Hundreds of mourners gathered in Camuy, Puerto Rico, on Sunday for the funeral service of renowned evangelist, Jose Joaquin "Yiye" Avila, who can be described as the Latino "Billy Graham." Family, friends and public grievers alike travelled from the United States and other countries to pay their final respects before Avila was laid to rest.
Compared to traditional services, Avila's funeral was slightly solemn and considered more of a celebration of his life and ministry. At the service, his surviving daughter, Doris Avila, told gatherers his death was the cause for a "party in heaven," according to a video posted on Puerto Rico-based newspaper El Nuevo Dia. Furthermore, attendants shun their black attire and a large screen hung above Avila's coffin where clips of him preaching throughout his years of ministry were on display.
Avila, who died of cardiac arrest in his sleep last Friday morning at the age of 88, was a prominent figure among Hispanic Christian and secular leaders, many of whom tweeted and voiced their thoughts on his passing. Gangster-turned-evangelist, Nicky Cruz, whose conversion story was made into a film "The Cross and the Switchblade" starring Erik Estrada, was one who shared his condolences with CP.
"Yiye was one of the greatest evangelists in Puerto Rico," said Cruz. "He was very respected, loved and very famous among Latin Americans. He was my friend."
Before Avila became a Christian household name among Hispanics, he was a chemistry and biology professor for over 21 years and a bodybuilding champion, who won the title of Mr. North America in 1953. After his stint with education and competitions, he was diagnosed with chronic rheumatoid arthritis, which turned him to seek God.
According to his official Facebook page, he converted to Christianity while tuning into a television sermon by the late evangelist, Oral Roberts. It was through his message that Avila was compelled to go into his bedroom and give his life to Christ and eventually began his prophetic evangelical ministry.
Formerly known as the Hispanic "Billy Graham" within the Latino community, his ministry rose to prominent stature when he began to fill stadiums and became heavily requested to preach at international crusades where thousands of Christians and non-believers gathered to hear his messages. His rise as a well-known preacher eventually earned him the reputation of an evangelical pioneer within Latin America and beyond.
Although he gained international recognition, he maintained an unfazed persona throughout his ministerial career.
"He was known for his humility and by one word that characterizes him best, flawless," said Miguel Sánchez Avila, Avila's grandson, during the funeral service, El Nuevo Dia newspaper reported .
"What had always characterized him was simplicity," said Eddie Robles, a pastor from Camuy, Puerto Rico. "He lived in the same house where he began his ministry as a teacher," he recalled.
When Avila couldn't fulfill overwhelming demands for evangelistic events, he decided to take the word of God to the masses through media. His television network, La Cadena de Milagros or Chains of Miracles, began airing his sermons in over 100 countries during its first year in 1988.
His messages were known for a no-holds-barred approach in which he constantly preached about the coming of Christ and the last days.
Avila's daughter wanted mourners to know that although he will not preach another message, his legacy should be maintained and spread throughout leaders who have the opportunity to preach the truth.
"God called him to his ministry, but the work continues," said the younger Avila. "Let's be in constant alert, because Christ is still coming."
Although his ministry was wildly successful, his personal life was oftentimes full of tragedy. Avila and his wife, Carmen Delia, had three daughters, one of which was murdered by her husband and another daughter was a victim of a fatal car accident in 2009.
His daughter's murder case made international headlines when Avila came forward to announce he had forgiven his ex-son-in-law amid the pain it caused his family. Avila's other grandson, Eliezer Avila Rivera, told funeral goers he never questioned his grandfather when he forgave his mother's murderer saying that he understood the "spiritual" aspect of Avila's forgiveness.
During the funeral procession, many also shared their accounts of how Avila impacted their lives. In addition to the gatherers present at the service, the funeral director, Melvin Amador, said his company received phone calls from individuals in Europe and India offering their condolences and at the cemetery site, the amount of mourners surpassed church grievers by the dozens, which prompted the Mayor of Camuy, Edwin Garcia, to declare four days of mourning throughout Puerto Rico.