Samuel Santiago, 59, readily admits that when he was growing up, he wasn’t a good kid.
“I was a terror; I was a terror,” he said, smiling and shaking his head as he stood in the entryway of his church in Conway.
“I came from the streets of LA and the gangs of LA,” he said. “I got kicked out of seven junior high schools. It was various things — for fighting, for being a bully, for ditching school. I did a lot of bad things.”
Now, he puts all his energy into doing good.
From mission trips to Israel to help farmers pick grapes to buying chickens to get eggs to feed the hungry, Santiago stays busy giving back.
He credits God and the Christian Motorcycle Association for the change.
Santiago is pastor of The Father’s House, a nondenominational Messianic church on U.S. 64 in Conway.
The church, which held its first services a year ago in February, has an emphasis on Hebraic roots.
Many Christian Jews attend, Santiago said.
Walking inside the metal building is like entering Israel, which Samuel has visited three times; his wife, Marsha, has been to Israel four times.
The church rents a large space from a company, ForMor International, at 496 U.S. 64 E.
Santiago said walls, hallways and archways were created; a Booneville couple painted walls to look like a scene in Israel. A glass case holds items the Santiagos brought back from the Holy Land.
On Sunday mornings, he blows a shofar — an instrument made from a kudu horn — to let people know it’s time to worship.
Santiago said he had a DNA test, which showed that he is a descendant of the Tribe of Levi.
That knowledge elevated an existing interest he had in Judaism.
He was born in New York, and his parents were from Puerto Rico, he said. They divorced when he was 2. He lived with his father in Los Angeles and was raised in the Pentecostal church.
“I’ve been a Christian a lot of years,” Santiago said.
Even when he was going through teenage rebellion, he recalled coming to the defense of a Jewish boy.
Santiago said he attended a Jewish junior high school at one point, and some students took away a “little kid’s yarmulke,” the traditional cap worn by Jewish males.
“I slammed the guy up against the wall and boxed his ears,” Santiago said of one of the bullies. “I dusted off the yarmulke and gave it to the kid. Why? I didn’t know why, until I find out that Jewish was in my DNA.”
Santiago became a pastor eight or nine years ago, he said.
He and his wife moved to Conway in 1994, and they received credentials through the Church of God.
“When we got in with the Church of God, I felt a strong anointing, a strong calling to be a pastor,” he said. “Now, we are not affiliated with the Church of God.”
Santiago said he’d felt in 1972 that he was going to be a pastor, “but it didn’t come to fruition.”
Prior to becoming a minister, Santiago owned Señor Taco, a roadside taco stand in Conway.
Santiago, who has owned a motorcycle for years, got involved with the Christian Motorcycle Association.
“You have people who ride motorcycles and have the same basic agenda — to spread the Gospel,” he said.
“CMA changed everything for us,” he said. About 15 to 20 members, all Christians but from different churches, started holding services together at the Faulkner County Library.
“Everybody rode up in leather,” he said, laughing.
They called it The Father’s House.
“Things just grew from there,” Santiago said.
After about six years at another location in Conway, he said space in the ForMor building became available. About 60 people attend the church now, with Santiago as the pastor and his wife as associate pastor.
“We do local missions, and we do world missions,” he said.
One of the first mission trips he went on was to Kenya to help support an orphanage in the Kipsongo Slum.
“I brought back a vision from Kenya to Faulkner County,” Santiago said, pausing as he became emotional, “to help feed the hungry in Faulkner County, in our city.”
That was in about 2011, he said.
He bought 70 chickens and built chicken coops — to state Department of Health standards, he pointed out — on the 8 acres at his home.
“We put our chickens on our prayer list every Sunday,” he said, his smile returning.
Santiago said that in one year, 1,700 eggs were given to people through another organization.
The chickens’ egg production waned, and he ended the project. This spring, he plans to get more chickens.
Rick Harvey, co-founder of Soul Food Mission in Conway, has known Santiago for a long time.
“I think he’s a phenomenal person,” Harvey said. “Sam has got a heart for people and God’s ministry.”
Harvey said The Father’s House also financially supports the mission, which provides food to those in need.
“We even have members of his congregation coming out and volunteering and helping us,” Harvey said.
Santiago returned from Ecuador about five weeks ago.
“We took motorcycles and scooters to indigenous pastors in the bush,” he said.
The pastors needed them to get from village to village to spread the Gospel.
Ross Scalise of Conway, a deacon in Santiago’s church and a member of the motorcycle association, went with him.
“We also delivered a 70-horsepower outboard motor that they put on a 50-foot canoe [to help transport the pastors],” Santiago said.
A few months ago, Santiago, his wife and other church members went to a mountain in Israel and helped farmers harvest their grapes.
“We were cutting them, stacking them,” he said.
A display of mementos from Africa and Ecuador hangs on his office wall.
“Those are authentic items,” he said.
One is a necklace made of boa constrictor vertebrae, he said, and was presented to him by a village chief in Ecuador.
Back home, Santiago has been sifting through donations.
His latest mission is Abba’s Closet, located in the church.
Santiago said it’s part thrift store, part clothes closet.
“Some of the items are for sale,” he said. Some of the furniture and household items and clothing will be donated to people in need.
“Everybody will have to come through a referral,” he said. “We’re not caring about their church affiliation; we don’t care about that, just a legitimate need.”
He said the plan is for Abba’s Closet to be open every other Saturday and during the week.
“We try to keep the Sabbath,” he said. “It’s hard to do in our Western culture.”
Santiago said he speaks Spanish and some Swahili and is learning Aramaic, Ladino (a combination of Hebrew, Spanish and Greek) and Hebrew.
“I don’t think I’m going to be alive long enough to learn everything I want to learn,” he said.
Santiago walked into a large unused portion of the building. This is where he envisions a temporary shelter and maybe a classroom.
“I eventually want to use this to provide a place for those who have lost their house to a fire; maybe a woman’s husband is drunk and she needs to come here for one night. A temporary shelter is what we want to do for people,” he said. “I have been looking into beds. Cots are the easiest,” he said.
When more donations come, Santiago said, the church will rent that space for the shelter.
“We are our brothers’ keeper. If they need a shelter, they’re going to get it,” he said.
The man, who really does have only 24 hours a day, also started The Father’s House Institute of Hebraic Roots of Central Arkansas. The first class will be Feb. 11.
It has a Facebook page, and a website will be ready soon, he said.
“I love the Lord so much, and I’m about education,” Santiago said.
Three instructors are on board with the institute, and Santiago said he has applied for accreditation.
“You will be taught what you have been cheated out of as a Protestant,” he said.
Hebrew is taught on Sunday mornings, he said, and even the children in the church are learning it.
Santiago said he didn’t understand “the Jewish roots movement” when he began.
It’s a lot to learn, but that’s the point, he said.
“There’s a difference between a convert and a disciple,” he said.
“I want to be like Pig Pen,” he said, grinning.
Yes, the Peanuts comic-strip character who is hygienically challenged.
Santiago doesn’t want to be dirty, but he said he wants to leave a trail of good works and walk with obvious godliness.
“I want everybody to see where I’ve been, who I’ve been with. I want to leave a trail of Jesus Christ,” he said, laughing and walking purposefully, waving his arms behind him.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.