“Here in Salta,” I commented to Sheila, “everyone seems to be a character.”
Her immediate response: “You need to be a character to live here!”
And she’s right. For here in the foothills of the Andes, in northern Argentina, the attitude at this altitude is one of resilience. Some remarkable people, like our hosts Andrew and Maria Leake: the kind of people who keep on keeping on.
We met one such character this week, an Argentinian – and like me ordained into the Anglican ministry. Juan Carlos Susa, just a couple of years younger than me and now into a unique and remarkable ministry.
Maybe you can guess the context of his ministry from the first part of his email address: mulliganargentina@.
The Argentina is obvious. After all Juan Carlos is Argentinian, born just up the road from Salta at Jujuy. Married to Heather, the daughter of a Scottish (another clue) Presbyterian missionary, they have six children. Today they live in northern Buenos Aires. We are hoping to visit them next week.
But the Mulligan?
Those of you who play golf should recognise the expression. But for those of us who don’t I will seek enlightenment from Wikipedia.
“In golf, a mulligan is a stroke that is replayed from the spot of the previous stroke without penalty, due to an errant shot made on the previous stroke. The result is that the hole is played and scored as if the first errant shot had never been made.“
In other words, if you mess things up, a mulligan is an opportunity for a fresh start. A great definition of the Gospel!
As the apostle Paul writes “Everything that we have—right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start—comes from God by way of Jesus Christ. That’s why we have the saying, “If you’re going to blow a horn, blow a trumpet for God.” (1 Corinthians 1:31)
And this is what Juan Carlos is doing, sharing the good news of God’s fresh start with the golfing community.
His ministry is to the professional golfers both here in Argenti, throughout Latin America and into the United States. In fact, anywhere where golf is played from Hong Kong to the home of golf, St Andrew’s itself.
Here is a wonderful opportunity to share the share the good news of Jesus with young professional sportsmen, often away from home for weeks at a time. It can be a very lonely life, prey to all kinds of stresses.
So Juan Carlos shares the same hotels as the players and shares himself, mak,ping himself available at the end of each day. He clearly has the personal skills to get alongside people; I found him to be a very accessible person. In fact – although he reluctant to admit it – he is friends to some of the big names in the game.
Those of you who have been to one of our Alpha launches over the last 15 years will have heard Geoff Fallows’ story, how his spiritual quest began when he heard the winner of the 1996 Open, Tom Lehman, being interviewed on television. When Lehman made direct reference to his faith in God, Geoff said to Helen “Do you think he knows something we don’t know?”
When I told this story to Juan Carlos, he told me that he would pass it on to his good friend, Tom!
And talking about Alpha, guess which gospel resource Juan uses at the end of each day? As you would imagine Jacqui was totally delighted to discover that he uses Alpha and like her he is enthusiastic about the new-style course. I didn’t ask but I think he uses the English language version.
So where did this ministry come from?
In fact, it was Andrew’s father, David, who as the Anglican Bishop of Argentina encouraged Juan Carlos to become “chaplain to golfers.” The initial aim was to work under the umbrella of the Diocese but sadly, this has not worked out.
Maybe this ministry sounds no more than a cover for having a good time with the lads. Certainly it does not fit in with the traditional categories of ministry. Moreover such a ministry, like any fruit tree, takes time to bear fruit.
So today Juan Carlos is supported by a group of Christians from the US PGA circuit who can see the potential of this niche ministry. Even so he continues to consider himself an Anglican minister but one serving Christ outside the traditional framework.
But it’s a tough ministry – in fact, any ministry which is being effective is going to be tough. Often Juan Carlos is away from home for weeks on end. And I’m sure there’s only so much golf that most normal human beings can cope with!
Such resilience produces results. Again, as the apostle Paul writes: “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3f).
I guess that is the reason why there are so many characters in Christian ministry and not just in Salta. For there are so many disciples faithfully serving their Lord without the recognition they deserve. For at the end of the day (and of the age) it is how we please God that counts.
And one final golfing quote, from PG Wodehouse: “Find a man’s true character, play golf with him.