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David Alicea: Child of the Streets, Man of God

By Mary Domb Mikkelson, Connecting Voices Editor

     David Alicea ran away from home when he was ten, ran from the pain of being abandoned by his father two years earlier and the burden of being left to care for three younger siblings while his mother worked.  He lived on the streets of New York for one year and two months, doing what he had to do to survive.  A favorite scam was ordering a pizza (“My father will be here in a minute to pay for it.”), grabbing the box then running and eating, pizza slices flying everywhere.  “It was a dark time but one that forged in me a resilient spirit and taught me tolerance and understanding.”

     A special memory from those years is of seeing Malcolm X, followed by a large group of men.  “I didn’t understand what was going on but his call to those men to make something of themselves stayed with me, “got me going.”

     His life changed dramatically when a school marshal, patrolling for truants, picked him up.  Social workers, Junior Court and three or four foster families later, David lucked out.  A young Italian couple took him in and, a year later, took him with them to live in Puerto Rico.   “She,” David reports, “was a Methodist; he, a true workaholic, had no religion.   A friend of theirs, who was aware of my problems (I was doing poorly at school, was rebellious and lacked discipline), took me to his Disciples of Christ Church in Bayamon.  When we walked in the people in the sanctuary – there were hundreds of them – were singing ‘Blessed Assurance.’  It touched me deep in my heart and I decided to keep going to church.   I was fifteen when I accepted Christ as my lord and savior.”

     One of David’s first friends in Puerto Rico – and still a close and valued friend – was another pastor-to-be, one Félix Carlos Villanueva.  “We went to church together, participated in youth programs and eventually were new pastors at the same time.” 

     At eighteen, while reading John 21, in which Jesus three times asks Peter if he loved him, David recognized he was called to become a minister.  Continuing his schooling while serving as a pastor, he received a Masters of Divinity in 1990 from the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico.  After his ordination he served two churches before joining the U.S. Navy.

     At one of those churches, he recalls, he was asked to visit a couple in turmoil, to pray for them.  “I entered the room and, seeing a man and woman together on the sofa, charged in, breathing assurance – ‘Don’t worry.  Things will get better.  Let’s pray.’  I then offered the most beautiful prayer of my entire career.  To this day I haven’t improved on it.  The woman looked at me and said, “Minister,  that was beautiful.  Just one thing, though.  My husband is in the other room.” 

     Leaving Puerto Rico, David served aboard the USS Kittyhawk, at the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake, on the USS Cape St. George in Norfolk, Virginia, at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) in San Diego and at Camp Pendleton.

     A special memory of his MCRD involves house hunting with his old friend Félix.  “He called me one day and insisted I go with him to look at a house he was buying in Temecula.  I couldn’t see any point in it but he’s hard to say “no” to…After looking at it, he started showing me others that were for sale and eventually talked me into buying one.  The sales rep let slip that an ‘incentive’ was involved!  I considered strangling Félix but decided to take it out trade, instead, treating his swimming pool as my own from then on!”

     When David left the Navy he took extensive training in counseling, “squeezing the Navy for everything I could get my hands on,”  He also started on the road to obtaining a PhD in Educational Psychology and pastored two California Disciples of Christ churches, one in Garden Grove, the other in Bellflower. 

     In 2007 the Presbyterian Church USA asked him to spearhead a bilingual project to develop a merged (Hispanic/Anglo) church in Whittier.  Although it didn’t prosper, “a good foundation was laid,” the influence of which can be found in David’s present work.   Unfortunately, the primary monetary sponsor of the project, hit by the country’s economic woes, pulled out and David found himself without a job.  

     Re-enter Félix Villanueva.

     “He was now the Conference Minister of the Southern California Nevada Conference (SCNC) of the United Church of Christ (UCC).  I called him and said, ‘I need a job.’  He gave my name to the Search Committee at UCC Paradise Hills in San Diego, my present church.

