Telling the Stories that Matter: March 24 – Oscar Romero, Martyr, Friend of the Poor, Enemy of the State

Oscar Romero spent most of his free time around the Church when he was a little boy. Sure, he was active among his friends and did all the things that little Salvadoran boys did but when he had a stretch of free time you were likely to find him down at one of the local church buildings. He had been raised in a Christian family–son to Santos Romero and Guadalupe de Jésus Galdámez–and received a limited education. His limited education was not because of lack of intelligence or priorities but because of a relative lack of need for education within El Salvador in the early twentieth century. Oscar’s school, for example, only offered three years of education for its students. After that, a student would need to receive private tutoring if they were going to received further education.So, for the Salvadorans it was better to learn a skill or a trade than to receive an education and so Oscar learned carpentry from his father. Oscar showed some talent at carpentry but it did not prove to be the calling that was first and foremost upon his life. He did have receive private tutoring but academia was also not his primary calling. Instead, he became a priest in 1942and answered to a calling that had been brewing in his young mind on those lazy afternoons when he was likely to be found around the Church and its ministers.

Oscar’s ordination took place in Rome and he stayed a little while longer to continue his studies in theology. In 1943, however, things were becoming increasingly tense on the geopolitical scale and Oscar was summoned to return to El Salvador. When he finally made it home–he was held and detained occasionally because of his presence in Mussolini’s Italy during World War II–he began to serve the Church as best he knew how. Eventually, this entailed becoming bishop and even archbishop in El Salvador. His appointment to these positions of power was not always well received because he was not fully invested in the liberation theology that was so popular in El Salvador at the time. Further, he seemed to have no Marxist leanings and Marxism was becoming more and more popular with the less politically conservative members of the priesthood in Latin America. Everything changed, though, when Oscar’s friend Rutilio Grande was assassinated for advocating for the poor and politically undesirable.

Oscar had been a friend of the poor for years but not the extent of Rutilio. With the deafening thunder of the machine guns that made a martyr of Rutilio, Oscar was awakened to the incredible struggle that was already going on in El Salvador. He would later explain that Rutilio’s death impressed upon him that Rutilio’s cause had been good and just. In other words, the martyrdom of Rutilio Grande convinced Oscar Romero that the poor and disenfranchised were worth dying for. As archbishop, he was called to shepherd the People of God and care for its ministers. When Oscar realized that both were being killed, he said,“When the church hearts the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.” He wrote letters to Jimmy Carter–the President of the United States of America–asking that the United States stop sending money to the Salvadoran government because of the injustice that was being perpetrated with those funds. As he further invested himself in the life of the people he began to be questioned about why he would agree to do this since it likely meant he was signing his own death warrant. He responded, “I am bound, as a pastor, by divine command to give my life for those whom I love, and that is all Salvadorans, even those who are going to kill me.

In 1980, he was officiating the Mass at a chapel and knew he was woefully under protected according to the security expectations of world leaders. Yet, he understood his calling to be a matter of commitment regardless of danger or potential cost. Just a few days before, he had told a reporter what it was he wanted to say to any who might be planning on killing him: “You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish.” As he lifted the bread during the Eucharist the doors at the back of the chapel were flung open and gunfire was heard. A single bullet hit Oscar in the heart as he lifted the bread above his head and spoke of a God who loved the world–the poor and the rich, the powerful and the hopeless–enough to die for it. He had been executed by one of the governing body’s death squads. At his funeral, they threw bombs into the crowd–numbering nearly 250,000–and snipers fired into the panicked masses. The struggle was not over but Oscar had played his part well and with passion. He died a martyr and drew the attention of world leaders who began to suspect that something wasn’t right in El Salvador. He purchased this attention with his blood.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: March 13 – Rutilio Grande, Martyr, Priest, Friend of the Poor


Rutilio Grande was born and raised in El Salvador. It was in El Salvador that he was brought into the Faith that would preserve and empower him for years to come and it is in El Salvador that he would lay down his life as a witness to the liberating and saving power of his Lord Jesus Christ. His family was very poor and so he was well acquainted with the life of poverty and the uncertainty that follows in its wake day after day. At the age of twelve he expressed a desire to become a priest. This was perhaps partly because it represented a way out of “accidental” poverty by entering into a vow of poverty–if he was going to be poor at least he could choose it and find some comfort in it as a calling. He joined the Jesuits five years later and studied to become a priest. The life of a priest represented comfort to Rutilio and so he adhered to the many rules and regulations with zeal since they gave his life structure. Yet, as he further invested himself in administration and education he began to drift slowly away from a life of grace and mercy and into a life of regulation and comforting security. He was ordained into the priesthood but he feared that it was beyond him and that he was painfully inadequate in this calling.

