Did you hear the one about the high-powered Panamanian jewelry executive who threw a lavish party eight days after discovering that he had terminal cancer? His name is Carli Jelenszky, and 600 people showed up for his 49th birthday last August.
Jelenszky told guests that he wanted no gifts and no tears. "I wanted to celebrate God's goodness regardless of the cancer," he says.
The Jelenszky name is well known in Panama. His father started the nation's most prominent jewelry business in 1961. Carli Jelenszky's brother Pepo is a trusted adviser to the president of Panama. Another brother, Javier, is a prominent doctor.
Jelenszky is known most for his years of helping to run Mercurio Joyeros, the family store. But since cancer struck, the once high-living executive is increasingly known for leading Bible studies for crowds packed into his condominium overlooking Panama City's majestic harbor.
There, rich and poor alike are placing their trust in Jesus.
Jelenszky's journey with Christ began on September 12, 1986, because of misplaced hopes about a drug deal. The previous day he had met Jack Smith, a friend of three of his brothers, at a party. Noting Jelenszky's excessive drinking, Smith asked if he would like to have the same high with no side effects. Jelenszky agreed to meet him the next day in Smith's hotel room. He had no idea the presumed drug dealer was a missionary.
"I thought Jack had access to some new American drugs," Jelenszky says. "I was shocked when I got to his room and saw him sitting with an open Bible on the table." Smith shared the gospel, and after 20 minutes Jelenszky knelt to receive Jesus into his heart.
He notes, looking back, that he was ripe for conversion. "I was always looking for something and knew my life was empty. I had tried self-hypnosis, Silva mind control, and TM [Transcendental Meditation]. I would try the latest fads. I had everything but had nothing."
His wife, Gloria, who also later accepted Christ, says they considered themselves Catholic but didn't take their faith seriously.
"I hated confession, and I had no personal walk with God," she says. "Carli and I were caught up in the fast life of the rich. We both loved to travel, and I loved to shop."
Such is the life of Panama's upper class—the people Jelenszky had a special desire to reach as soon as he put his trust in Christ. "I felt I had an opportunity to reach into my own social and business world and bring the Good News to them. I could talk their language."
His conversion, however, created an immediate crisis for his family, and for friends and business associates in Panama. "There was a lot of gossip about me, and people were saying that I had gone crazy and joined a cult," he says. His longtime friend Rolando Domingo, along with one of Jelenszky's brothers, even formed a local branch of the apologetics organization Catholic Answers to counter Carli's message.
Relations with family and friends may have turned worse, but his marriage improved. Gloria saw how his love for the Lord dramatically changed him. "He quit smoking instantly, and he started to treat me with respect," she says. "There was a new romance in our marriage."
But tensions between Jelenszky and his father escalated—especially after he announced he was going to the United States to study theology.
"My dad told me that if I went through with my plans that it would cost me my inheritance and contact with my seven brothers and sister. It hurt to hear my father's words, and it was all a little bit scary, but we knew we were doing what God wanted."
Carli and Gloria lost their house in Panama as they prepared to leave for the United States. In 1989 they moved to Minneapolis, where he began studies at Bethel Seminary.
"We bought our clothes at Goodwill and could not afford to eat out, except maybe at McDonald's," he recalls. "We really loved the fellowship at the Minnetonka Community Church, but we could not take the cold Minnesota winter."
Jelenszky transferred to Bethel Seminary West in San Diego. Tight finances continued, but they were enjoying an abundant life. "All we could afford was a cheap used car," he says, "but those days in America were probably our happiest as a family."
His father would not allow his brothers and sister to visit him in person, though they could telephone him. But Jelenszky received a visit from his father, who was seeing another relative in California. During the visit the elder Jelenszky came to realize that his son's faith was genuine and reasonable and not an affront to the spirit of Catholicism.
"My dad softened his heart to my ministry and allowed my brothers and sister to reconnect with me," Jelenszky says. "That opened the door for a return to Panama."
Reaching the Rich
The Minnetonka fellowship ordained Jelenszky on April 12, 1991, and he received his Master of Divinity in June. He returned to Panama that summer and resumed working at the family store. His dream: to start Bible studies among rich friends and business contacts.
The dream began to take shape after Jelenszky told his friend Chesco Linares—one of Panama's most illustrious business figures—about Jesus. "I owe my spiritual life to Carli," Linares says. "He helped me to develop a relationship with Christ. Before I just had a religion."
Linares began to invite people to his home for Bible studies with Jelenszky. The harvest from far-flung outreach, however, came only after Jelenszky was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last summer. He says more people have come to Jesus since he was stricken than in the previous 10 years of Bible teaching.
"We are seeing leaders in government at our home, major business figures, doctors, and lawyers," he says. "If my getting cancer is what it takes for people to realize their need of Christ, then who am I to argue with God's plans? I asked God some time ago to rekindle my heart for evangelism. I did not expect this to be the way he would do it."
Gloria can hardly believe the effect of recent Bible studies. As many as 100 people regularly pack into her living room and dining room to listen to Jelenszky's testimony.
"We see new people at every study," she says. "They want to hear firsthand about Carli's joy."
Author Ralph MacKenzie says that at one Saturday night Bible study in September, people were standing in the hallway and against the living room walls. "There was hardly room to breathe," MacKenzie says. "I saw 30 people put up their hands when Carli gave the invitation to accept Christ."
