Stones of Remembrance: the Mentor

A powerful Stone of Remembrance is created when somebody truly believes in you. I was 20 years old when I first experienced this, when the manager of the grocery store where I worked recommended me to head office as management material. 
It was two years later, though, when I first met the man who would qualify as a true “mentor” in my life. George Mercado believed in me, encouraged me, trusted me, and was an incredible Godly example to me.

Six years of working with George as a volunteer were the just the beginning; he remained an influential voice in my life long afterward. Here are just a few snapshots of the memories and the mentorship:

“Join with others in following my example, and take note of those who live according to the pattern that we gave you (Philippians 3:17).” 

“Even though you have ten thousand guardians (instructors, KJV) in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel (1 Corinthians 4:15).” 

Jorge Alberto “George” Mercado is an imposing American, born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York City. He played professional baseball for the Dodgers and was drafted into the US Army during Viet Nam. He later came to faith in Jesus, changed his career plans, and went to seminary.

At age thirty-five, God called him to leave his lead pastor position in New York and become the first-ever youth pastor at my home church in Canada.

George began the Canadian chapter of his ministry during my second year of Bible college. When I returned home the following summer, I offered to volunteer with the youth group.

George, after crushing several of my ribs with a bear hug, knighted me as a youth leader. “I’ve been praying for workers in the harvest, and here you are! Hey, do you play guitar?”

“Um, yeah,” I replied, cautiously inhaling to test my ribcage’s structural integrity.

“I love it—you’re the worship leader!” George has never been described as a quiet, non-demonstrative type. When he gets excited, everyone within earshot knows about it.

“I don’t sing. I just play,” I said, panic-stricken, as my worst fear in the world—public singing—loomed large and menacing in my mind’s eye.

“You’re all I’ve got. No problem!”

And we were off. A few days later, met for burgers at the aptly-named “George’s Burgers” (true story). I watched with eager fascination as George outlined his philosophy of ministry on several napkins. His approach dove-tailed almost seamlessly with my desire to do something different in youth ministry.

I was hooked. And so began six years of mentoring.

Pull back to a wide-angle shot, and you’d see Georges
“a pile for everything, and everything in a pile” desk/office.

The journey probably resembled Jesus and His motley assortment of disciples: you served alongside your “rabbi” in a learn-by-doing school of ministry. The youth group grew from 12 to over 100 within the next three years. The youth leader team (all three of us) multiplied by a factor of five to keep pace.

George was legendary for his ability to take a potential “issue” and turn it into a growth opportunity. We younger leaders assumed the obvious answer was eye-for-an-eye justice; George modeled a different way. “Invitation, not confrontation” is the phrase I’ve used to describe it. Jesus said, “If they listen to you, you have won them over (Matthew 18:15).”

You can control external behavior through confrontation,  if controlling behavior is your goal. “Invitation” captures you at the heart level—it’s the Spirit’s work. 

Leadership meetings always followed the same format: half of our time was invested in praying for each other, and the rest for youth ministry business. It wasn’t uncommon for the entire evening to be spent in prayer, and “business” didn’t get done. The team seemed more effective for it.

George was the first person to pray with me over the phone. I’d called with a request on my behalf, and I assumed he’d hang up and pray later. To my surprise, he started praying right then and there.

I sat at my parents’ kitchen table, unsure of proper prayer etiquette on the phone. Bow my head and close my eyes? If I didn’t shut my eyes, where do I look? If my Mom walks in and overhears me saying “yes, Lord,” will she worry I’m under the delusion that the Almighty’s on the other end of the line?

(As retro-cool as Stranger Things made the 1980s look, I’m grateful 21st century phones are no longer tethered to the wall.)

Youth group prayer times: George would, more often than not, lie prostrate on the floor. “I’m not super-spiritual,” he’d say. “I’m proud and stiff-necked—I need to do this.”

A college friend from Winnipeg dropped by to visit the group one evening. George lit a candle in the center of the room and announced tonight would be a sharing/prayer time. The group formed a large (70+) circle around the candle.

My friend whispered, “What else are we going to do?”

“Wait and see,” I replied. 

Two hours later, as parents arrived to take their teenagers home, George closed the meeting. No games, no music, no pizza, no hype. Just two hours of God-stories and prayer.

Drop in at the church office and, many times, you’d open his door and think he wasn’t there. Then you’d spy his feet, sticking out from beneath the desk. Face down in prayer, again.

“You have to faceplant even when you’re alone?” I’d ask.

A self-deprecating shrug. “I’m still way too proud.”

Wendy en route to winning the “ew, gross” award for this skit.

George loved it when teenagers were honest about their struggles and faith doubts. He encouraged and, in some cases, provoked them to get past the Sunday School Answer Syndrome and deal with the real questions.

“Either we shake them up, or university will,” he’d say. “At least now, they have us as a resource.”

George was legendary for his words of encouragement. He had a way of gently prodding and encouraging us to discover and use our spiritual gifts. He was also very deliberate about outreach, but not in the way you’d expect.

