COSTA MESA, California — Alpha A. Zapata made a violent entry into the world, born a month prematurely just after her mother’s serious injury in a traffic crash.
Her mother, Rebecca Atencio, suffered severe damage to her face and right side as a result of the impact of the T-bone wreck. Doctors expressed reservations about whether mother or newborn daughter would survive.
Alpha spent her first month on earth in a hospital incubator. Physicians declared that — if she lived — she would never be healthy.
Although at 19 she still bears a 4-inch scar on her chest, Zapata is quite active and unimpaired.
She also is a sophomore at Vanguard University, preparing for ministry. Like many of her Vanguard classmates, Zapata is the first from her family to seek higher education in the U.S.. Scholarships are paying for the bulk of her tuition.
Her parents, Rebecca Atencio and Angel Zapata both 21 at the time of the wreck, never married. In fact, they broke up even before the smashup. Child-rearing duties fell heavily to Alpha’s grandparents, Marcos and Elsa Atencio, who, at 81 and 77 respectively, continue to pastor Iglesia Esmirna, an Assemblies of God church in south-central Los Angeles with 350 adherents. Rebecca, fully recovered after a lengthy rehabilitation, is youth pastor at the church.
Marcos Atencio graduated from Instituto Bíblico Asambleas de Dios in Costa Rica at the age of 20, and has been pastoring for 57 years. He cried when he learned of his granddaughter’s acceptance as a student at Vanguard.
“I am proud that she got the opportunity to go to a school where she can grow in both her education and ministry,” Atencio says. “I knew this would be a blessing beyond what anyone could imagine.”
From an early age, Atencio and others have told Zapata she had a calling as a pastor. A guest speaker at Iglesia Esmirna six years ago, without knowing Zapata’s grandparents served as pastors of the church, announced to the congregation, This is your future pastor.
Zapata is convinced she will indeed pastor the church at the proper time. But at her tender age, there is some trepidation. She wants assurance from God.
“I know it’s my calling, but I’m scared of it,” she admits. She has witnessed her grandparents as church leaders deal with conflict and come under spiritual attacks.
“My grandparents conquer the problems,” she says. “They always are on their knees praying. They set a huge example.”
Her grandparents also practice hospitality, with the doors of their home frequently open to those in need. Along with Alpha’s mother and brother, currently three other families live at the Atencio house in Perris, California.
Since Alpha’s childhood, Atencio has been convinced that God called her to be a pastor.
“I have seen her love and care for those around her with a genuine heart,” Atencio says. “She seeks a relationship and connections with those who surround her. It pours out naturally.”
Before assuming pastoral duties, Zapata wonders whether the Lord wants her to become a physical therapy medical missionary. Others have told Zapata, a kinesiology major, that her massaging hands have taken away their physical pain.
Her grandfather has benefited twice from that healing touch from God. In 2019, Atencio fell off a truck and badly injured his leg. In 2020, he had an excruciating pain around his waist. In both instances, he says he felt fire emanating from the palms of Alpha’s hands that healed him.
In the meantime, Zapata is gaining practical ministry experience, serving as an apprentice social media chaplain at Vanguard.
“I am not sure what my future will look like, but I know that I will walk in faith until then,” Zapata says, “The way the Lord has helped me get to where I am today will be the same way He helps me get to the place He has called me to be.”
One Vanguard leader who is an advocate of Zapata is Tommy Casarez, Division of Theology associate dean. He notes that Zapata has been co-leading a youth Bible study on Sunday nights the past two years.
“Alpha is full of the Holy Spirit and the joy of the Lord is truly her strength,” says Casarez, whose two children attend the Bible study. “She is a wonderful young lady filled with the love of Jesus and that love has been contagious for our youth. They have been powerfully impacted by her love for God and others.”
Despite her parents’ breakup, she says she enjoys a unity between them and her two younger siblings.