Concern over his cancer is widespread in Panama. The country's president, Mireya Moscoso, let Jelenszky know of her willingness to help. Friends stop him regularly on the street to hear how he is doing. One of Panama's most famous reporters rose to talk with him as he entered a restaurant for lunch last September.
At the Bible studies, men and women with tears running down their cheeks hug him. Many say that they are praying for his healing.
"I've probably shed more tears over Carli's illness than anything in my life," says Bob Gunn, pastor of Crossroads Bible Church in Panama City. "Yet we all have such a deep burden for the salvation of our friends here in Panama that we have to believe that God is doing something very special among us."
Catholics for Jesus
How to proclaim a personal relationship with Christ in a culturally Catholic context can be a tricky issue. Jelenszky has had to work through how to relate to his Catholic past and to Panama's Catholic world. About 80 percent of the country's 2.9 million people are Roman Catholic.
"After my conversion, I was too negative about the Catholic Church—probably early on I believed everyone should leave the church," he says. "I was mad at the priests because I was not told about a personal walk with God. Mass seemed an empty ritual to me."
Jelenszky began to adopt a more positive approach to Protestant-Catholic relations while at Bethel West, where his best friend was MacKenzie—coauthor with Norman Geisler of Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences.
"Carli has become a great witness to Catholics because he has learned the value of a positive approach," MacKenzie says. "He knows what works with Catholics. And he has powerful allies in the Catholic Church in Panama who know that his Bible studies lead people to Christ."
Jelenszky works hard at diplomacy. He strives to make Catholics feel comfortable at his home Bible studies. He has doctrinal differences with Rome but has learned the benefit of building bridges rather than walls.
"It is not my job to attack Catholicism," Jelenszky says. "I am not trying to steal from the Catholic Church—my job is to evangelize. I want my fellow Panamanians to be rich spiritually and to know Jesus."
The jeweler is not averse to helping Catholics find a new church home if they need it. "Some of my Catholic friends who love Jesus find it best to stay Roman Catholic. Rolando is a perfect example, or my good friend Chesco. Others find it more helpful to go to Crossroads or one of the dynamic Pentecostal churches in the city.
"I want to let people choose what is right for them. What matters most is that we are united in truly knowing Jesus and the peace he offers. My main emphasis is not on religion but on a relationship with Jesus."
Living out that relationship is paramount. When Jelenszky became the manager of the jewelry chain after his father's death from cancer in 1997, his faith brought one major change in his business dealings.
"I would no longer sell to customers if I knew the jewelry was going to somebody's mistress," he says. "I wanted no part in the dishonesty and the adultery. I did not care about the lost profit."
Preparing to Die
The ultimate test for living out his faith would come in how to die. Jelenszky recalls how illness crept up on him early last summer. He had problems with blood circulation in his right leg. Though he had to use a wheelchair, he was not overly concerned.
The subsequent diagnosis of cancer hit him hard.
"I could not believe it—my eyes went watery," he says. "Bob Gunn was with me when I got the biopsy results. We prayed together. I was shocked and depressed." Then came an astonishing peace. "My confusion lasted about an hour, and then God gave me the strength and joy to face what lay ahead."
Word spread quickly about his illness and faithful response. "I have said in my Bible studies that I am in a win-win situation. On the one hand, doctors know my case is bad. If I get healed, the glory will go to God. On the other hand, if I die I will go to be with the Lord. If that is his desire, I'm more than happy."
Jelenszky is firm about his contentment. "I am not in denial. I am heartbroken over the pain that this has brought to my wife and our precious children. And I know that the worst times are probably on their way healthwise. But I have never felt closer than I feel to God now. People may think I'm crazy, but I have never been happier."
He is quick to give glory to God for this strength. "I'm actually a bit of a hypochondriac," he says. "The only thing that explains my peace is the Holy Spirit."
The doctors do not expect him to live out the year. How does Jelenszky want to be remembered?
"For most of my life I have had the chance to handle the most beautiful jewelry in the world—I love helping people pick out the right gift for that special someone," he says. "But telling people about Jesus is more precious than any amount of diamonds or gold. And it is what I want people to remember about Carli Jelenszky."
James A. Beverley is the associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, and a professor at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto. Information about his forthcoming Nelson's Illustrated Guide to Religions (Nelson) is available at www.religionwatch.ca.
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Other testimonies include:
R.C. Sproul's Testimony | The theologian and author of Five Things Every Christian Needs to Grow talks about how he met Jesus and why playing the violin is like reading the Bible. (Dec. 31, 2002)
A Testimony in Reverse | I have discovered how inconvenient it can be when God actually does speak. (Feb. 5, 2001)
The Making of an Original | Coloring in the lines other Christians drew for me was much easier than the hard, divine work of becoming the person God wants me to be. (Dec. 27, 2000)
Ruth Graham's Sweet Offering of a Long Life | Ruth Bell Graham just turned 80 and as a young girl she asked the Lord to let her die a martyr's death, preferably as an old-maid missionary in Tibet. (June 9, 2000)
Rediscovering Jesus in, of All Places, Church | After three decades of spiritual quest, I found myself being drawn to the kind of church I most disliked. (Aug. 9, 1999)
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