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Saving Grace: How One Man Found Peace In The Crimson Storm

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Christo Lisika (41) has overcome a lot of obstacles in his life. Photo courtesy of AnnaGrace Mercer/SNU Athletics Christo Lisika (41) has overcome a lot of obstacles in his life. Photo courtesy of AnnaGrace Mercer/SNU Athletics
Lisika in action againt Ouachita Baptist earlier this season. Photo courtesy of AnnaGrace Merce/SNU Athletics Lisika in action againt Ouachita Baptist earlier this season. Photo courtesy of AnnaGrace Merce/SNU Athletics
Lisika accumulated 36 tackles for loss over two seasons for SNU. Photo courtesy of AnnaGrace Mercer/SNU Athletics Lisika accumulated 36 tackles for loss over two seasons for SNU. Photo courtesy of AnnaGrace Mercer/SNU Athletics
BETHANY, Oklahoma -

Southern Nazarene wrapped up its 2013 season on Saturday with a 55-20 loss to McMurray, sealing a disappointing winless season for the Crimson Storm. While SNU might not have achieved what it wanted to on the gridiron, the story of triumph from one of its players puts the perceived importance of wins and losses into perspective.

Defensive end Christo Lisika is an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His story is like that of many people who come to the United States to make a better life for themselves and identify themselves as something more than aliens. He was a dominating force for SNU this year, racking up 17.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. You'd never know this same young man legally didn't exist as recent as two years ago.

Christo is just now opening up about his entire story, a story that spans his entire life. Once a point of embarrassment, Christo says the time has come for him to share it with the world "to give hope to people that feel hopeless."

It's a story of family; of pain; rejection; hope; and how football played a part in all those things.

***

Christo was born in Zaire (the Democratic Republic of the Congo was known as Zaire from 1971-1997) on Christmas Eve, 1990 to Mifi Diema and Azgat Lisika. He has an older brother, a younger sister, and two younger brothers. He has never seen his youngest brother, having fled the country before he was born. Life became unusual for Christo at a very early age. When he was just six months old, his uncle, Simon "Lemmy" Lisika, took him from his biological parents and raised him. Christo still saw his parents from time to time, but would normally go months without seeing them.

His uncle was a colonel in the army and was very well off; he had several children, including Christo living in his house in the capital city of Kinshasa. Christo never found the situation odd, nor did he ever question the reason he was chosen by his uncle instead of his older brother or, eventually, his younger siblings. To him, it all seemed normal.

"I've always asked myself that," Christo said when asked why he thought his uncle raised him. "I don't know why; I never asked why. I remember finding out he wasn't my real dad. I never reacted in some crazy way; I was never devastated or anything. I called them both Dad. I called them both Mom (Lemmy's wife and Christo's biological mother)."

Christo took an immediate liking to sports. He says he was the most athletic of all his siblings and they would take the time to watch him do backflips and generally put on a show. Soccer was the sport of choice in Zaire, and Christo was "pretty good at that, too."

In 1997, a coalition of Rwandan and Ugandan forces invaded Zaire. President Joseph Mobutu fled the country and as a colonel in the army, Lemmy was a target of sorts for the invading forces. He sent Christo and two of his legitimate children, Simon and Samantha, to live with some friends in South Africa. After a year there, the three of them left for the United States and a new life with Lemmy's wife, Georgine Vila. Vila and Christo's aunt, Emilie Nzele were in the U.S. on a vacation when the invasion began and decided to stay and establish a new life away from the conflict. Lemmy, meanwhile, relocated to France, unable to leave the life of luxury he had grown accustomed to over the years.

The thought of moving to the U.S. was exciting for Christo and his cousins. It was a fresh start in a land of opportunity, far from the conflict that was tearing apart his home country. The three children moved into a four-bedroom home in Hearst, Texas. Even though Kinshasa sits very close to the equator, the climate adjustment was intense.

"When I got to Texas, I hadn't experienced heat like that before," Christo said with a laugh. "It was so hot. I couldn't be outside for a while; I had to get used to it."

Life was normal for Christo for the next few years. He went to school like any other child, having already learned English during his year in South Africa. He continued his love for sports, playing soccer with his friends during recess. Eventually, he was introduced to football. It was confusing for him at first and he didn't particularly enjoy it. Even though it became his sport of choice, he was unable to play at an organized level until junior high because his family didn't have the funds to pay for the equipment and other fees required to play.

When Christo was in fifth grade, life began to get tough. He and his family had to move out of their four-bedroom house and into a two-bedroom apartment because they couldn't afford the home anymore. Vila began to grow restless. Unable to find work, she was constantly calling Lemmy, urging him to come get his children and take them off her hands. These were what Christo described as the worst of times.

"Those were times when I couldn't wait to get to school where I could be around my friends and people I knew and get away from it," Christo recalled. "When I came home, there was a lot of emotional pain, just seeing and hearing things. It was so dark in there. Everything was just so dark."

