It’s said that the human mind makes 35,000 decisions a day. Some decisions seem small, more of a habit, while others are recognizably big. But we don’t always know which will have the greatest impact on our lives.
In July 2017, Irene Bueno packed one suitcase for herself and one for her seven-year-old daughter, bringing only what they could carry. For Irene, leaving her parents and three siblings was painful, but she wanted to give Amelie a better life. Venezuela was in an economic crisis. Power outages were common; people waited for hours in line for food and gas rations, and water was often available only from 6:00 – 8:00 in the morning. As an English teacher in such an economy, even owning her own academy, Irene could only charge her students so much. And it wasn’t enough. Things were worsening. Credit was hard to get, making the purchase of a car or home nearly impossible. Despite her hard work, her dreams of a better life remained distantly on the horizon. It was time for a drastic change.
When her application to teach Spanish in the United States was approved by Educational Partners International (EPI), it seemed a miracle. Now, they just had to get there.
From their home in San Cristobal, on the border with Colombia, the drive was 17 hours to the airport in Caracas. With no car, Irene and Amelie had to take buses that ran overnight—a dangerous time when robbers were known to steal and mug, and sometimes kill along lonely stretches of highway. Before boarding the bus, Irene duct-taped her saved- up $500 to one hip and their passports to the other.
The bus was freezing, so Irene hugged Amelie to her, needing to remind herself that each kilometer brought them closer to the airport in Caracas and a new life in the U.S. Yet, around midnight, the bus broke down. In the middle of nowhere, the driver told them they’d have to get off.
Soon, the terrified voices of the passengers rose into an otherwise peaceful sky full of stars. Everyone knew too many stories of people killed this way, left by the roadside like sitting ducks. The driver said there might be a few seats open on another bus coming that way, but it was not a replacement. When the bus arrived, Irene pushed through the crowd, screaming, “I must get on, I have a child! I have a child!” She was allowed through. As the bus pulled away, she could not look at the faces of those left behind.
She and Amelie arrived in North Carolina on July 27. Irene was thankful for friends, old and new, who seemed to magically appear to help her each step of the way. While she was at orientation, two of her former English students, now living in the U.S., watched Amelie; and a fellow teacher in the program whom she’d met on the EPI forum, named Melissa, invited them to stay with her and her family in Charleston.
During their month-long stay, Irene accepted Melissa’s invitation to go to a service at Seacoast Church’s Summerville Campus. Although Irene had stopped attending the Catholic Church years earlier, she had always believed in God. She felt his nearness most in nature, in the beauty of creation. Jesus was the one she didn’t feel like she really knew. The focus had always seemed more on baby Jesus and Mary.
Yet, at that first church service at Seacoast, hearing the worship team sing “Glorious Day,” Irene found herself crying uncontrollably, understanding that God had been guiding her in this new life, each step of the way, even if she had no idea how she was going to afford it.
When Irene moved into her own apartment, she had an inflatable mattress and a sheet. Struggling to make ends meet, she cleaned houses in addition to teaching Spanish I and II at the high school. With English her second language, she felt out of place, not understanding the slang, yet aware the students were making fun of her for not wearing the right clothes for teaching.
Then, one Sunday, Irene met Pastor Roy Jacques, the Summerville Campus pastor, who put the word out and helped her find furniture—including a real mattress! Soon afterward, Irene received a text from Charlotte Cox, the children’s pastor, offering a backpack and school supplies for Amelie. To have such support was a shock.
JUST A TRIP TO WALMART
One day, Irene was with a friend and Amelie at Walmart, in the school supply section. They made a game of pointing out all the fun things they couldn’t afford. “Look at this! Look at this!” they’d say to each other. Then, Amelie noticed a man in the same aisle, with some children’s emoji water bottles in his cart. “I have the same one!” she said.
The man introduced himself as Samuel, and as they chatted, Irene discovered he was Venezuelan, too. He was a single dad and had two young children. After discussing the best parks nearby, they decided it would be nice to get the kids together for a playdate and exchanged phone numbers.
But Irene ignored Samuel’s first couple texts, becoming concerned that this wasn’t as much about setting up playground time for the kids, as about dating. She didn’t trust Venezuelan men. They were known for being unfaithful and “players.” It was only after Samuel’s third text, saying he and his kids would be at a nearby playground in an hour that she agreed to meet him—making sure to bring along her friend.
Over the next year, Irene started trusting Samuel more and more, seeing he wasn’t like stereotypical Venezuelan men. When Irene’s sister died within months of being diagnosed with leukemia, Samuel and his mom and stepdad watched over Amelie so Irene could return to Venezuela for the funeral. Being able to rely on him during such a heartbreaking time, and seeing how unafraid he was to go into her pain with her, cemented things for Irene. They married soon afterward.
Next, came a business venture together, making empanadas to sell at farmers markets and festivals: Don Sazón Empanadas (Mr. Flavor). Both Samuel and Irene had to get up at 4:00 a.m., to pre-cook the beef, chicken, and cheese empanadas, before going to their other jobs. After work, they made more empanadas for the weekend festivals.
When Covid hit and restaurants closed, Samuel saw an opportunity to buy a food truck. They quit their jobs to operate it fulltime. Running a new business was good, but with their work pace, there didn’t seem time enough to go back to church once it reopened after the worst of Covid. Irene felt her stress building, and knew she was drifting. “I realized then how much I needed my church,” she said. “I wasn’t even praying.”
JUST A SIMPLE SHOW OF SUPPORT
Summer 2022, Irene saw a post that the Seacoast Summerville Campus needed a food truck for a
men’s event. Success there, led to Don Sazón being invited to serve empanadas at the upcoming Chosen Women’s Conference.
When a ticket to Chosen came through for Irene from someone who could no longer attend, Samuel told her to go hear the speakers. He and Amelie, then 13, could handle serving the empanadas. It was a kind offer, a seemingly small thing at the time.
The conference stunned Irene, how a group of women could so genuinely care for one another. “We come from a wide range of ages and cultures,” she said. “But God intended us to be one. To be his. Nothing but better together.”
The second evening, near the end of the conference, Irene looked around the worship center, the whole room seeming to vibrate. She could see the joy on the faces of the women being baptized. What are you waiting for? Irene heard in her head.
Turning to Charlotte, the Summerville children’s pastor who had become a friend, Irene said, “I want to do that.”
“You want to get baptized?”
“Yes, let’s go.”
In the baptismal pool, Irene listened to Sisterhood Pastor, Jenna Surratt, praying excitedly for her, and felt her and Charlotte’s hands on her back and shoulders as the water closed over her face. All the fear she had stored up for so long, God washed away as she resurfaced and took a deep breath. Alive. Real. The living Word. An understanding of who Jesus was, his sacrificial love, began to grow inside her. There was no feeling like it. All the decisions she had made had led her to this one, like seeds watered into bursting new life.