November 17, 2019

Pushing Forward

In 2016, the Lake Union Herald, the magazine of the Lake Union Conference church region in the North American Division, shared the moving story of Adventist church member Fidencio Sanchez. Sanchez, at almost 90, was photographed pushing a vending cart in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood. It was a photo that went viral around the world and prompted an online fundraising campaign created to help the struggling grandfather. Donations poured in, and over 10 days, more than $380,000 was raised. Now, after two months in hospice care, Sanchez went to sleep in Jesus on November 6, 2019, at 92. Our condolences to his wife, Eladia, and grandchildren, Dulce and Daniel. A funeral service took place on Sunday, November 10, at the Little Village Hispanic Seventh-day Adventist Church. Here is the original story published in 2016. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.—Editors

When the Sanchez family lost their daughter in July [2016], the Chicago Little Village Hispanic Church members prayed for a miracle. The elderly couple, Fidencio, 89, and Eladia, 77, would need their help, but many of the members were struggling to make ends meet. “There are no professionals in our church,” explained the pastor, Gilberto Bahena, who has known the family for four years. “Many of our members are in great financial need.” 

Six weeks later, their prayers would be answered in a way no one could’ve dreamed possible. The incredible results of a random act of kindness would reverberate around the world via social media and reinforce not just the faith of the couple, but of the church and community, giving new meaning to God’s promise, Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Journey Through Darkness

Fidencio Sanchez was just six months old when his mother died, and he was raised by relatives in the Mexican village of Morelos. The households were not particularly religious, and it wasn’t until he was 20 that Fidencio came in contact with the gospel. 

He happened to overhear a couple giving Bible studies to the neighbors. The Adventist evangelists noticed him standing outside the house and invited him in. What the young man heard intrigued him, and he told them he wanted to know more. They offered him a Bible, but there was one problem. “I never went to school, so I didn’t know how to read,” he shared. 

But that didn’t stop him from learning to read the Bible. Each day he tried to read and learned little by little.

By the time he was 30, Fidencio had drifted from the church, but after he met and married Eladia, that all changed. She was sickly, and her parents wanted him to pray for her healing. Before he knew it, he was giving Bible studies to her family. Eventually, all of them — Eladia and her parents, as well as Fidencio — were baptized.

Joy and Sorrow

Fidencio and Eladia eventually emigrated to the United States in 1990 and settled in Chicago. One day, Fidencio noticed a street vendor outside his home and asked the vendor how he could get such a job. The man referred him to the owner, and he was soon selling icy treats in warmer weather and Mexican sweets during colder months, earning about US$50 a day.

Then, the couple’s only child, Catalina, who joined her parents in Chicago 15 years ago, became sick with an autoimmune disease and succumbed to her illness last July.  She was the primary breadwinner, supporting the family on a teacher’s assistant salary, including helping to pay for her children’s college tuition. Her untimely death created an enormous strain on the family, leaving Fidencio with no choice but to work even harder.

A Community Rallies Around

Right after Labor Day, as Fidencio struggled to push his cart through Little Village, he had a chance encounter with a stranger. Joel Cervantes Macia says, “It broke my heart seeing this man that should be enjoying retirement still working at his age.”

Joel pulled over his car and took the now-famous photo of Fidencio, hunched over the cart, his head bowed low, as if in perpetual prayer.  He bought 20 of the popsicles for $1.50 each, overpaying Fidencio with a $50 bill. He told him, “God bless you,” and drove away. 

Joel would later post the photo to his Facebook page. Joe Loera noticed it and suggested starting an online fundraising campaign.

The photo of Fidencio Sánchez that went viral in 2016, and which motivated the launch of a fundraising campaign to support this Seventh-day Adventist member in need. [Photo: courtesy of Joel Cervantes Macias, Lake Union Herald]

The page went up on Friday, September 9, with the plea from Joel that both Fidencio and his ailing wife needed help. “Let’s all pitch in and help make life a little easier and brighten both of their day,” he wrote. 

The goal was to raise US$3,000, but donations began pouring in from around the world — 67 countries and 17,000 individuals — and quickly surpassed that mark.

During this time, Fidencio’s granddaughter, Dulce, unaware of the fundraising campaign, began getting “strange” calls. “I received phone calls asking, ‘How are your grandparents?’“ It wasn’t so much the question that was weird, but the fact that the calls were coming from several people, almost at once. One of the callers revealed that there were people trying to raise money online for her grandparents, and they wanted to make sure it was a legitimate campaign. In the hopes of surprising her grandparents, Dulce didn’t mention anything to them, but that didn’t last long.

At church the next day, as the sermon was about to start, a police officer entered the church and asked to see the pushcart vendor. “What did he do wrong?” asked Fidencio’s wife.

He told the couple that reporters were searching for them because of the fundraising campaign, which in just one day had raised US$65,000. As Fidencio listened in disbelief, the strong patriarch who had held it together during his daughter’s funeral just six weeks earlier began to weep.

He was thrust into the media spotlight, facing the glare of cameras from local, national, and international media, and graciously thanked the community for their generous support. “I really appreciate that they gave with all their heart and desire to help me, and for that, I am very grateful,” he told the group of reporters. “I wish to send a cordial greeting to everyone in Chicago.”

When the page closed a week-and-a-half later, the campaign made history, becoming the largest fundraiser through the GoFundMe site in the state of Illinois and one of the top 25 campaigns in the United States.

On September 21, surrounded by their supporters, officials from GoFundMe presented the Sanchez family with a giant mock check in the amount of US $384,290. “It’s a blessing from God,” Fidencio said in his soft-spoken voice. “Nobody did this but God!” 

A New Beginning

Fidencio says that while the money will never ease the pain of losing his daughter, he can now rest a little easier, knowing that their bills will be paid. 

Everyone keeps asking: “What are you going to do with the money?” Two months after they received the check, not much has been spent as they pray for God to reveal His purpose for the funds.

One setback is sorting through health-care options. With this windfall, it means they may no longer qualify for low-income insurance. But despite the new challenges, they’re grateful for a new lease on life.

After 77 years of work, 23 of them pushing a cart through the streets of Chicago, Fidencio can finally retire, and already he feels better physically. His legs and
arms no longer hurt, and his feet don’t swell after each grueling 12-hour workday. He attributes his relatively good health to his years of eating simple vegetarian foods.

He still wakes up early for his daily devotions, grateful for more time to spend with God. “I’ve learned that if you honor God,” the former church elder said, “He will bless you.”

This blessing has impacted the church, according to the pastor. “The church members see things differently,” Bahena said. “Even more so, they believe in the promises of God.”

The original version of this story was posted on the Lake Union Heraldnews site.