© Marcelo A. Tolopilo
My dad never wrote a book – though he filled enough binders with his notes on the Bible to produce many volumes – he was not famous, from all appearances he was an ordinary man. Yet because he was a man yielded to God, to His word, to His Spirit, his life was a transformed life that impacted all who knew him. My dad’s near ninety two year sojourn on this earth is a testimony to the power of a sanctified life. There is so much to be said, but if I may, I would like to share the Cliff Notes, on the Cliff Notes, of the Cliff Notes of who my dad was. Rather than get into a lengthy narrative, here are a few bullet points about who my father was and what – in my understanding – made his ordinary life a powerful testimony to the transforming grace of God.
Anthony Tolopilo was a …
Persecuted Jew & Christian
The son of a gentile father and a Jewish mother (marking him as a Jew), his family was heavily persecuted in Poland. One day when my grandfather was away working, my grandmother, my dad (7) and his two sisters, Magda (5) and Lydia (3), were nearly killed in sanctioned mob violence against Jews in the late 1920’s (by the Greek Orthodox Church).
The gang of thugs literally boarded up my grandmother and her three children in their house and set it on fire. By God’s providential grace, as the mob left, the Jews of the town came to my family’s rescue. Before the smoke and the flames overcame them, they were saved from certain death. As quickly as they could, my grandparents and their three children escaped Poland with little but a suitcase to their name and immigrated to South America. In Argentina, they found a country which accepted my grandfather’s skills (skilled laborer, jeweler, watch maker) yet denied him and his family citizenship due to their faith in Jesus Christ (they were avowed Christian evangelicals and the state religion was/is Romanism) and no doubt because of their checkered ethnicity.
He survived a pogrom in Poland and was flushed from his native land by the age of seven. He was denied citizenship in Argentina, and as a young pastor, Dad was considered persona non grata by the oppressive Peron regime. He was monitored by the government and harassed by the same for his evangelical faith. By contrast, he was welcomed to the U.S. with open arms and granted citizenship by his adoptive country. He loved the United States of America! He had a deep respect for its institutions and freedoms. In terms of nationality, he considered himself first and foremost an American, and he was just that … albeit one with a very, very heavy accent! I’ll always remember, come election day he would put on his Sunday best to go vote and would top off the ritual with his prized black fedora! The “Voting Fedora” belongs to my youngest son now, and he will carry on the tradition!
Man of principle
Since the early fifties Dad wanted to immigrate to the United States and establish a spanish-speaking work in the largest community of unreached Latin Americans in the U.S., Los Angeles. He was denied permission to immigrate for nearly a decade. Rather than take matters into his own hands and come to the USA illegally, he trusted the Lord to open or close the door to his heart’s desire, a work in America. I heard him say repeatedly, “We are going to enter America through the front door, or we will not enter at all. The Lord will lead us either way.”
Nine years after he applied to immigrate, he (and his family) was granted permission to come to the United States as a permanent resident. Five years later, God rewarded him with U.S. citizenship. Our country of choice actually wanted us. Oy! What a party we had!!
Man of faith
Leaving us for a time in Argentina, he traveled to America alone to establish a beach head for our family and for the ministry he envisioned. He had only a few dollars in his pocket, no promises, no contacts apart from my aunt and uncle who had agreed to give him a place to stay for a few months. His greatest possession was a heart full of faith in his God, a faith which would be severely tested in the months to come (a story for another time). After eight heart breaking months of seemingly fruitless toil, when his faith was stretched to the breaking point, God opened the door to a missionary work in Long Beach, CA. The Lord allowed him to establish a mission outpost at the First Baptist Church of Long Beach and that ministry and model has grown dramatically and multiplied itself throughout the country. We followed soon on his coattails, and Dad spent the balance of his ministry career reaching out with the gospel to spanish speaking people of southern CA.
Faithful husband and father
Unfortunately, much to my grief and to the sorrow of many, I have seen more pastors fail morally than I even care to enumerate. Perhaps it has always been this way, but it seems that Satan has had a field day with vocational pastors over the last thirty years. So many have betrayed their families. This is so egregious and heart breaking. That said, I am so happy and grateful to God to be able to say that my dad adored my mother and his children. He was faithful to my mom and I always felt loved by him. Huzzah for my dad!
He was mindful that he was a sinner saved by grace, and that awareness adorned his character with a meekness I have seen in few men.
Even after retirement he was our in-house pastor, continually exhorting us in his gentle manner. During his last days, we had one of our dear friends, Nathan Vance, pay Dad a visit. Nate lives in Denver but was in So Cal on business and wanted to see Dad one last time. After spending an hour or so with him, as Nathan prepared to leave, Dad took Nate’s hand in his trembling palm, looked up at his young friend and said, “Nathan, be prosperous in business, yes, but especially be a prosperous Christian.” That is, abound in the work and grace of God. Dad was always exhorting.
My dad led more people to faith in Christ than anyone I personally know. He was sowing gospel seed to the very end. For example, every medical professional who came to his bedside (aides, nurses, doctors) in the span of his two year stretch on hospice heard the gospel from my father.
Fruitful in the winter of life
One of the most fruitful times of Dad’s life – and certainly a span of time that deeply impacted myself and my family – was his last three months of life. Completely bed-bound, virtually paralyzed, blind, often in pain, hardly able to swallow let alone eat and drink, having lost any vestige of privacy, his stalwart spirit prospered. My family has never personally witnessed such an abundance of spiritual fruit pouring out from one person.
Constantly praying for countless people (day and night), his wakeful hours became an outpouring of love to those who came near, gratitude to God and to his family, sweet joy in the Lord, peace in the valley of the shadow of death, patience with his limitations, kind and good to all, faithfulness to His Lord and His gospel, and gentle as a lamb, always gentle (Galatians 5:22, 23). As his body broke down and his physical life sighed away, in the bitter winter of life, Dad abounded supernaturally in the fruit of the Spirit.
The secret of a sanctified life
At the root of Dad’s life-long transformation can be found the wellspring of scripture. Dad for years, decades, read through the Bible every year – that’s on top of personal Bible study and reading other Christian works. More than anything, Dad’s love for God’s word shaped the character and direction of his life. After he passed away while we were sifting through his personal effects, we found one of his “One Year Bible” Bibles. It was thrashed! The Bible was faded, dogged eared, binding literally falling apart, marked and noted from Genesis to Revelation. In our hands, we held the greatest clue of what transformed my dad and made his life so fruitful. My father lived a life saturated by God’s word. His body was failing because that is the way prescribed for men, yet in this same season His spirit thrived because he had nourished it over a life time with the life giving words of scripture.
That my friends, a life rooted in God’s word, is what can make our existence a monument to His transforming grace. Whether we’re in the spring or winter of life, whether we are experiencing peace and prosperity or conflict and hardship, soaking up the tributaries of God’s living word can render us strong and fruitful. We would do well to remember the words that open the door of the Psalter …
“How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night.
He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers.”