by Vicky Kaniaru
CLEVELAND, Ga. (TMCNews) — The freshman at Truett-McConnell College ended the phone call wondering why his coach wanted to see him. Convinced that the coach was teasing, a smiling Manuel Castro left his dorm room, unaware of the news behind his coach's grim expression.
"Your sister just called and said your mom passed away," the coach said.
"I thought somebody punched me in the stomach," said Castro, a junior at Truett-McConnell College.
Castro was barely a teen when he came to the States for the Youth Basketball of America (YBOA) program. The youth from Valencia, Venezuela, continued visiting the camp annually and was eventually recruited in 2006 to play basketball at Excel High School in Cartersville, Ga.
His host family took Castro to church, and six months after his arrival in the States, he was sitting in church, crying.
"I felt this pressure on my chest. It was overwhelming. I started realizing that, what I was doing was wrong, and how filthy I was, and the need for somebody to save me. I knew it was time for a change," said Castro, who committed his life to Christ that day.
Castro played other sports at Excel, but was unsure of his plans after high school. A week before graduation, he visited Truett-McConnell.
"As soon as I got out of the car, I knew this is where I was going to go. I didn't even see the campus; I didn't even talk to anybody," said Castro, who said he wasn't nervous about the basketball tryouts, and immediately registered for the fall semester. A freshman at TMC, Castro's plans collapsed when the coach brought the tragic news of his mother's death.
"She was sick for a while," said Castro, who was unaware that his mother had colon cancer for two years. His suspicion rose when she visited the States for his high school graduation with bandages from a recent surgery.
That's when he learned that she was undergoing chemotherapy. Although surgeons removed the cancer, the disease had spread to her lungs. Doctors attempted another procedure to remove it and severed a nerve in her back that left her in constant back pain. She died soon after the surgery.
Castro's local church collected enough money to send him back to Venezuela. "As soon as I saw her, I knew that wasn't her. That wasn't my mom. My mom was gone already," said Castro, who added that he experienced total peace.
"I think that's the peace that God gives you," Castro said. "Because my family down there is not saved, they were hysterical. It's okay to be like that in this situation, but I had a peace I knew none of them had."
Castro added that he saw the results of his salvation when he shared his faith with his Venezuelan friends, one of whom practiced Voodoo. While the friend told of Voodoo rituals, Castro shared the Gospel. Another friend who heard the conversation approached Castro, saying, "Manny, I'm glad you said something because whenever you were talking, I felt secure and peace."
During his stay in Venezuela, Castro visited a doctor concerning a lump growing on his neck. Doctors tested the lump and assured him that it would disappear. He returned to the States, and by the end of his spring semester the lump grew to the size of a softball. That summer, he returned to Venezuela for more tests.
Doctors performed emergency surgery, removing the lump along with muscles from Castro's neck. After a biopsy, doctors diagnosed Castro with lymphoma and ordered him to undergo chemotherapy for six months. Fortunately, the cancer did not spread.
"I wasn't scared," Castro said. "I knew where I was going. I'm really not afraid of dying. All I wanted to do was come back to the U.S. because this is where I want to be."
Due to insurance issues and the treatment's physical toll, Castro remained in Venezuela. The first chemotherapy was an eye-opener, said Castro, who, despite his vow of never returning to Venezuela, realized that his six-month stay was a message from God.
"I took that as a sign of God telling me to stop being so stubborn and realize that he's the one in control," he said. The treatment was "miserable," added Castro, who lost 25 pounds as well as his hair and eyebrows.
In the spring of 2009, Castro was back at TMC. Unable to play sports because of his health, he focused solely on his studies. He is now one of two men who are cheerleaders at TMC.
"God will give you what you ask, but maybe not the way you thought," said Castro, who was praying for finances when the cheerleading coach approached him about cheering and the possibility for scholarships.
God is using Castro's testimony to minister to other people. Castro prayed for a man at church with lymphoma on his neck; and two weeks later, Castro discovered that the man's lymphoma had decreased in size, the chemotherapy was working, and he did not have to undergo surgery.
"It's crazy how sometimes we complain about the things that happen to us, but God will use that for you to connect with people to help them," Castro said.
As a biology major, Castro was planning to be a physical therapist -- that is until Evangelist Tim Lee preached at a TMC chapel service this semester. Lee invited those who felt called to evangelism to the altar. Tearfully, Castro responded in tears along with several other students.
"The Lord has been giving me these different visions," Castro told TMCNews. "I can see myself standing up at a church preaching, which is weird honestly."
Castro said that he's not sure exactly what God wants him to go, but he yearns to share the Gospel. "That's the main commission that we have from Jesus," he said.
With a father and sister still in the Catholic faith, Castro cannot ignore his burden for the Venezuelan people. "I speak Spanish and English, and not many people have that ability," Castro said. "I can use that there. If [God] ends up making me go back as a full-time missionary there or leaving here and going back periodically, I can see that call in my life."
Through life's trials, Castro said he has learned to be patient as he continuously sees God's provision like he did last summer when God answered Castro's financial need through a job with TMC summer staff.
"I was able to stay here and have a roof and a bed. I was able to do construction work for a few weeks [and] pay the semester with that," said Castro, who shared the Gospel with two co-workers.
In addition to evangelism, he dreams of owning a physical therapy rehab clinic, where he can still be involved in sports, treat people, and share his testimony.
"God has given me this love for sports too, and that's why I want to do physical therapy," Castro said. "Later on, when I'm not able to play sports anymore, I can still be attached to sports in a different way."
Vicky Kaniaru is senior writer at Truett-McConnell College.