Episode Show Notes
In this episode, Mike sits down with two members of SFC’s Bible department, Augustus Garcia and Joy Stephenson, to discuss faith, spiritual growth, and how SFC encourages students in their lifelong journey in Christ.
Mike Siciliano, Upper School Dean of Students, has a long history with Sante Fe Christian, sitting in several roles including alumnus, US history teacher, and football coach. As a student, Siciliano felt he had teachers and coaches who personally invested in him and made a huge difference in his life. Now, he tries every day to continue that legacy for current SFC students, live up to the standard his teachers set for him, and have a lot of fun.
Augustus Garcia, Upper School Bible teacher, has been an integral member of the SFC Bible department for two decades. Graduating from Wheaton College in 2001, Garcia came to SFC with a passion for coming alongside students and sharing God’s Word. With his dynamic personality and engaging teaching style, he brings wisdom, depth, and relationality that captures the hearts and minds of his students. His greatest desire is to see students experience the rich joy of knowing and following Christ, ultimately making SFC a place that glorifies God. He and his wife are proud parents of five daughters and enjoy living in beautiful Valley Center.
Joy Stephenson, Upper School Math and Bible teacher, is a mentor at heart and impacting students’ lives at SFC for 12 years. Whether it’s instructing students in the complexities of math or discipling students in their faith, Stephenson brings excellence, intentionality, and joy in everything she does. Her favorite thing about teaching at SFC is the opportunity to share her faith in Jesus Christ with her students. A New Jersey native, Stephenson attended Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois and then moved to Southern California to receive her Master’s in Math Education from SDSU. She is extremely thankful to God for her loving husband and two beautiful sons.
00:01:05 – Meaning of growing in faith
00:05:25 – Growing faith as a lifelong process
00:06:49 – Explaining this concept to students
00:09:56 – Expectations of spiritual growth from a graduate of Santa Fe Christian
00:11:31 – Things that push students toward growth
00:14:00 – Students who grew spiritually after graduation
00:18:09 – Meaning of unconditional love
Mike Siciliano [00:00:05] Welcome back to another episode of our Eagle Perspective Podcast. Today we are going to be talking to two of my favorite people on campus. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say that or not. But we’re going to be talking about growing in faith, a term that we use a lot, and I think sometimes people aren’t always sure what it means. So, we’re going to explore that today. I am joined by two members of our Bible department, Mr. Augustus Garcia. Augustus, how long have you been here at Santa Fe?
Augustus Garcia [00:00:31] This is year number two zero, 20 years.
Mike Siciliano [00:00:35] Twenty years. Wow.
Augustus Garcia [00:00:36] A little bit of a milestone.
Mike Siciliano [00:00:38] Okay. So, you started here when I was five years old.
Augustus Garcia [00:00:40] No, I think you had just graduated.
Mike Siciliano [00:00:42] I barely missed you. I did not get the Augustus Garcia experience, unfortunately. But I do now as a colleague, which I love. So, thank you so much for being here for this topic. Then I’m also joined by a member of not one but two departments on campus, both math and Bible, Mrs. Joy Stephenson. Joy, it’s really good to have you.
Joy Stephenson [00:01:00] Good to be here.
Mike Siciliano [00:01:01] You’ve been here for how long now at Santa Fe?
Joy Stephenson [00:01:03] This is the end of my 12th year.
Mike Siciliano [00:01:05] Okay. Wow. Congratulations. All right. So, let’s start with just the term itself, growing in faith. Comes up a lot in our discussions. I think we were all in a meeting about retreats earlier this week, and one of the goals was growing in faith. It’s something that really in all of our strategic conversations we use that term. What does it mean? What does it mean to grow in faith?
Augustus Garcia [00:01:27] The first thing I think of when you talk about growing in faith is you just look back at all of the different stories that Jesus taught to his disciples about growth. You think of the kingdom of God, which is like a mustard seed that’s planted in the ground. It’s this tiny little seed of faith. This mustard seed actually comes up a couple of times in Jesus’s teachings. I think the overriding theme of both of those instances, the way he uses it, is that our part is so small, so insignificant, and it’s the process of that seed that goes into the ground that grows and becomes the largest garden plant, or the yeast that works through the dough, and becomes the most important thing in life. In both those instances what it’s all about is this perspective of a lifelong journey of faith, that none of us when we first come to know the Lord are completely sanctified—a big theological word—we are justified. In other words, Jesus paid the price for our sin. We are complete and whole in Him, but that just begins this journey. The journey is lifelong. I would say it’s eternal. The kingdom of God ultimately starts with that single small seed of faith. We have to have that perspective of this is our life. It’s a journey that we’re on in Christ that never ends, and goes up and down, and sideways, around different corners and bends, and takes some unexpected turns, for sure. But ultimately, it’s the Holy Spirit working in us that is growing us to be conformed into His likeness.
