How a chance encounter at McDonald’s changed a student’s life.

Across the street from the Gateway NRH Campus, there is an array of businesses. There’s a donut shop, a video rental store (that might be the last one anywhere), and a McDonald’s—a restaurant so ubiquitous you might not even realize it’s there. That’s how Sam Lopez felt the day he and his father sat down at this exact McDonald’s after school on a Wednesday in 2015. He just wanted to disappear. 

The sounds of the fryers beeping and the cheerful cashier provided a balance to Sam’s mood. “I was already having a bad day because I got into a fight at Richland High School,” he says. “The cop wasn’t on my side and the cameras clearly showed it wasn’t self-defense.” He and his dad walked into the restaurant after Sam, a freshman at the time, learned he would be removed from his school and placed in alternative school. Needless to say, he wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone. His father was on the phone with a lawyer while Sam went to order some food. There were a few kids his age in front of him in line with an adult who introduced himself as Kyle Fox, the Gateway Students pastor at the NRH Campus. “Pastor Kyle saw my Richland High School shirt and invited me to come over and check out Students,” he says. “My first thought was to blow it off and go about my day.” 

Sam’s dad came over, introduced himself, and after learning about Gateway Students, encouraged Sam to go. This wasn’t very characteristic of his father because Sam’s family was rooted in the Catholic tradition. “My mom is a devout Catholic, and I have always tried to attend mass,” he says. So when his father wanted him to go, Sam was a little shocked. However, his father saw the trouble Sam was having at school and knew his son needed a change or a positive influence. Later that night, Sam went in the front door of the NRH Campus and was shocked again. “I was greeted!” he says. “I’ve never been greeted walking into church. It really caught me off guard.” The message was very interesting and he decided to return the following week. 

In the months that followed, Sam was still going through a tough time. He dealt with depression and anger because he never felt at home in his school. “Going from a rough middle school to a rough high school just made my life miserable,” he says. “The kids didn’t like me and I always wanted to fight.” Then there were the consequences of getting into that fight that got him kicked out of school. He had to go to court and appear before a judge. “I thought, is this really happening to me? I never thought my first year in high school would include sitting in a courtroom with lawyers, paperwork, cameras, and cops.” 

But his life changed one night at Gateway Students when he heard a message about how your real life and your spiritual life are intertwined. Sam began thinking of his spiritual life and his purpose here on earth, and people started noticing a difference in his life—namely his father. 

Together, they started attending Gateway’s weekend services and both began to see a major change in their lives. Then, one Sunday there was a big, aboveground pool set up in front of the NRH Campus. It was baptism weekend, and the thought of getting baptized together crossed their minds, but they hadn’t brought any clothes. But when they learned there were baptism clothes provided, it was a no-brainer. They got into the pool together and father and son were baptized in the same moment. “We went that day with no intention of getting baptized,” Sam says. “But I’m so glad we did. It changed us both.” 

Without that chance encounter with Pastor Kyle at the McDonald’s across the street from the NRH Campus, who knows where Sam would be? God has not only done something amazing through his life but through his father’s life as well. You never know what a simple invitation can mean to someone going through a difficult time and how their life can be changed forever as a result. “If it wasn’t for meeting Pastor Kyle and those kids and seeing their positivity,” says Sam, “I wouldn’t be where I am today.”