One day, when Christo was in fifth grade, Vila had finally had enough. Christo came home from school to find suitcases on the floor, packed and ready to go. The next day, she left and Christo's other aunt, Nzele, was there to take him, Simon and Samantha in, even though she already had two children of her own to care for. Vila left for Canada, where she still lives today.

"You could tell it hurt her too, but she felt like it was something she had to do," Christo said. "I remember her leaving and walking out the door. I held her leg, not wanting her to leave."

"When she left, it was hurtful and I began to think, ‘Forget her. I don't need her anymore.' I (eventually) forgave her. The relationship just isn't the same anymore. I made sure she knew I forgave her and I did; there's no more anger."

Life continued to be hard for Christo and the rest of his family, especially Nzele. She worked two jobs to keep a roof over her children's heads and put food on the table. Sometimes, she wouldn't come home at night because she was working so much. One summer, she had a stroke due to overwork. Doctors forced her to cut back on the amount of time she spent laboring for her family.

All this time, Christo continued to grow up, turning from a child into a man, both physically and through his experiences as the oldest of five children in a tough family situation. He finally began to play organized football beginning in seventh grade, and discovered he was pretty good at it, despite his earlier reservations about the sport. However, the toughest part of his life was just beginning.

***

The joy and freedom a teenager receives upon obtaining a driver's permit for the first time is something most everyone can relate to. Christo was ready to experience that same excitement when he went down to the DMV when he was in 10th grade. When he stepped to the counter to begin the process, the attendant asked for his Social Security number. Christo had never heard of a Social Security number, nor did he have one. The excitement quickly turned to disappointment. He was crushed.

"It was pretty upsetting, heartbreaking, devastating," Christo said. "It was like, I can't do this and I can't do that. It's been like that for years now. I was really looking forward to taking another step. That was the biggest disappointment."

Christo was consoled by Nzele, who told him she had explored every possible avenue to adopt Christo as well as his two cousins, but the money required to complete the process was entirely too much for her.

So Christo pushed on with life, a new cloud hanging over his head. When he tore his ACL as a junior at Euless Trinity High School, one of the most recognized high school football programs in the nation, Christo discovered how much he loved the game of football and also realized what the game could do for him and his future.

"I tore my ACL and I just found myself working my butt off to get back on the field," Christo said. "I was thinking I have to come back and I have to get a scholarship. I had been Googling how an immigrant with no documents could go to school and scholarships kept popping up. My senior year, I felt it was all or nothing, I said football was going to be my way out."

The hard work paid off. Christo earned a scholarship to Navarro College, a junior college in Corsicana, Texas, and with his help, the Bulldogs won the NJCAA national championship his sophomore year, just a year after current Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton led Blinn College to the national championship.

Even though success on the field and in the classroom—Christo took 24 hours his final semester at Navarro to earn his degree and make sure he completed his education there while under scholarship—was coming to him, Christo still lived with the distraction of his immigration status hovering over him.

"I wouldn't think about the immigration stuff when I was at school because all that stuff was taken care of," Christo said. "I would just go to class and play football; all that was an escape. But it was always something that was in the back of my mind."

The past two seasons had put Christo on several team's radars as a recruit. Christo collected a couple Division I offers and was preparing to set up an official visit to Missouri when his immigrant status reared its ugly head once again. While taking information for the trip to Columbia, Missouri, then-safeties coach Barry Odom (now defensive coordinator at Memphis) asked Christo for a driver's license number, or some sort of identification. When Christo told him he had nothing of the sort, Odom promised to do everything possible to get him to Missouri. In the end, there was nothing Odom could do to work around Christo's status.

"At one point, he said don't worry about it," Christo recalled. "We're going to have you in school and we'll figure it out. When he gave me the call…" Christo's voice trailed off, lost in thought about what could have been.

The disappointment with Missouri was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back for Christo. He no longer felt any desire to try when so much was suppressing him and preventing him from doing anything with his life. He couldn't get a job; he couldn't apply for academic scholarships to further his education. He couldn't even go on a recruiting trip to another school. It was rock-bottom for him.

"I just thought, I have every reason in life to fail," Christo said. "There were times I felt like dying. There was no point in me living; I couldn't do anything."

So Christo went home to his aunt Emilie's house and sat there. He did nothing except play video games and watch TV all day, every day for months. He felt his life was a lost cause and he acted like it as well. During this time, his uncle, Lemmy, passed away from liver cancer, adding to the burden pressing down on Christo's shoulders. His little cousin, Joe—one of Emilie's children—went off to junior college to play basketball with no issues whatsoever. It was just one thing after another for Christo.

Even though Christo had given up on himself, Nzele never did. She dragged Christo to church when he was at his lowest; she prayed for him consistently, sometimes waking Christo up with her prayers in the middle of the night. Her efforts weren't lost on Christo, but he simply wished she would give up on him as well.

"I didn't know why she was doing it," Christo confessed. "I thought she was crazy and had no idea what I was feeling. There were times I wanted her to forget it and quit praying over it.

"She had faith in me even before I had faith in myself; her faith never stopped."

