Francis Zabala’s journey with God felt like a constant struggle. The 21-year-old would routinely listen to gospel music and read the Bible but before long he’d fall back into old habits. “A few steps forward, and then a few steps back,” he notes wryly.
Things finally came to a head Halloween 2021. This was the first time he stepped foot in the Elmhurst Church in Illinois. A family he knew had invited him to a fall festival there later that evening. He told them yes, he’d go, but in the back of his mind he was thinking of a party he would attend instead.
At home that evening, his father invited him to the same fall festival and Francis feigned having a stomach ache. His parents suggested Francis stay home and get some rest.
“As they were backing out of the driveway something told me, ‘Don’t go to the party, don’t go to the party!’” Francis quickly jumped out of bed, ran out of the house, down the driveway and informed his parents that he had changed his mind and would go with them.
The next morning Francis awoke to the news that there was a shooting at the party he was planning to attend. Two people were killed and a dozen were injured, according to ABC7 Chicago. Francis discovered that his friend who had attended the party was standing next to one of the victims.
“When I found out my heart dropped. That could’ve been me. That specific moment was when I realized God saved me!”
With a newfound appreciation for life, Francis immediately found himself more involved in church and in the study of God’s word. “I started doing so many activities with the youth that I didn't have time to think about myself, and I didn't have time to think about the outside world,” says Francis. “I’m totally fine with that, because I feel like I would’ve slipped into my old habits.”
Realizing the need to grow further spiritually, Francis decided he would go canvassing in Michigan for the summer. However, around that time he received a phone call inviting him to be a counselor at Camp Akita. “I didn’t want to go to Camp Akita for fun; I wanted to be where I could grow the most spiritually.”
A conversation with his pastor, along with prayer, left him with the impression that God wanted him to be at Camp Akita for the summer.
Admittedly not a big fan of kids, Francis went to Camp Akita with some hesitation. “I didn’t feel worthy to be a counselor,” he reveals. “I would constantly pray, ‘Lord, I need you to show yourself through me so I can be a good counselor to these kids.’”
When asked to reflect on his time as a camp counselor, Francis replies excitedly, “I felt like I was supposed to be the one that would teach them, but they ended up teaching me so much more. I would do it again 100 times over. That experience alone was just amazing!”
Francis saw up close the hardships his charges were confronting, and yet they maintained a joyful presence. With a more intimate relationship with God, Francis is prayerfully taking stock of his future. “I have this desire and this feeling to do more. I feel like the Lord is just calling me to do something with ministry.”
Francis plans on returning to Camp Akita this summer to see what new lessons God has in store for him, and covets your prayers.
Elijah Horton is a Chicago-based freelance writer.