What does a hero of the faith look like? In the New Testament, they looked like fishermen, tentmakers, and even a carpenter. But what about today — do “heroes of the faith” still even exist?
There is story about a student from California who arrived on the campus of Southern Arizona Bible College (SABC) in Hereford. The young man was told that once he arrived on campus, he should go speak with the college president. However, when the young man arrived, he found the office building doors locked — no one was around except a maintenance worker, who was on the roof of the building repairing an air conditioner. The young man inquired as to where he might find the college president. The worker responded with, “Hand me that wrench.” Dutifully, the young man climbed the ladder and began to assist the maintenance man.
As the pair worked on the air conditioner, the young man began to grumble and complain to the maintenance worker about the campus and the school. Then he expressed his frustration about not being able to find the president. Patiently the maintenance worker listened until finally, finishing their labor, the student and maintenance worker climbed down from the rooftop. The maintenance worker then unlocked the administration door for the student and guided the young man to the president’s office. As he invited the young man to take a seat, the maintenance worker walked behind the desk and took his seat in the president’s chair . . . .
The maintenance worker indeed was founding SABC president, Eli Duran — a man of undeniable faith and trust in God. He was also a man, who, much like the Apostle Paul made tents when needed, was never above getting his hands dirty in order to further the gospel. (By the way, the young man in the account — and his brother — both graduated from SABC and entered full-time ministry.)
Born in Greeley, Colorado, in 1938, Duran became a certified AG minister at the age of 21 and married his wife, Elaine, in 1962. But his resume didn’t begin behind a pulpit, but in a classroom where he began teaching at Latin America Bible Institute (LABI) in Ysleta, Texas, in 1963. In fact, for the next 30 years (with the exception of two years pastoring an Hispanic church in Pueblo, Colorado, in the mid-1970s), his ministry centered on Hispanic education — including the presidency of SABC (1977-1989) — and concluding as president of LABI San Antonio (1989-1993).
Although his ministry as an educator ended in 1993, it then continued as a pastor, followed by responding to the call to be a missionary to Mexico, then district official and pastor before retiring in 2012, which, of course, was followed by “un-retiring” and pastoring again (2015-2019).
“Eli Duran is one of the unsung and unseen heroes in the AG Hispanic Church,” says Dennis Rivera, director of AG Hispanic Relations. “His father was one of the founding ministers who was greatly influenced and mentored by Demetrio Bazan — the first Hispanic to serve as Latin American district superintendent, following H.C. Ball, AG missionary to Hispanics, in the 1930s.”
Rivera, admires Duran and his work ethic, as Rivera personally witnessed it when he was superintendent of the Central district and Duran was assistant superintendent. However, Rivera is certain he’s not the only one who has seen Duran invest “sweat equity” in literally building up God’s kingdom.
“Many students were impacted by the very hands-on, practical ministry of Eli Duran,” Rivera says. “He was often found with a shovel in his hand — he was comfortable in the pulpit, in the classroom, and with a saw and hammer. Everyone who knows Eli has a picture of him building something.”
Gary Weik, who was vice president at SABC during Duran’s tenure as president, recalls Duran as a creative thinker who was always looking for ways to improve the level of education as well as the facilities.
“He was ingenious in how he would make things happen . . . always doing what was best for the student body,” Weik says. “He had a love for students, a commitment to parents, and a loyalty to the district . . . he declared the truth from the pulpit and the students would say he lived it out before them.”
Zeke Pecina, currently in his 13th year as superintendent of the West Texas and Plains district, readily agrees as he was a student under Duran at SABC from 1980-1984.
“Three things stand out to me that made an impact upon my life and ministry,” Pecina says. “First, whatever he said, he did — he didn’t just sit behind his desk, but whatever work that needed to be done, he did; he was also inspirational. He believed in every student — he believed in me — and believed in giving people second chances; and thirdly, there wasn’t a challenge he wouldn’t face for the betterment of the Kingdom and the betterment of his students.”
Pecina notes that many students under Duran’s leadership went on to be ministers, missionaries, and leaders in the Hispanic Church and community.
“I remember that I didn’t want to go to SABC, I didn’t want to go to Bible college at all,” Pecina admits, “but the moment I walked onto the campus — and it wasn’t a great campus — I felt the presence of God there.”
Emilio De la Cruz, who has served at the Southwest district office for the past 15 years, the last seven years as superintendent, recalls Duran with gratitude.
“He was the president of the school, yet he was very down to earth and very approachable,” De la Cruz says. “I don’t think I would be who I am today if it were not for that time I was there and what they did for me.”
Too often, leaders who impact lives positively outside their home, have a deficit in their own homes. According to Damon and Duane Duran, two of Eli and Elaine’s sons, their father was an inspiration and loving example to them.
“My father was the same man when he was preaching to a large audience as he was at home,” says Damon, a doctoral graduate of AG Theological Seminary, and currently residing in Springfield, Missouri. “He would make friends anywhere he went. He would strike up a conversation with a taco vendor in Mexico and do the same with famous people.”
Damon explains that his father played many roles in other people’s lives, including spiritual leader, professor, and father-figure. But Damon has always looked up to his father with a sense of pride and admiration.
“After a long day of teaching, preaching, and office work he would jump on a tractor, dig a ditch, lay cement, or do whatever needed to be done,” Damon says. “My dad recruited these young college students to work beside him — they were amazed at my dad’s strength and knowledge . . . those poor college students couldn’t keep up with my dad when it came to manual labor!”
Duane, who has been a minister for 30 years, serving at the facility chaplain at Weld County Jail in Greeley, Colorado, for the past seven years, has nothing but love and respect for his father.
“My father has impacted my spiritual life more than anyone else and his example encouraged me to seek the Lord and His calling upon my life,” Duane shares. “I tell others I have a simple faith, and I believe I learned it watching my father. My father would say things like, ‘God will take care of this,’ ‘God will provide,’ or ‘We just need to ask God about it.’ And God always came through. To this very day I fully trust God and know He will never let me down, and I attribute this to seeing my dad’s faith in action.”
Although both Damon and Duane have much they admire about their father, what truly blesses them and continues to impact both of their lives are the stories others share about their father.
“I never get tired of hearing things like, ‘Your father was my Bible College professor,’ ‘I love your parents so much,’ and probably the greatest being, ‘If it wasn’t for your dad . . .,’” Duane states and Damon confirming. “I have heard that sentence end with many different scenarios such as ‘I never would have finished school’ or ‘I never would have become a missionary’ or ‘I never would have become what I am today.’ These stories truly make me proud.”
WHAT IT TAKES TO BE A HERO
Eli Duran never set out to be a pastor, much less a hero of the faith — and would likely never accept such a title, as real heroes never do. But for those who know Duran or have come to hear about him, he clearly demonstrates a life focused on serving and investing in others for the purposes of God’s kingdom.
Damon explains his father’s life simply as learning of a need and filling it — whatever that need might be, whether in ministry or someone’s life.
“He never set out to be a pastor; there was a need and they asked him, so he filled it,” Damon says. “He never planned on being the founding president of a Bible college; there was a need and he filled it. One day he announced to me he was going to be a missionary to Mexico [he was 59 at the time]. It was so random! Yet he was perfectly suited for that . . . and there was a need!”
Today, 83-year-old Eli Duran and his life-long partner in ministry, Elaine, make their home in Aurora, Colorado, living life as grandparents and great-grandparents — and are officially retired . . . at least until the next time a need arises!