Aiea, Hawaii, is far from home for a boy from Pharr, Texas.

“I never wanted to leave home,” confessed Brian Garcia, a 2020 Union College graduate. “I’ve always wanted to be home. I’ve always wanted to be with family in the familiar place I grew up.”

But God had other plans.

Brian didn’t grow up in a typical Adventist home, but the seeds of faith planted by his mom blossomed into impromptu ministry at his public high school. Friends and acquaintances, recognizing a difference in Brian, called on him for encouragement, prayer and advice on building a relationship with God.

“Never did I think I’d be a pastor,” Brian explained. “It was something I actively tried to run away from because my friends would always tease me by calling me ‘Pastor Brian.’”

Despite his reluctance, Brian listened to God’s call—even when it sounded like teasing.

When it came time to attend college, he was unsettled, moving schools three times before deciding to study theology at another Adventist college.“Going into theology was a kind of ‘thank you’ to God for keeping me alive through all the craziness of life I’d been through,” Brian shared. “I believe God orchestrated it all knowing that this is where I’m meant to be.”

But a friend convinced him to give Union a try. And when Brian walked through the God-opened door to Union College, he found something special, something his heart longed for—he found a family.

This new family included his professors, fellow students, and the wider community of believers.

One afternoon, sitting outside, struggling to guide a friend through a difficult situation, Brian encountered this family of faith in the shape of man.

“This man comes over and starts giving a Bible study, sharing the exact words we needed to hear,” Brian recalled. “I thought to myself, ‘I don’t know what’s different about him, but I want that; I want to be that.’ That character wasn’t just found in Tyler Morrison (an enrollment counselor at Union at the time),” he continues, “it was a communal thing. Everyone was amazing. They loved without expecting anything back. They loved with this family feeling.”

Brian found this family trait in his professors: “I was so different from the other students. I was still a little ghetto,” Brian confessed. “I don’t hide where I come from; it’s very different from Union’s culture, Lincoln’s culture. Still, they were able to work with me where I was and helped me grow.”

It blossomed in his fellow students: “We had a real brotherhood,” Brian remembered. “We navigated our faith together. To this day we talk about how we’re growing in Christ. We continuously edify each other. Union was the perfect place for me to grow spiritually.”

It flowed from the pastor at Allon Chapel where Brian interned. “Pastor Larivaux taught me that being a pastor isn’t just about the people who attend,” Brian said. “You are the pastor of the community. You are a worker of God in every single facet of your life and where you live. Pastor Larivaux gave me that foundation of being a local church pastor and put in the work. Even today he advises me.”

And it was evident throughout the congregation of Allon Chapel: “The church family I gained at Allon Chapel is great,” Brian said. “They still encourage me and let me know they’re praying for me. The family I have there was an enormous blessing.”

But this character of love didn’t stop at the Lincoln city limits; Brian also found it flourishing in Hawaii.

Because of the connections he made at Union, Brian was offered an opportunity to serve for a year as the volunteer youth pastor at the Aiea Seventh-day Adventist Church in Hawaii. Despite COVID-19 restrictions, his new Hawaiian church family finds ways to connect. Like all good families, they feed him, teach him important skills (like surfing), plan Facetime and Zoom meetups, invite him to COVID-conscious events, and even ask about his love life.

“Hawaii reminds me of home so much!” Brian shares. “The climate, the family-oriented culture, the friendliness that can be found in the form of what we call southern hospitality back home, I have found in the spirit of Aloha here. They are truly a great bunch of people who have welcomed me in as one of their own with arms spread wide.”

Even though Aiea, Hawaii, is far from home, Brian found his ohana. And no matter where God calls him next, this extended family is waiting to welcome him into their hearts.