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Robert Cantu: Good friend, colorful life

Yesterday I flew all the way from Bucharest, Romania to McAllen, Texas to be with Robert one last time. His life made my own life so much richer and his passing leaves me poorer.   Over the years, we shared many adventures. His death this past Tuesday was an event he’d wrestled with for…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes
Yesterday I flew all the way from Bucharest, Romania to McAllen, Texas to be with Robert one last time. His life made my own life so much richer and his passing leaves me poorer.
Over the years, we shared many adventures. His death this past Tuesday was an event he’d wrestled with for years as he suffered the pain of multiple illnesses. He wanted to battle through the pain as long as possible for his mother and for his son, both of whom he loved more than life itself.
I thought about what to share about his life and felt like it would be better if I tried to give you a deeper understanding of my friend as opposed to glossing over some of the things that made his life difficult. In doing so, my intent is that we might love him and honor his memory more fully and honestly.
I met Robert first in Matamoros in 1992.  He had served as a translator on our projects.  The first week made such an impact on him as he walked with our teams from house to house that he decided to stay another week.  And after that he served for another week until, at the end of the summer, he talked with me about the possibility of coming on staff with our ministry.  And not long after, not only was he on staff, but he was using his natural leadership gifts to help us establish a base in Mexico.

I remember watching Robert transfix a crowd with his powerful speaking skills.  I was amazed to watch him as he gathered the pastors of Tampico and led them as they’d never been led before.  He became our first base director in Mexico. Later, Robert used these skills to run a couple of successful businesses and lead a department in the local university.  Robert accomplished a lot during his time on earth.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a man who had more pain in his life than did Robert Cantu.  He had the physical pain of scoliosis and a dozen other chronic maladies, the last of which ended up killing him.  It was more than anyone should ever have to endure. And he endured a far greater emotional pain for much of his life.  This was a pain so dark and so searing that Robert kept it locked away from everyone.  When Robert was still a boy, his father died in his arms of a massive heart attack.  You can imagine the sense of loss and confusion a boy would feel in the wake of such tragedy.  It pierced him to the core. And in the midst of his mourning and isolation, a second unspeakable tragedy happened, one which he shared with only a few people during his life. 

Yet for all the pain that filled Robert’s life, there was much joy and love.  Robert loved to laugh, and we always seemed to laugh a lot together.  Though he became very successful in his academic career, he often thought about his career as a missionary and wished he could somehow find his way back to that simpler time in his life.  He cared deeply about people, especially needy ones.  Some of you who only saw the protective mask he sometimes wore didn’t see that, but I saw him help people all the time.  His greatest joy was to help others.  He loved God with a passion that I’d only seen in a few others. 

Towards the end of his life, the pain progressed from a dull and perpetual throb that lasted day and night, racking his soul.  The pain gradually took over until all most people ever saw was a mask.  Many people probably mistook the mask for Robert himself.  He would explain to me the way he treated his family and his coworkers and we both knew that wasn’t him they saw, but his mask.  What made the pain even worse is that Robert felt things deeply and longed to connect and care for people.  He was dying inside, but didn’t see a way out of his situation.  He was stuck – on the one hand he loved his son more than anything else in the world and wanted to give him a loving home in which to grow up.  He needed to stay alive for his son.  And on the other hand he couldn’t break free of the prison of pain in which he was trapped.

Robert’s pain has ended now.  He preached a lot of sermons and, like all of us, made a few mistakes.  But his final and best sermon he preaches to us still because he preaches it with his life.  Before he died, I shared with him what I would say today and asked him to leave me some final words to give to you and this is what He said:

“I didn’t want things to end like this.  I know that even now I have the potential to do more.  I went through some of my old letters.  I call it my “celebration of life.”  I feel like I haven’t fulfilled my purpose.  People kept telling me that I needed to surrender to God.  But I tried to fight it on my own.  Finally this weekend, I gave up and surrendered to God.  I gave up.  But, I’m by myself.  I feel like I’m at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
I beg to differ. Robert is now in the right place at the right time. Robert’s struggle is over – he lived life to the full, loved well and served his master with passion. I pray that he is dancing in his whole and glorified body as we mourn his passing.

Comments (12)

  • Intelligent, gracious and honest words on someone who was obviously precious to you. Peace to you, to Robert’s family and to all those who knew him and are touched by his loss.

  • you did a good job of fighting hard with Robert. You loved him well papa. He had a good heart; all of my memories are of him loving others. I hope the funeral is encouraging and life celebrating. love you dad!

  • My dear brother Seth.

    At this point in life and our trek to heaven I don’t need more or better reasons to love you.

    But in a simple way the manner in which you described your friend did just that. You offered a handful of flowers for the rest of us to smell wafting with the fragrances of loyalty, labor and love.

    I really value the man you are.

    And I guess more than anything I respect the heart of a brother who is willing to walk into the fray.

    You are never alone. Jesus loves showing up in fiery furnances. And you have some friends who are willing to go there–too.

  • This is such a beautiful tribute to a man who obviously loved God and others in the midst of pain and suffering. Praying for you Seth, and the friends and family of Robert as you celebrate his life today!

  • St. mark of the Cross

    “Oh! How the mighty have fallen.” Standing with you and all in this time…I do weep with you Seth – really. Love, St. mark of the Cross

  • He sends the hardest challenges to those He loves the most and who are closest to Him as a Dad. Robert is dancing, singing praises to those who loved him on Earth. Many of us wear a mask against all types of pain to those around us. In our hearts, when we are saved, we are focused on the ultimate love of God and how we can spread that love to those are willing to recieve.

    You are our friend, and mentor as we walk this radicial journey with those who need us and fighting for the the heart of those whose pain does not allow them to see how much they need us and the love of the Lord.

    Forgive quickly and love deeply, that is what the message is for the day. Trust me on this.

  • Thanx for this wonderful tribute Seth.For those of us who didnt know him, we will now beable to look out for him when we get home.What a beautiful spirit he has and now it is now free to be everything he should be.

  • What I love about you Mr. Barnes; you get guys that suffer beyond measure from things that are not controllable, like Robert, and you keep loving guys for bringing pain on themselves and keep blaming everybody else… you are a prince; thanks!

  • Thank you for posting this, Dad. What a wonderful man he was. Thank you also for spending that time with him. He loved you so much.

  • Some friends and I have been posting pictures of old Missions Trips we took in college – Roberto led 2 of those trips over spring break to Matamoros in 98 and 99. I decided to look him up, sad to see he has passed, but thankful he is with the Lord! He was an awesome project leader and follower of Jesus – by far my favorite of all my AIM trips.

  • Buenas noches, soy de Tampico, Tamaulipas (Mx). Hoy me encuentro en el proceso de ser parte de este hermoso grupo de siervos en todo el mundo, que dejando todo sigue el llamado de Aquel que dice: “Sigueme”.
    Quiero decirles que recuerdo al Hno. Roberto Cantù, siendo yo una adolescente entrando a la juventud, cuando llego a nuestra ciudad e hizo una invitación a ser parte de este ministerio que son las misiones.
    NUestra iglesia le invitó y compartió con los jovenes de ese entonces, 1993 aproximadamente. El trabajo de nuestro hermano dejó marcada mi vida. Aun conservo la Biblia que le regaló a mi hermana dedicandosela para comunicar el evangelio a otros.
    Tengo 38 años y Dios me ha llamado a servir entre la gente de Guatemala. Así que siguiendo el ejemplo de este hermano amado y querido, dejo este saludo y comentario para aquellos que en vida le conocieron.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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