In 1965 he returned to El Salvador from abroad (mostly Spain) to serve as the Director of Social Action at the Jesuit seminary in El Salvador. He had an incredible impact on the formation of new ministers in his years there. Though it was the norm for priests to be socialites and people of status in El Salvador, Rutilio was beginning to feel like there was a different calling at work in his life and in the lives of those close to him. He beganinsisting that seminarians spend more time with the poor and that priests become deeply and emotionally invested in the lives of the poor in their parishes. He coordinated ministers and ministries so that the poverty of many became the concern of those who expressed a desire to be the hands and feet of their homeless Lord. This work continued even as Rutilio took a position as priest of a parish. He began to attract attention from the government because of his compassion on the poor and disenfranchised in El Salvador. The powers that ruled El Salvador feared that Rutilio would excite people to rebellion in his preaching and in his proclamations of liberty for the poor and outcast. Men like Rutilio and Oscar Romero were increasingly unwelcome in El Salvador. This point was driven home when a priest was kidnapped, abused, and then exiled from the country.Soon after, Rutilio preached a sermon that would cost him his life. In it he said:

I’m quite aware that very soon the Bible and the gospel won’t be allowed to cross our borders. We’ll only get the bindings, because all the pages are subversive. And I think that if Jesus himself across the border to Chalatenango, they wouldn’t let him in. They would accuse the man…of being a rabble-rouser, a foreign Jew, one who confused the people with exotic and foreign ideas, ideas against democracy—that is, against the wealthy minority, the clan of Cains! Brothers and sisters, without any doubt, they would crucify him again. And God forbid that I be one of the crucifiers!

Less than a month later, Rutilio Grande–the man who had said, “It is a dangerous thing to be a Christian in this world“–was killed by government agents with machine guns. He was gunned down and the government’s role in his death was covered up. It was only through the tireless work of his friends (including Romero) that the truth was finally uncovered. Rutilio Grande was a friend of the poor and a proclaimer of liberty to the disenfranchised. It cost him his life in 1977.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: March 4 – Adrian and Natalia of Nicomedia, Husband and Wife, Martyr and Widow,

Adrian was a loyal soldier in the Herculean legion under emperor Maximian. The Herculean legion was one of the two veteran
 legions promoted to the role of Imperial Guard as emperors became increasingly uncomfortable with the loyalty of the Praetorian guard. To be a member of this legion was a great honor that came with a significant number of obligations and responsibilities. One particular role that members of the Herculean legion served was that of torturer of those who dared to resist the Empire. In this way, they were soldiers that fought not only for territory and control but also the minds of the people the emperor hoped to rule over. In the early fourth century, Christians were a common target for the emperor’s wrath and members of the Herculean guard were therefore called upon to torture and kill Christians with regularity.

Once when Adrian was torturing a group of Christians he was stunned with their peace of mind in the face of great pain. As the soldiers he was commanding burned the Christians with hot pokers and beat them savagely, he looked on and had time to marvel at the love and forgiveness they offered their torturers. In Adrian’s mind he must have wondered if he could remain so loyal to the Empire if asked to suffer to this degree for it. As they were being tortured he asked them “What kind of reward could you possibly be expecting from your God that makes you so willing to remain loyal even in the face of Rome’s worst tortures?”The Christians looked at each other through their pain and Adrian must have considered that he had finally stumped them or broken their will.