     Four months into his new pastorate, David is working to build effective leaders, enhance communication and vision, define church roles (“the Moderator does…, a Deacon does…,” provide growth opportunities and to bring hope to the congregation through sermons showing what can be accomplished.  Among the programs underway or in the planning stages are one for community childcare, marriage counseling for the military personnel at nearby Bayview Hill and the development of multicultural contemporary worship services.

     “We’re getting new people,” David, who went home to home, business card in hand, reports, “from Navy housing and from the community.   We’re also trying to involve the children of the school next door in providing music.”

     Paradise Hills’ congregants, who have taken David to their hearts, are currently converting a large unused classroom into a studio apartment for him (a shower stall was standing in the church yard at the time of this interview).  He, at present, commutes from his home in Los Angeles, sleeping on the sofa bed in the church office during his time in San Diego, an office also equipped with microwave, coffee pot and small fridge. 

     Back home in L.A., is his wife Mayra Resto, to whom he has been married for thirty-two years.  A native of San Juan, Puerto Rico and a preacher’s daughter who swore she would never marry a minister, Mayra is the Supervisor of a non-profit Latino Health Access program.  They have one daughter, Dayra, and two sons, Francisco and Benjamin.  Dayra, an occupational therapist who “married an Air Force guy (I’ve learned to forgive him),” lives in Germany with sons Caleb, 5, and Samuel, 1 ½.  Francisco, married to Yuzema (from Nicaragua) and father to Yazmine, 2, is a Medical Assistant at Kaiser Permanente.  Benjamin, the youngest at 22, is the soloist for Disneyland’s Let’s Celebrate Parade.

     Early in David’s marriage, his childhood came back to haunt him.  “I had no contact with my mother and siblings, had no idea where they were or even if they were alive.    Then an uncle came looking for me in Puerto Rico.  He found me in my first small country church and presented me with an envelope from my mother.  ‘Junior,’ he said, ‘your mother has been looking for you.’  In the envelope was a first class roundtrip airplane ticket, San Juan to JFK.   An incredible thing happened – Pandora’s box opened and all my unresolved issues (and hatred) from the past floated up.  I started thinking things like, “where were you when I needed you?”  No way was I going to New York to see her.  My wife had other ideas.  ‘David,’ she asked, ‘how do you manage to preach God’s grace, love and forgiveness?  Where’s the guy I married – you know, the one who is all love and compassion?’

     “I agreed to go and started thinking what I’d say when I first saw my mother – something harsh and dramatic like, ‘Look at your abandoned child!’  Those thoughts I didn’t share with Mayra.  I arrived in New York to see lots of people waiting at the gate and realized I had no idea what my mother looked like.  That’s when I saw a short, chubby woman standing apart from the others.  Though my memory was of a tall, skinny woman, I knew somehow it was she.  I started across the room, breathing fire.  Then the grace of God took over.  We hugged and kissed and started apologizing to each other over and over again.  Then we ‘went home,’ where the rest of the family was waiting.  It was like Joseph receiving his brothers in Egypt.  We have stayed in close contact, too.”

     Asked about future plans, David replied that he hopes eventually (in 10 years or so) to become a seminary professor teaching homiletics and pastoral counseling and sharing his experiences with young pastors to help them when they leave the seminary and come into reality.  At present he is completing a book on the nurturing and development of spiritual life.  A late-comer to UCC (Paradise Hills is his first UCC parish), he feels challenged and committed to work with UCC in any field where he is needed.  “If given an option,” he says, “I’d like to be involved in educational leadership training and in helping UCC get the word out about what it really means to be Open and Affirming and about God being a Still Speaking God.”  Interestingly – and hardly surprising, his old friend Félix recently asked David to join him in working with five colleges to provide on-line education, saying, “Since that’s your line…”  “I replied, ‘Dude, I know what you’re up to,’ and, of course, said yes.”

     The future beckons – and David is grateful.  “Thank you, UCC Paradise Hills,” he says, “for embracing and accepting me with your big heart and your warmth.  And thank you, Félix, for all you’ve done.   One thing, however.  If you’re going to buy any more houses, don’t call me!”

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