MILL VALLEY, Calif. (BP) -- When Rico Marquez contracted polio in his childhood and was unable to walk, he literally crawled to school each day.

"When I was 6 years old, I contracted polio. I wasn't a Christian then and my life was filled with fears, gloom and hopelessness because I couldn't walk," said Marquez, recalling his early years growing up in rural Philippines. "It's hard crawling for a mile just to go to school. And people laughed at me and called me names."

His life changed at age 14 when a classmate told him about Jesus.

"It comforted me knowing that God loves me in spite of who I am," Marquez said. "Jesus brought me hope and significance."

The Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary 2012 graduate and recipient of the William O. Crews Presidential Leadership Award, the school's highest student honor, recounts a story of grace and triumph over extreme hardship.

"Once I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, I no longer needed my crutches," Marquez said. "I have a definite limp but am able to walk and even run on my own."

But the young Christian was ostracized and persecuted by his father, who evicted him from home. Marquez's mother had just died and his eight siblings treated him badly.

Desperate, Rico went to his church family.

"The Lord provided me with the support of my newfound family -- my church," Marquez said. "The pastor invited me to live with him, but because he had a large family of his own, all he could provide was a wooden shed in his backyard. I lived there for three years while I attended high school."

Under the pastor's tutelage, Marquez learned to conduct Bible studies and lead singing, attending training workshops focused on Bible studies and personal evangelism.

"I really enjoyed doing God's work," Marquez said. "While in my senior year in high school I sensed the calling of God ... to enroll in Bible college and become a pastor."

He tried to reconcile with his earthly father, to no avail.

"The day I graduated from high school I went back to my father's house to tell him I was graduating and to invite him to attend the ceremony," Marquez said through tears. "He was sitting with his friends, drinking and smoking. He laughed at me and told me to get lost. I was so sad."

Directly after graduation in 1996, Marquez entered Baptist Theological College in Mandaue, in the province of Cebu, Philippines, and earned a bachelor's degree in theology after five years of study. While there, he walked to three towns a week, on average, to preach and share the Gospel.

"I learned a lot and was exposed to many places and different people in Central Visayas ," he said. "God taught me to be courageous in sharing his Gospel to Filipinos."

Marquez continued to intercede for his family.

"I prayed for them regularly, and during my internship, four of my siblings came to know Christ," Marquez said. "My father listened to the Gospel and considered God's promises."

When Marquez's father attended Marquez's graduation from Bible college, it was a mixed blessing.

"This time he did come, which made me so glad. But he was drunk and only stayed for the commencement. He didn't stay to celebrate with me but left that same day, even though his home was on a different island," Marquez said. "I was alone and had no one with which to share my accomplishments."

Marquez was called to pastor Metropolitan Heritage Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Mindanao, a dangerous area of Islamic rebels, widespread poverty and violence. Mindanao is the only area of the Philippines with a significant Muslim presence.

Despite the dangers, Rico knew that "where the Lord leads, I should follow. He led me there and gave me an opportunity to train and equip pastors and church leaders in that area. In the midst of fears and uncertainties there was joy in my heart as I served the Lord."

He was ordained on May 4, 2003, and during his six years of fruitful ministry there, he met and married his wife Margie.

"It was an encouragement when I learned of a rebel who became a preacher to his own tribe. But my heart was aching to see those shepherds leading sheep without proper training. I prayed that somehow a Bible training center for pastors would be established in this area, and God has granted our prayers," Marquez said. "My home church made a commitment to be the training center in spite of the dangers in the area. There were 16 graduates last year!"

Called and sponsored by Trinity Faith Baptist Church in Rodeo, Calif., Marquez and his wife moved to California in 2008, and the next year he applied to Golden Gate Seminary. Although he didn't have the funds, Marquez was accepted into the master's program and his tuition was paid anonymously the first year. He has received financial aid each semester. In addition, he collected empty bottles in the area and sold them to raise money for his textbooks, gas and bridge toll fees.

Now 33, Marquez is the father of two children and works from midnight to 9 a.m. as a janitor at the seminary. Taking five or six classes each semester, he earned a master of divinity last June and a master of educational leadership in December.

"God has gifted me with the gift of teaching. I started teaching when I was 16 years old. I have been a pastor since 1998," he said. "I have pastored five churches since then."

Marquez preaches at East Bay Baptist Church in Alameda on Sunday mornings, and then teaches a Bible training course for the area's church leaders on Sunday afternoons. He planted and pastors a house church for Filipinos in Pinole, which meets on Sunday afternoons, and he also leads a Bible study for adult church leaders in American Canyon on Friday evenings.

Since his wife is enrolled in Golden Gate to earn a master of educational leadership degree, the family continues to live on campus.

"What prompted me to enroll at Golden Gate Seminary is the passion and calling God has put in my heart," Marquez said. "I want to be used by God to train more pastors and church leaders in Mindanao and to set up a Bible School there. I came to Golden Gate for a multicultural, contextual education."

Marquez said the seminary provided him with Bible knowledge, ministry skills and character development.

Years after Marquez's father rejected him, the two are now reconciled.

"I want to share the Gospel in person with my father, so he will understand. I want to see him smile and erase the sound of him telling me, 'You are good for nothing, you are not my son.'" Rico spoke of an upcoming trip to the Philippines to see his father again. "I am friends with my dad now. His persecution has made me strong, and today he is proud of me."

Phyllis Evans is director of communications for Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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