But then they quoted Paul’s first letter to the Church in Corinth and responded, “For those that love God, God has prepared something that no eye has ever seen, no ear has ever heard, and no human has ever even begun to conceive.”The room was filled with a stunned silence that can only rightfully accompany a sudden and unexpected glimpse of profound and hope filled truth. The soldiers turned to see how Adrian would respond–perhaps they were hoping he would dispel the conviction that tickled their hearts and respond with some witty or equally profound statement to support the Imperial lie they were suddenly aware they were a part of. Adrian responded by dropping to his knees and begging the prayers and forgiveness of the Christians.The soldiers were shocked at this but were further amazed when he proclaimed his faith and trust in the Lord of the Christians whom he had just been persecuting. The men he had been commanding arrested him and turned him over to the brutal hands of the Emperor. He was thrown in prison to await the day he would be executed for his crime of faith.

While in prison his wife, Natalia, heard the story of what had happened to him but wanted to hear it for herself. So, she disguised herself and dressed as a young boy so that she might be admitted to see him in prison. When she arrived, she revealed her identity to her husband and asked him to tell her what had happened. He told the story of the birth of faith within him and she was likewise convicted by the words of the Christians and the faith that had gripped her husband whom she trusted. She, too, was converted and asked that he pray for her once he had attained that glorious reward that now loomed before him a little closer every day. The very next day he was paraded before members of the Herculean legion and Natalia and had his limbs first broken on an anvil and then amputated brutally. As he lie bleeding in Natalia’s arms, they decapitated him and took what remained of his body away from Natalia and to a great fire to be burned along with the bodies of the Christians he had been torturing just two days previous.As they cast the bodies into the flames, Natalia let out a great cry and rushed to throw herself onto the pyre but a great storm that had been building suddenly issued both wind and rain and the fire was put out before Natalia or the bodies could be burned.

A little while later–and under the cover of darkness–Christians came out of hiding to take the bodies of the martyrs and give them a Christian burial. Along with the bodies, they took Natalia with them and cared for her for the rest of her life. She was the widow of a martyr and a Christian herself and so she was honored among the Christians for years to come. Though she was not a martyr herself it was clear that she had given up much for her faith. So, when she died she was buried alongside Adrian in the place where martyrs were buried.

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Precious Memories

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***

“Why not take it back to the house with you?” I asked her.

“I can’t keep these with me,” Ms. Parsons told me, indicating the cracked leatherette picture album she clutched in her hands. This album was one of five or six others in a file storage box opened between us. Nearby, Ms. Parson’s son, Ralph, was sorting quietly through some of the other boxes of things that they had stored in our warehouse space. Ralph was hoping to find a cellphone that they thought might still have some minutes on it. We’re thankful that a local business lends us a space in one of their warehouses to store things like donated furniture and appliances until we can find a neighbor who can use them. But, in the case of Ms. Parsons and Ralph, the warehouse was a safe place to keep their possessions when they were ejected from where they had been staying. As long-time regulars around Grace and Main, we were able to find them a place to stay in one of our hospitality rooms quickly, but they wanted to store many of their things in the warehouse to give themselves a little extra space in the hospitality room.

There we stood, surrounded by so many things held precious by Ms. Parsons—things like picture albums, quilts made by family long passed, and cherished childhood art projects—as Ms. Parsons lovingly told me story after story about the people in the sometimes-faded pictures. She showed me some of Ralph’s baby pictures, one in particular included the hands and knees of Ralph’s father, whose face and name remain a mystery to me. Ralph, at least ten years my senior, looked up from his search for a moment to blush and shake his head good-naturedly as his mom told me about the cute things he did as a toddler; the picture had faded with age, but the memory was as crisp as it ever was as Ms. Parsons, smiling, impersonated Ralph’s childish speech.

She showed me a picture of a black and white cat named Socks, of whom she had only a few hazy memories. She showed me pictures of first homes and first cars, both the ones bought before and after everything changed. Ms. Parsons showed me a picture of her father and talked for a moment about the way he’d enter the house after work and what his favorite meal was. Ms. Parsons told me all about her mother with an appreciation honed over decades of missing her. “She was a good Christian lady, I know where she is,” Ms. Parsons insisted with the same gravity as any preacher’s prayer: “acknowledge your servant, a sheep of your own fold.”

Finally sensing that it would be okay to ask, I continued my earlier question: “Why can’t you keep these with you?”