Mike Siciliano [00:03:17] Wow. So, there’s a lot there to unpack. Joy, I want to get your take on this, too. What would you say growing in faith…? What does that mean?
Joy Stephenson [00:03:25] I believe for me to grow in my faith is to say yes to God whenever an opportunity comes in my life, to trust him above trusting what might seem the world might be saying to me. For example, I really didn’t want to move out here to California. That was a huge step of faith for me. I graduated from Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Illinois, and I wanted to go to Africa and teach at an orphanage in Naivasha, Kenya. God closed that door for me. I’m like, “Wait. What? You don’t want me to go to Africa and teach young people math?” and God said, “No, I want you to go to California, and I want you to get your master’s at SDSU, and I want you to pursue math education.” I went to California really kicking and screaming. God just showed Himself to me in that decision of I’m going to prepare you to be the best math teacher that you can be. Then He opened the door for me to be here at Santa Fe Christian School a few years later. I’m so thankful that I did say yes to God in getting my master’s because it was that opportunity that opened the door here at Santa Fe. But also, it’s made me the best math teacher that I can be and to glorify Him through that. It was pretty obvious what God was doing in those moments. I could not deny that. Yeah, I think it’s just about continuing to say yes to God, and trusting His plan over your own, and knowing that He has a purpose behind that yes, and knowing that you don’t know everything ahead of time. I didn’t know what would come out of my yes, but what has come has been so beautiful, and I could not have written a better story myself.
Mike Siciliano [00:05:25] So, both of your answers are getting at this interesting thing with growth and faith. So, you’re talking about things like saying yes to God or knowing that I don’t know everything. Augustus, you talked about a lifelong process. So, that feels a little more abstract or a little more… It’s not just well, growing in faith means ABC, XYZ. Am I characterizing that accurately?
Augustus Garcia [00:05:57] Well, I think that really hits on the idea that our growth process and faith in Christ is not compartmentalized to one area of our life. It is everything. In other words, it encompasses all areas of our life. So, in terms of abstract… In other words, growth in Christ means your relationship with your kids, with your church, with your friends, with your interior journey, with your thoughts. I think one of the mistakes that we sometimes make is we think that to follow or to grow in our faith just means we got to read our Bible, we need to go to church, and if I’ve checked off these spiritual boxes, then I’m automatically going to be growing in faith. So, yeah, it is, I wouldn’t say abstract; it’s more holistic than just a list of dos and don’ts.
Mike Siciliano [00:06:49] Yet how do we explain that, or express that, or bring that out of students? I feel like there’s a lot of students who go to, “Well, if I’m growing in faith, I must be doing XYZ, learning XYZ, thinking XYZ, saying XYZ.” How do you work with students to get them to see this more holistically?
Joy Stephenson [00:07:12] I really am trying to encourage my students to really have an attitude or a thought process of surrendering all of themselves to God and to Christ. I think it’s in that surrender that all of the other things fall under. So, if I’m going to surrender all of myself to God, and then I’m surrendering my hope and success in this sport, I’m surrendering this relationship I might be having with friends, I’m surrendering my habits, my routines. If we’re under that umbrella of giving to God all of it, not just prioritizing God’s first. No, God is all. God is everything. Then that would be a holistic approach to share with my students so that they can see that as I make these decisions, am I glorifying God, am I showing that I am his in whatever decision that might be for them.
Mike Siciliano [00:08:22] It’s almost a part of that, too, that is like meeting students in their place of failure. I almost feel like maybe you start out with like, “Well, yes, I’m going to make the right decisions, and I’m going to believe the right things, I’m going to do the right things,” which is all great! But then what happens when I don’t get the grade I want in the class I need and I think my future is at stake? That’s that moment of surrender where you can almost connect with a student and say, “This is what we’re talking about is this moment.”