“We don’t hold a single outreach event until they (the youth) have the vision for it. Otherwise, we’re doing it for them and they won’t develop a Great Commission mindset.”

After building a discipling foundation for over two years, we ventured to hold our first Friday outreach event. George led the whole youth group in a post-outreach evaluation the next Tuesday (our usual meeting time).

Everyone—teenagers and leaders alike—was bouncing off the walls over how well the outreach had gone.

George: “How did the events go? The band, the drama, the message?”

Us: “Awesome! It was totally awesome! Everything went great! The whole night was a total success!”

George: “Did anyone bring an unbelieving friend?”

Us: “Well, uh … no.”

George: “Then was it really an outreach?”

“Feed the lions” was George’s code for: Never confront
someone on an empty stomach—yours or theirs.

It must’ve been tempting to “accentuate the positives,” but George held our feet to the fire instead. As we continued hosting monthly outreaches—and teenagers brought their friends—George developed a maddening habit of giving short messages, but declining to share the Gospel directly. “If you want to know more about what I’m talking about,” he’d say, “ask the person you came with.”

It was brilliant. He refused to let us rely on “the speaker.” That had a profound impact on our outreaches, and set the stage for interactions with friends outside the church’s four walls. Sharing our faith in a relaxed, normal, conversational way became our default setting. 

My cabin group on a retreat (that's me on the right). George
always put the rowdies in my cabin. I have no idea why.

Youth retreats were the source of many fond memories. We typically held two per year, autumn and late spring. Worship was always intense (no matter how primitive the equipment), and retreats became “stones of remembrance” we’d later point to as spiritual markers in our lives.

One particular retreat endured a deluge of rain for the entire weekend (think: cabin fever). After lunch on a damp Saturday, George challenged all comers to a mud fight in a nearby field. He amassed an enthusiastic following. As the “mud” fight intensified, an unmistakable odor manifested—seems the empty field had doubled as a horse paddock the previous summer.

The “manure tour” of youth retreats; the stuff of legends.

There are a number of future pastors, church leaders,
& missionaries in this excrement-drenched photo.
The mixture of mud and horse manure didn’t deter the energetic scrum of teenagers, leaders, and George. Our cabins reeked in the aftermath, and we never held another retreat at that camp. I’m not sure who made the decision, us or them, but it was a memorable weekend (spiritually and malodorously).

To this day, a visit with former “Live Connection” members will almost inevitably include tales of retreats past. If old photos are available, we share a good laugh at how young and hopelessly 1980s we were. We also recall the times God moved, lives were changed, and how those crazy weekends continue to bear fruit, decades later.

Six years after our “George’s Burgers” meeting, I became the first of several leaders to move on to my own pastorate. George reminded us, at our tearful last gathering, how my departure meshed with Live Connection’s vision: “the gospel of Jesus Christ to Burlington, Hamilton, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, North America, the World . . .”

Two years after I moved to the West Coast, George flew out to be the guest speaker for our senior high retreat. I’d told our youth group many stories about him, and they were thrilled to meet him in person. It was a memorable weekend.

For Wendy and I, as my first pastorate crumbled around my ears, George’s visit was doubly encouraging. His insightful questions and honest feedback helped us sort through a difficult season. And, as always, we prayed together.

Mmm ... coffee! My favorite George-ism on evangelism:
“You gotta earn the right to be heard.”

George moved back to the United States a year later, but we kept in contact. Wendy and I have often remarked that there are few sounds as uplifting as George’s voice over the phone.

In 1999, George and his wife Jerri shared their vision of planting an alternative church community in their city. Wendy and I were thrilled to hear the anticipation and excitement in their voices. We hoped to visit the proposed church plant in a year or two.

One week before launching the church plant, George suffered a massive stroke.

Three years later, Wendy and I had a chance to visit the Mercados. Our first time together since our West Coast youth retreat over a decade earlier. And, more significantly, after George’s stroke.

We’d kept in contact with Jerri via phone calls and email, and George would sometimes join the conversation. He could say only two words: “yes” and “wow,” but you couldn’t miss his excitement when he recognized our voices. Wendy and I were eager to see him in person again, but also a bit apprehensive.

Typical retreat worship time. Yes, the seat of my pants is wet.
Pre-worship pranks were fair game.
As we pulled into the driveway, George’s booming laugh welcomed us from the open garage. The one-armed bear hug he gave me—while not as crushing as the summer of ’84—was strong and heartfelt. Over the next day and a half, we even made some progress with the gestures he uses to communicate.
“Fight of the Century” weapons: canned whipped cream. Wendy (left)
has just received a right hook to the jaw with one of said cans.
On our return trip to Canada, I was bothered by two things. The first, obviously, was why George hasn’t been healed despite a deluge of prayers. Second, his voice has been lost. George practically oozed wisdom and encouragement; the Body of Christ is poorer for his silence.

I don’t toss “mentor” around lightly, but no word better describes George Mercado’s role in my life.

George, if you ever read this, know that the respect, admiration, and gratitude Wendy and I feel for you knows no bounds. And let me say, as you’ve said to me many times (just imagine a New York accent): “Hey, I love you, man.”

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