“I can’t keep these with me, “she insisted with grace and gentleness, “because they’re too precious.”
As she closed the album and placed it back in the box with a careful grace reserved for the priceless, I thought I was starting to understand what Ms. Parsons meant. Their preciousness made them vulnerable and vulnerable things often have only one fate in the lives of those who struggle with homelessness, hunger, poverty, and/or addiction: loss. These memories of hers were safe in this place she could not stay, entrusted to our care with a spirit of faithful love. “Well, thanks…” I stammered under the weight of what Ms. Parsons was saying, “…thanks for trusting us with your precious things.”

Ms. Parsons was smiling in response to my clumsy gratitude when Ralph popped up from the middle of the boxes to say he was pretty sure the phone wasn’t here. He thought maybe it was in the pocket of one of their winter coats back at the house. As we turned off the lights and made our way back to the car, I said, “You know, if you ever want to come back and look through the picture albums, we can do that. Plus, I really want to see what that quilt looks like some time.”

“Oh, it’s precious, too,” Ms. Parsons said, in what was likely an understatement, before adding, “I’d like that.”

For so many of those with whom we’re building our lives, the preciousness of a thing is such a tremendous liability. When you’re living life with so little margin of error, one stroke of ill fortune—a missed paycheck, a too-high utility bill, an unexpected medical expense, getting laid off—threatens to break and ruin all that you hold dear and precious. The value of a thing becomes a vulnerability when the world seems to have nothing but hard edges. When there is so little buffer between you and the world, you must often choose between yourself and what you call precious. This is the hard bargain that is ever-present in the lives of so many of our dearest friends. This is the hard bargain that no one chooses, but many must make.

Yet through it all, we must remember something: it’s the same hard bargain into which Jesus entered. When forced to choose between his own life and what was precious to him, Jesus chose what was precious—people like me and you. With faith so fragile it should be wrapped in bubble wrap, we are called to trust that God doesn’t call the precious vulnerable, but rather calls the vulnerable precious and calls us to go and do likewise.

***
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Telling the Stories that Matter: February 23 – Polycarp, Martyr, Apostolic Father, Bishop


Polycarp had only been a child when he had been introduced to the man by the name of John yet he knew that this man was important. He gave him his attention because his parents seemed to be amazed at the man and when he did this he began to hear John speak words that amazed him. Soon, Polycarp had converted to the faith of John the Apostle and had become a follower of John’s Lord–Jesus Christ. Further, he began taking teaching and guidance from John in how he might also be a man of God who faithfully pursued God’s calling upon his life. He never was a philosopher or an especially educated man but he had the benefit of spending much time with not only John but also Papias and Ignatius of Antioch. Soon, he was a leader within the Church–even without a philosophical education–in one of the most trying and challenging times in the history of the Body of Christ. It seemed that all who wanted it could claim to be the true Church that was established by Jesus. There was no clear distinction what was and wasn’t orthodoxy and many were led astray by teachers who, knowingly or unknowingly, taught their opinions as Jesus’ opinions. Polycarp relied upon the teaching and guidance he had received from John to discern right teaching from wrong teaching. Then, he used his natural gifts and talents to teach and guide others to avoid heresy. In this way, Polycarp was father to many.

One of the men that Polycarp taught and mentored was Irenaeus who would go on to grow Polycarp’s investment of time and attention by guiding the Church through another challenging and nebulous time of his own. Polycarp’s love for Irenaeus quite literally changed the world even if Polycarp himself never saw or knew it. Looking back, this kind of love and devotion is what differentiated Polycarp from his opponents. While there was much argument it was not always full of love and compassion. Polycarp on the other hand seemed to be genuinely affected and transformed by the faith that held him. He was not brilliant or well educated but he was sincere and loving and this lent weight to his arguments. The marks of transformation on his life suggested that he had truly consumed and been sustained by the Bread of Life and the life-giving water of Jesus’ teaching. When he told the story of what God had done in his life people were inspired to hand their lives over to the same God he followed. He led by example and not simply be beautiful, rhetorical flourishes.