Augustus Garcia [00:08:54] I just wanted to build on what Joy was saying, the way in which we bring students into the conversation of what it means to be a follower of Christ in all of the different activities and classes that they’re in. I think that’s one of the key things of shifting perspective for students. One of the beauties of Santa Fe is that you have Christian coaches; you have Christian artistic directors of programs, and it’s bringing them into this perspective that Christ is the center of all. It’s not how to do mathematics Christianly, or how to do science Christianly, or how to do art Christianly; it’s you are a Christian. I keep coming back to this holistic, trying to inspire students to see the fact that Christ desires to be a part of their whole life.
Mike Siciliano [00:09:47] Nothing is outside.
Augustus Garcia [00:09:48] Nothing is outside.
Mike Siciliano [00:09:49] It’s not my spiritual life and then my academic life. It’s all the same thing.
Augustus Garcia [00:09:55] Right.
Joy Stephenson [00:09:56] Yeah.
Mike Siciliano [00:09:56] You mentioned the lifelong nature of it, Augustus. So, there’s this question: what should we expect in terms of spiritual growth from a graduate of Santa Fe? Are they supposed to be fully grown at age 18? What do we look for?
Augustus Garcia [00:10:15] I think that a lot of 18-year-olds probably think that adults expect them to be fully arrived by the time they receive their diploma. That’s one thing that Rod Gilbert has mentioned a number of times that I appreciate, that we’re not here graduating seminarians. We’re not graduating fully formed human beings; we’re graduating 18-year-olds. For any of us who have been alive longer than that, we can look back in our lives and realize we had not arrived then. We have probably not arrived where we are, because by this time in our adulthood we realize it’s a lifelong journey. So, there’s that unfortunate pressure, I think, that gets placed on kids growing up to think that they’re supposed to have arrived at perfection, full sanctification by the time that they’ve graduated high school. That’s part of the process is learning how Christ comes in and dusts you off when you fail. In fact, I would say that’s probably the key part of the process of learning how Christ picks us up in our failures because that’s when we learn that we can trust him and that he still loves us, and places us back on our feet, and says, “Now let’s move forward.”
Mike Siciliano [00:11:31] So, what are some things that maybe you do in your classroom or in your relationships that push kids towards this kind of growth or this way of thinking? How are you intentional about this?
Joy Stephenson [00:11:44] So, this has really been a beautiful year for me, personally, in this exact area. By the grace of God, I’ve seen such beautiful fruit come from this labor of love, Junior Bible Seminar, ladies-only class. So, last year was the second year that JBS ladies only was offered. My first year we had eight amazing juniors, back in 2018, sign up. Then last year, 2019, 2020 we had 33 girls sign up. So, of the three groups, two groups wanted to continue to meet. I saw two leaders rise up. In my first group, a young lady decided to host Bible studies at her house on the weekends once a month, and it was really good for the soul. We met outside. We had Bible studies. The girls led them themselves. So, that was so cool to just be there to watch them grow and experience what it was like to lead a Bible study and to just give them that extra support that they needed when that time came. Then another young lady came in January and said, “I’d like to do the same thing and host at my house, as well.” They were like, “We’d really like to hear you speak on certain topics.” It’s ranged from how we love our enemies… We talked about when they go off to college, how do they share their faith in a genuine way? Tomorrow we’re going to meet up at the beach, and we’re going to talk about prayer and what does prayer look like? What does it mean? Why is it important? So, I’m super excited to have these small moments in these young ladies’ lives to really just be vulnerable, be transparent, be open, just enjoy fellowship and talking with them about their questions. They have a lot of questions. So, this has been an amazing gift, and God has been glorified through it all. It’s really cool to see their growth.
Mike Siciliano [00:13:51] So, just to make clear to our listeners at home, tomorrow is a Saturday.
Joy Stephenson [00:13:54] Oh, tomorrow’s a Saturday.
Mike Siciliano [00:13:55] So, you’re not pulling them from school to go to the beach?
Joy Stephenson [00:13:57] Definitely not. Of course not. I would never think of that.
Mike Siciliano [00:14:00] But your statement there…Saying that as the guy who’s in charge of attendance. Your statement there about growth is not about necessarily finding the right answer as much as figuring out how to wrestle through the questions. So, I’m curious, because one of the things about growth is it’s really hard to measure. We don’t know fully who’s growing and who’s not and, also, when it’s going to happen and how fast. Go back to your seeds, Augustus. We’re sometimes planting seeds. So, do either of you have any examples of someone that maybe you weren’t sure where they were at, at all spiritually, and then down the road, you come to find out that actually there was quite a bit of growth that you didn’t know about or growth that happened later that you didn’t know about?
