MARSHALL – Alex and Marita Avilez are every pastor’s dream: they have a strong, healthy marriage. They work their jobs and go to their gym with missional intent. They are actively involved in their church and their association. They exude a palpable love for the Lord.
They also possess something else, something that makes their presence a blessing far beyond the walls of their local church: a burning passion for college students. “I love college kids!” says Marita. “College was such a great time in my life and resulted in so much spiritual growth. I desire to see that happen in the lives of other college students.”
In 2016, Alex had been working in the mailroom of Missouri Valley, his alma mater. When he got a job offer with the Postal Service, Marita took his job on campus. The Avilezes started adopting international students through a university program in conjunction with a local church. “I was once a college kid, far from home in California, and it was nice to have people here that I could rely on and help me,” Alex says. “I want to do that for others as well.” The couple gave students rides, had them over to dinner, and played games with them, trying all the while to have spiritual conversations. “We planted some seeds,” says Marita, “but no one came to Christ.”
They would invite their adopted students and the students Marita worked with on campus to church, but none took them up on the offer. That is, until Cedric Davis, a young freshman football player from Texas landed a job in the mailroom. The Avilezes took Davis to church one Sunday…then just about every Sunday since. He was the only college student at first, but he kept inviting friends. “This last Sunday we had eleven or twelve college kids at our church of maybe fifty,” says Marita. “The culture of our church is changing and embracing the college kids.
When Scott Westfall started at Missouri Valley as the Campus Missionary in the fall of 2019, the Avilezes jumped at the chance to help his ministry. “We were so excited when we heard that Scott was coming to town to start the Missouri Valley Collegiate Ministry,” says Marita. “Since Alex and I both worked full time, we weren’t able to be directly involved in the ministry but supported them in different ways.” Marita used her position in the mailroom to connect students to the ministry, and over spring break, Alex and Marita went with Westfall and some students on a Casas por Cristos trip to Mexico.
This past Christmas break, the Avilezes unofficially adopted a Japanese student they hadn’t even met. When he came to stay with them, he’d had no interaction with the Bible or the gospel. “He was very open to going to church with us, listening to us,” Marita says. The Bible app helped them work around the language barrier, allowing them to show him what they were reading so he could read it in Japanese and ask questions. Though he only stayed with them for three weeks, he has since come back to their house to visit, and plans are in the making to play pickleball with him and some of his other friends.
“All these students have come from all over the world and need Jesus,” Marita says. “As we minister to the students who come to MVCM, they can have an impact on their roommates, friends, campus and even spread to their families and friends back home in other states or even countries.”
The Avilezes see Missouri Valley as a “huge mission field in our backyard” that they simply can’t ignore. So when the Lord led Marita away from her job in the mailroom this past fall, the answer to Westfall’s invitation to come on staff as an MVCM apprentice was an exuberant yes. “Alex and I attended the MBCollegiate Prospective Staff Weekend in November and I was sold,” Marita says. “It’s amazing how God closed one door to open up an even bigger one!”
As an apprentice, Marita will use her gifts of administration and organization to assist Westfall with logistical details while also investing in college ladies one-on-one, in small groups, and through simply living life with them. “College students are ripe for the harvest since most are away from home and are lonely,” she says. “They are trying to develop their identity and are asking big questions about themselves and their lives…what better opportunity to share how much Christ loves them, the new identity they can have in Him, and the purpose He has created them for.”
She encourages other everyday church members who want to reach college students to simply take the plunge. “College students are a unique people group,” she says. “They have many needs that can be easily met through a home cooked meal, a ride to the post office or airport, advice on where to take their car to get fixed…they are establishing their own independence; sometimes they don’t want to ask their parents, but they need someone to ask questions to. Make yourself available to them and reach out.”