When he was an old man (as old as ninety years by some estimates), he was arrested for being a Christian by a government that was growing increasingly hostile to those who were devoted to another power. On some level he had seen this coming for Ignatius and John had already been murdered for their faith. He was accused of being Christian and, ever sincere and honest, he gladly admitted that he was–he could see no reason to be ashamed for his faith. They gave him an opportunity to deny his faith in public or be executed. He responded: “How am I supposed to blaspheme my King and Savior? Do whatever you will.” They did whatever they willed by building a large pyre of sticks and flammable items. They tied him to the top of it and prepared to drive nails through his body so that he might not escape. He smiled at the worker and assured him: “Don’t worry about the nails. The God who gives me strength to endure the fire will give me enough to sit still without your help.” They didn’t nail him down but they must have expected him to cry out once the pyre was lit. Yet, he didn’t. Instead, it seemed that he was unscathed by the flames as he prayed and sang hymns. The crowd looked on amazed and many would be converted because of this sight but his executioners were enraged that he didn’t have the courtesy to die screaming like they had hoped he would. Finally, they stabbed him in the chest with a dagger and he died as a martyr.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: February 11 – A.J. Muste, Pacifist, Minister, Nonviolent

A.J. Muste was an immigrant to the United States of America, as the 19th century slowly became the 20th, but he didn’t have much say in the matter as he was only six years old when his parents moved from Holland. He received a fine education and was a proud resident and citizen of the nation of his parents’ choosing. He graduated with honors first with a bachelor’s degree and eventually with a master’s and doctoral degree. As he matured, he became increasingly involved in social causes even as he tried to figure out the question of his own spiritual calling. He was especially involved in the labor movement and helped organize disenfranchised workers together so that they might negotiate with their employers for a safer and better job. As was expected, he received much resistance from the circles he had been raised in and in which his parents circulated. Yet, he was convinced that he must do something for those in need of help and for the cause of justice and fairness. So, he was willing to sacrifice a good reputation for his convictions.

Eventually, he became a minister in a congregational church but he was committed to non-violence after his experience of World War I and the people whom he met with and with whom he conversed. This was an odd stance for a man such as A.J. but it became a hated stance as he persisted in it through the years approaching and including World War II. But, he was convinced that God had called him to a way of peace and nonviolence that revoked any right he felt toward self-defense or preemptive violence. By A.J.’s reasoning, there was no just war and so not even World War II could be rationalized or accepted. When a son of a member of the congregation where was pastor died in the war, he did not veer from his intended topic for the Sunday sermon: “The Futility of War.” It was another opportunity for him to raise his famous question: “The problem after a war is the victor. He thinks he has just proved that war and violence will pay. Who will now teach him a lesson?” By A.J.’s thinking there was no time when war or violence would pay or would be acceptable. When he had saied this, he must have known he would suffer for it. That afternoon the congregation called a meeting and voted to terminate him as their pastor.He, his wife, and his children were forcibly moved out of the parsonage that night and had to find somewhere else to live.

He remained a minister, associated finally with the Quakers, and committed to nonviolence even if it had cost him his job. He was at one time an advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr. and considered an authority on nonviolent resistance. He and his colleagues and associates were arrested repeatedly for hopping fences at military facilities, paddling their boats into nuclear test sites, and sympathizing with those whom the State insisted they hate and fear. For these things, A.J. received and still receives derision but he could not more veer from these convictions than he could stop being who he was. He had become an advocate for peace and nonviolence at all costs and had proven repeatedly that he was willing to lay down anything for a chance at peace. If it is true that the peacemakers are blessed–and I do believe it so–then surely A.J. Muste has a share of blessedness for his refusal to abandon the way of peace even in the face of adversity.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: February 2 – Cornelius, Centurion, Recipient of Visions, First Gentile Convert

In Caesarea was a man name Cornelius. Cornelius had a life that people desired–he was a centurion among notable soldiers–but something felt out of place in his life. He prayed as best he knew how and he gave alms because he suspected it was right. He was eager to live the best life he possibly could. Then, one afternoon, he had a vision: a messenger from God came into his home and called out to him. Cornelius was petrified in fear of the angel but was able to muster up enough courage to ask, “What is it, Lord?”