Augustus Garcia [00:14:48] Yeah. I think my teaching career is just sprinkled with all sorts of those types of stories. One of the things that is difficult as a teacher is you often don’t see much of the fruit during your time in high school. You do, and you celebrate those close relationships that you have or those triumphs, but I can think of one kid in particular. He was certainly a handful throughout his time in my class and yet also the life of the party always. I think that’s what it often comes down to is trying to mentor students in their relationships with one another, because, at the end of the day, that’s ultimately where a lot of the growth in one’s faith as a teenager is real for them in how they’re responding to their peers, and understanding when they’ve hurt and wounded other people, and then finding growth in that. Then to find out five years down the road he’s a youth pastor now, it’s like, “Wait. What’s going on there?” You’re probably thinking, “Oh, that one guy?” No, there’s multiple kids that, actually, I’m thinking of that fit that paradigm. But coming back to that idea of how to help kids navigate relationships in high school. That’s the beauty of having the coaches, the teachers, the deans of students that come along into their lives. It reminds me of the passage in Romans 12, where Paul says, “If at all possible, live at peace with all men as far as it depends on you.” I think that’s one of the most difficult challenges for teenagers is there’s always drama. There’s always drama to navigate and so many wounded hearts and things that the kids navigate through high school. Oftentimes, the fruit of that growth is not until they leave and reflect. But yeah, many, many stories like that, for sure.
Joy Stephenson [00:16:51] It is a real big blessing when you have a student that you know struggled with their faith, and then a few years later you get an email, and that email just shares like, “Thank you for being there during those difficult years. Thank you for encouraging me and loving on me,” and knowing that the seeds that were planted while they were here, they were not on deaf ears; they were not to blind eyes. They were definitely seen and heard. That message was seen and heard. Our hope is that it would continue to grow. Again, growth looks very different. For all people, it looks so different. So, just knowing that God has his eye on that student, God has his ears to their prayers and trusting God with that student, and surrendering that student to God, and knowing that God has a plan, and I have to trust that plan for that student and know that I was in that student’s life for a brief moment but for a reason. So, those are some really cool emails when you get them.
Mike Siciliano [00:18:02] It’s just a good reminder that there’s not a recipe for what it looks like, necessarily, while they’re here. It could look a lot of different ways.
Augustus Garcia [00:18:09] One other thing that I was thinking of: what is it that I want so earnestly to impart into the lives of my own kids, and my students, and what makes that difference? I think it has to do with the fact that we are called to love as God loves us. What that means is that we love unconditionally. I can think of the conversations with students and with my own kids. When you have difficult conversations, when they’re going through the hot mess of life, or they’ve made their hot mess on themselves, you have to speak those words of truth. You have to speak those words of discipline, that it’s always accompanied with that unconditional love, the reminder that I am expressing these concerns to you not out of condemnation but out of love. I don’t want you to fail my class because I love you. I’m giving you this detention because I love you. I know you must have… That’s the foundation of your job is to leave students and every person that you come into contact with. The foundation of my interaction with you is for you to have a taste of God’s love, that no matter what you do, no matter how far you stray, no matter what you’ve done in life, that foundation of love and acceptance is there. That is right there to the heart of the gospel that it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance.
Mike Siciliano [00:19:53] Unconditional love. We explain that. We say that everybody’s on board with that conceptually. Right?
Augustus Garcia [00:20:02] Right.
Mike Siciliano [00:20:01] In a way, our job is to remind our students when they’re going through things, or when there’s that person who’s upset them, it’s, “Hey, this is unconditional love. This is the hard part of it,” and to continually point that out and remind them, “If we say we believe in this thing, this is what that means. You have to love in this situation right now that you don’t want to.”
Joy Stephenson [00:20:25] I always start my class with prayer, and I ask my students… I’m like, “Good morning, class,” and they’re like, “Good morning, Mrs. Stephenson.” Then I’m like, “Do you all have any prayer requests?” I’m very consistent about doing that because I want them to know one, that I care about what’s going on in their life besides if they did their math homework or not, and two, that God also cares, and that we can come to God as a community, as brothers and sisters in Christ and pray over their prayer requests. Then it allows me to follow up with them, later on, like, “Hey, how is your grandpa doing?” It’s really sweet to hear their prayer requests. Most of the time they are praying for their family members, which is just really sweet and endearing. So, I do want them to know that prayer is really important, also that community is really important. I think that’s a huge building block that the Bible encourages us to continue to gather together. Fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ is so important because it allows us to encourage one another, to keep each other accountable, to help when life throws you a hot mess. We all know life is going to throw as a hot mess one way or the other. So, in those times we need to call on our brother or sister in Christ and ask for help. That’s one of the ways God reaches us is through each other. If you’re not in a community and you’re not with fellow believers, that’s a way that you’ve stripped God reaching, or helping you, or talking to you. So, it’s really important not to be in isolation. Then definitely going back and reading my word, reading the Bible, and knowing what does God say about this topic? How does God want me to live? It’s in that coming back to God every day that God will whisper his tender love and mercy to me.
