle pieces about faith developed into a recognizable picture. On Monday, after arriving home, she dropped to her knees, and prayed and asked Jesus to come into her life.
Like a young grapevine in a fertile Chilean vineyard, María José's new faith grew. The 19-year-old translation major quickly joined a Bible study. Within six months, she journeyed to Panama with other Chilean Cru students on a mission trip, telling others the good news she had found.
After four years of serving as a student leader, her graduation day arrived, as did an important decision. Tim Kelly, an American short-term missionary on her campus, challenged María José to consider an internship with Cru in Chile.
But María José's parents weren't supportive. Her father reacted angrily when she discussed with him why she wanted to work as a missionary for a year, and therefore needed to raise financial support.
"I'm not very proud of you," he said. "I paid for your studies, and now you have to beg for money?" Chilean culture presupposes that adult children will take care of their parents if the need arises. Therefore, María José's vocational choice had the potential to affect her parents too.
"Family is everything," says Carey Holm, an American Cru staff member in Chile. "But believers have to decide if they're going to follow God and hold onto their calling." If a Chilean has to choose between friends and family, she will often choose her family, Carey has noticed.
"They felt like I was a disgrace," María José says. But she chose the internship anyway: "I realized that the most important thing I can do is share my faith."
The internship expanded into a decision to become a full-time staff member with Cru. In the two years since then, she has grown into a visionary leader, according to Carey.
"She moves the multitudes," Carey says as she recounts how María José devised an idea for a week of outreach and, when put in charge, successfully ran with it. The week granted opportunities for new Chilean believers involved in Cru from four cities to learn how to tell others about Jesus.
Students respond well to María José's leadership. "She's an insider," says Tim. "She understands the culture, where students are coming from."
That truth was evidenced by her relationship with Delia, a third-year history student who often attended the weekly meetings. One day Delia joined María José at her home and confided in María José her fear of accepting Christ, believing she would fail to be perfect.
María José recounted her own failings and faith journey. At the end of their time together, Delia placed her faith in Christ and went on to grow in spiritual maturity and to lead a Bible study.
"When I tell Chilean students that [being a missionary] is the most important thing I can do," María José says, "their opinion changes. I'm not working for money or for fame. I have left everything."
If not a Cru staff member, María José speculates she'd be working as a translator -- possibly as an English tour guide in a Chilean winery. But as appealing as the wine or such an offer might be, María José flashes her beautiful smile, brown eyes sparkling, and admits that her choice of career and its corresponding fruit are much sweeter.
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