The angel said, in a voice both soothing and discomforting, “All your prayers and gifts offered in ignorance have made their way to God. So, send some people to Joppa to find a man named Peter–they’ll find him in the home of Simon the Tanner–near the sea. After God’s messenger faded into the crowds surrounding Cornelius’ home, he called two of his servants with a shaky voice and one soldier who was like him in prayer and the giving of alms. He told them what had happened with a mix of fear and hopeful anticipation and then sent them to Joppa to do their part in the unfolding story.

Meanwhile, Peter was in Joppa, by the sea, at the house of Simon the Tanner and he went to the top of the house to pray at about noon. As he was praying, hunger gnawed at him and demanded to be sated but as his thoughts turned to food for his body, his thoughts were turned to a vision from God. He saw the clouds parted and a great swath of fabric being lowered down like a heavenly picnic. On the sheet were many different animals–fat and ready for slaughter. He heard a voice that sounded like it could be his own or it could be the voice of Jesus saying, “Get up, Peter. It’s time for you to kill and eat.”

Perhaps thinking this was a test, Peter said, “You know I won’t do that, Lord. I don’t eat what you have labeled unclean.

The voice insisted, “If God has made it clean, then don’t call it unclean.” In Peter’s vision this exchange happened three times and then the sheet and all its food were gone in a flash. Peter puzzled over the vision all throughout his lunch and then all throughout the rest of the day. As he replayed the vision in his mind, he suspected that God was trying to tell him something. He was still puzzling the vision when Cornelius’ men arrived at the gate of Simon’s house looking for him. He heard a voice again say to him, “Peter, there are three men outside who are waiting for you. They’ve come because I sent them to you.”

Peter was eager to find some resolution to all of this and so he hurried down to the gate and said, “I’m Peter. Why has God sent you?”

They responded, “Cornelius has sent us to find you. He is a good man who fears God and is highly respected among the Jews. He received a vision and one of God’s messengers told him to seek you out and hear what you have to say.” Peter took the men into the home and made them his guests and when the sun rose again, he and some of his fellow Christians went with the men back to the home of Cornelius.

Eventually, they reached Caesarea and found that Cornelius had prepared quite the event and audience to hear Peter’s words. As Cornelius’ messengers went out seeking Peter, he had become anxious and eager to hear what words might come. So eager was Cornelius to know how and who he should worship, he fell at the feet of Peter and offered worship on the spot to Peter. Peter tapped him on the back and said, “Not me Cornelius. I’m human just like you.”Cornelius led Peter in to meet the audience and when Peter saw all the ones gathered to hear him, he remarked, “You all know well how Jews do not associate with other nations and have strict laws concerning purity. Well, God has shown me that no person is unclean.So, when Cornelius sent for me I came quickly without knowing why. I was responding to God’s guidance, what were you doing?” Hearing this, Cornelius told the story of the vision and the message and asked Peter if he would be so kind as to share what God had laid upon his heart.

So, Peter cleared his throat and said: “I know well that God is not partial to nations but instead looks at the hearts of individuals. But as for the word he sent to Israel–the good news that Jesus is Lord of all–you already know what happened in Judea and how it began with John baptizing Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus was anointed and went about doing good things and casting out evil and the enemy wherever he went. You saw it and so did I. They put him to death by crucifixion thinking it would be an end of him but he was raised again on the third day. After this resurrection, he appeared to many and he was close to us again. He told us what it is that we should do: preach to the people and bear witness that he is the one called to judge the living and the dead. After all, it was Jesus that all the prophets talked about when they said that all those who trust in him receive forgiveness from sin through his name.”

But there was more to it than words. While Peter was speaking, the Holy Spirit fell on Peter and upon the audience and redemption and salvation came very near to the audience who found themselves transformed by the gospel message of forgiveness and life in the face of sin and death. The fellow Jewish Christians that came with Peter were surprised to see Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit. But they couldn’t deny that the gentiles were speaking in tongues and offering praise to God who had made Jesus Lord of all. Peter turned to his fellow Christians and said, “Surely none of you can hold the baptismal waters hostage from ones such as these men and women who have heard the good news and been filled with the Holy Spirit.” So, they were baptized in the name of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and Peter remained with them for a while.

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