Becoming the Hands and Feet of Jesus in Latin America: The Story of René Padilla

by Kathleen Sotomayor, DBU Student

Day 23 of Advent

Known today as a great evangelical scholar, servant leader, and theologian of Latin America, René Padilla persevered through economic impediments and situations that could have limited his own life and dreams, but his faith in Christ drove him to work for transformation both inside and outside the church in pursuit of the mission of God.

René Padilla was born in a poor home in Quito, Ecuador. Both of his parents worked as tailors, but his mother dedicated her life to raising the children. During the time of the Great Depression, Rene’s father thought that a better future awaited his family in Colombia. However, after experiencing persecution under the state-sponsored Roman Catholic Church in that country, the Padillas returned to Quito where there was religious freedom but also school teachers who promoted atheism and Marxism.

"As for me, as a boy fifteen or sixteen years old, I saw the need to personally decide whether I wanted to be a Christian or not. To that end, I read the New Testament from beginning to end. By God’s grace, the result was that I committed my life to Jesus Christ and found myself longing to understand the meaning of the Christian faith in relation to issues of justice and peace in a society deeply marked by oppression, exploitation, and abuse of power." (“My Theological Pilgrimage,” in Shaping a Global Theological Mind, 128)

With his faith in Christ and a passion for social justice, Padilla moved from Colombia to Illinois in 1953 to enroll at Wheaton College with a deep desire to study the Bible and theology, but also wanting to get trained in the medical profession. He was scheduled to start in the fall semester of 1953-54, but it took him a fleeting time to realize he was not prepared for a step like this. He not only had the challenge of learning another language but also lacked financial resources. However, filled with courage and determination, he spoke to the president of Wheaton regarding his economic situation who, to his surprise, “kindly made arrangements for me to wash dishes at the College dining hall and to start class in January of 1954” (“My Theological Pilgrimage,” 129).

Padilla’s determination, passion, and longing to serve God carried him through his B.A. in Philosophy in three-and-a-half years, followed by a master’s in theology in Wheaton’s Graduate School, and a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Manchester, England.  

As a rising evangelical scholar of Latin America René Padilla later participated in the historic International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland, in July 1974 under the banner “Let the Earth Hear His Voice.” As a leading voice representing evangelical churches in Latin America, Padilla presented a paper synthesizing insight gained throughout his life and education concerning world evangelization. Padilla addressed four issues for evangelical reflection on mission in the latter part of the twentieth century which bear needed reflection.   

First, the church should not be comfortable with the fact that people like to be with those of their own race and class. Jesus entrusted us with the message of reconciliation and commanded us to go into all the nations with that hope (Matthew 28:18-20). Therefore, it is not a matter of being comfortable just with those that are like us but loving those that do not look like us, talk like us, or who disagree with us.

Second, the Church must be delivered from anything and everything in the culture that would prevent it from being faithful to the Lord in the fulfillment of its mission both within and beyond its own culture. 

Third, becoming a Christian according to Padilla is not just a religious change, “but the reorientation of the whole [person] in relation to God, to [one’s neighbor], and to creation.” In essence, the Gospel should permeate who we are and everything we do. (My Theological Pilgrimage, 135)

Lastly, evangelism and social responsibility must not be separated: “love to God is inseparable from love to [people]; because faith without works is dead; because hope includes the restoration of all things to the Kingdom of God” (Matt. 25:31-40; James 2:14-26). (My Theological Pilgrimage, 135)

During this Advent season, we commemorate that Jesus Christ was born to give us hope as we journey on earth, an example of how life should be lived with continuous surrender and service for one another, and eternal hope of salvation and life with God. As Padilla urged to evangelical Christians of Latin America and around the world, the church should not only focus on the future hope, but instead, live daily with the mindset of being the hands and feet of Jesus in this broken world that so desperately needs Him and continuously seeks for answers to life’s most oppressing issues.

René Padilla has been an important advocate of evangelism and social action viewed as the holistic mission of God’s Kingdom, and he firmly believes that this should be the DNA of every evangelical church and the identity each Christian is called to adopt.

"When the church lets itself be squeezed into the mold of the world, it loses the capacity to see and, even more, to denounce, the social evils in its own situation … A Gospel that leaves untouched our life in the world — in relationship to the world of men as well as in relationship to the world of creation — is not the Christian Gospel, but culture Christianity, adjusted to the mood of the day. This kind of Gospel has no teeth." (Tim Holland)

Padilla underwent a personal transformation that overflowed into love and gratitude for what God did in his life in opening doors for him that he would have not had on his own. As an agent of empowerment and encouragement for the church to be transformed in the likeness of Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:18), Padilla has reminded the church to be evangelistic by nature and not be comfortable selling the Gospel cheaply by adjusting to the mood of the culture, beliefs, and perspectives of the day. 

As part of Christ’s church, have you let the whole Gospel shape your circles of influence, your culture, your lifestyle, and your call to evangelism and social responsibility? (Matt. 28:18-20; 1 Peter 3:15). Consider the life and words of René Padilla as you reflect this Advent season on why Jesus came.