Mike Siciliano [00:22:23] So, there’s a couple things that hit me in what you say and making sure God is a part of those struggles. That is not outside of the umbrella of what God wants to be a part of. It partly feels like if our kids leave with that, that yeah, you’re going to have difficulties. But if you make God a part of that struggle of trying to figure out what’s going on, if you make community part of that struggle, you’re going to grow. To tie back to something you guys said earlier. That term unconditional love. We throw that around all the time, but what does that mean?
Joy Stephenson [00:22:55] Unconditional love is a love that will stand the test of time, stand the test of actions and words. When my students break a rule, I can go to them in love and say, “What you did was unacceptable.” Obviously, I do it privately, and with respect, and honor. “It was unacceptable, and this behavior needs to stop, because I love you, and I want you to be in my class when class is happening, or this needed to be turned in because this was part of the curriculum,” whatever have you in the situation. But taking that time to talk to that student and express to them the behavior was unacceptable, but I still love you, and the reason I’m calling you out on it is because I love you. In the Bible, it says God disciplines those he loves. We are his children. He loves us. He disciplines us. I have a five-year-old. I remember during COVID when we were all at home, he was outside playing, and he just ran out the driveway and into the street. Here I am, “Get back in the driveway,” and screaming my head off because I don’t know if a car is going to come or whatnot. I disciplined him because I love him. I want him to be safe. I want him to not get hurt, obviously. So, just like I have to discipline my child so that he doesn’t get hurt in the street and not run in the street, so God has to discipline us because he loves us, and he knows that the things that we might partake in are not good for us. Hence, why he doesn’t want us to participate in them. Just like we know our students, if they’re partaking in something or behaving in a certain way, it’s not healthy for them. It’s not good for them. Therefore, we call them out in love. So, yeah, unconditional love means no matter what you’re doing, I’m going to be looking out for you. Be safe, and glorify God in what you’re doing.
Mike Siciliano [00:25:07] So, in a way, the fact that I love you is not dependent on your actions. That doesn’t mean that you get to do whatever you want, and I always agree with it, or feel great about it, or think that you’re right, but it does mean that because I love you, we’re going to talk about those things. But my kindness, my generosity towards you, all the things God calls me to be towards you, I am regardless. In some ways that’s God’s call to us and his charge to us.
Augustus Garcia [00:25:39] Very well said. Unconditional love is not conditional on your behavior; it’s contingent upon my relationship to you. God’s love is contingent not upon our sin, not upon our behavior, but it’s contingent upon Jesus Christ and what he did for us in the same way that my love for my own children is not contingent upon what they do in life. No matter what they do, I’m not going to love them any more. No matter what they do, I’m not going to love them any less. It’s contingent on the fact that I’m their father. In the same way, our love for our brothers and sisters in Christ is the same way my love for you is not contingent on the fact that you have a witty sense of humor and know how to make me laugh…
Mike Siciliano [00:26:33] It helps, though, a little bit.
Augustus Garcia [00:26:33] It helps a little bit. But it’s contingent upon the fact that you are created in the image of God, and when I see you, I need to treat you as I would treat my brother and sister in Christ. So, looping back around to our interactions with students, I think is probably the hardest thing for students to comprehend, because there is discipline in the Lord, as you were just saying, Joy. There are consequences to our behavior, but those don’t affect the condition of God’s love for us, and they ought not affect the condition of the love that we have for brothers and sisters in Christ. I believe that’s the foundational stone that helps to water that seed of faith and will eventually make it grow.
Mike Siciliano [00:27:21] And leads to that lifetime of growth.
Augustus Garcia [00:27:23] Absolutely.
Mike Siciliano [00:27:25] Well, thank you both for being here. I really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you to those of you at home for listening to another episode of our Eagle Perspective Podcast. Feel free to check out additional episodes on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, or other places where podcasts are available. We’ll be back with you again soon.