Eventually, Christo began to think about his future and where he would be if he didn't pull himself up and do whatever he could to make a life for himself. In five years, what would he be doing? Would he still be stuck on his aunt's couch playing video games and watching TV all day? Or would he choose to work hard, find a way to get a job, build a family and enjoy life to the fullest? Either way, he realized he was the only one who controlled either destination.

Christo went back to the one thing that had not failed him when he worked hard at it: football. Nzele had always thought that was the way Christo would escape the problems he faced with his immigration status.

"You're the only one in the family who plays football," Christo said she told him. "Why? I don't know. God placed that passion in you for a reason. I don't know where football is going to take you or how far, but it didn't take you through two years of junior college for you to just stop."

Christo said he got down on his knees and prayed for peace. He didn't ask for success or a big school, or even to play football. He simply asked for peace and left the rest of it up to God.

Then he started to put in the work and take care of the things he could control. Starting in the fall of 2011, Christo began getting up at 6 a.m. five days a week and walking up to Trinity High School to work out for several hours. By itself, that's impressive commitment, but when you figure out it took him an hour to walk one way, it raises the level of commitment that much more.

As Christo began to get back in football shape, doors began opening for him on the immigration front and people began pouring into his life to help him achieve what he so desperately desired.

***

Mike Pruitt enjoys life as a retired man. For 27 years, he was the head athletic trainer at Trinity High School and heard plenty of stories of how people came to Trinity from other countries. He met Christo during his sophomore year of high school, but really got to know him well when Christo was rehabbing his knee after tearing his ACL during his junior year of high school. As unique as Christo's story was, Pruitt says it didn't stand out at Trinity.

"Trinity at different times had as many as 37 different nationalities," Pruitt said. "Even its sister school, L.D. Bell, (was) what would be considered extremely diverse compared to everybody else, (but) wasn't quite as diverse as Trinity was. A lot of people think diversity is Hispanic and black. Pick a continent, pick a nation, when you come to H.E.B. (Hearst-Euless-Bedford independent school district) and there's a good chance there's somebody that's from that area.

"Nobody stands out at Trinity or Bell. It's like walking into the United Nations."

Pruitt initially dealt with Christo like he would any other athlete, but he found Christo had some of the same hindrances other athletes had, like not being able to get to practice or come up to the school for rehab. Pruitt gave him rides to and from the school and over time, the two grew fairly close, or in Pruitt's terms, closer than he would get with other athletes.

"I don't know, I couldn't tell you why," Pruitt said. "There are some of those kids, you would do the exact same thing for them and it's not that they don't appreciate what you did for them, but you don't stay in contact with them. We stayed in contact with him."

Christo knew he could count on Pruitt for help. Pruitt gave Christo yard work and other odd jobs to help put some money is his pocket in addition to giving him rides and taking him out on runs to Jack-N-The-Box.

"We did that more often with him than we did with other people," Pruitt explained. "We'd do the same thing with other kids. Other people had more people to help them than Christo did."

Christo may not have had the most help in the word, but Pruitt was responsible for introducing Christo to a couple that would have the biggest impact on his life.

***

Doug and Raschelle Loudenslager have always been people who care about the well-being of others. Over the years, the couple has supported Naomi's Village, a village in Kenya that houses almost 100 orphans. They've had a foreign exchange student from South Korea. They've had people living with them off and on pretty much the entire time they have been married.

"People matter to Jesus, so shouldn't they matter to us?" Raschelle asked during a recent phone interview.

The Loudenslagers were living in Colorado when family health and a new job opportunity for Doug brought the family back to the H.E.B area in November 2011. Raschelle's parents lived next door to Mike Pruitt for a long time, and the two families had a relationship going back 20 or so years. So when the Loudenslagers' moving help fell through on moving day, they called Pruitt to see if there were any high school students or other people he knew who would be available to help them move in. Pruitt called Christo and Simon.

Christo and Simon arrived around lunchtime to find moving trucks. Since it was time to eat, Raschelle asked the pair if they had eaten yet. Simon said no, but Christo replied that they had. Christo tried to remind Simon they actually had eaten lunch, but Raschelle detected dishonesty and what followed could have come straight out of the move "The Blindside."

"I said, ‘Don't you lie to me, Christo. Have you eaten lunch or not?'" Raschelle recalled. "He said, ‘No ma'am we haven't.'"

Over lunch and the course of the next two days during the moving process, Doug and Raschelle heard Christo's story and how he had come to where he was. The couple was blown away not only by the story itself, but also by how Christo had responded to all the adversity in his life. There was no pity party, no "woe is me" moments.

"Given his lot in life at the time, I would think it would be a lot easier to say you know what, I give up," Doug said of Christo. "Quite honestly, I looked at Simon and Christo and I looked at Christo as the guy who refused to give up and strives for excellence in everything that he does, no matter what is going on around him."

Over the next few weeks and months, the Loudenslagers developed a relationship with not only Christo and Simon, but also with Emilie and Samantha. The Loudenslagers had Christo and Simon over for Thanksgiving dinner just weeks after meeting them. They went to church with Christo's family to gain a better understanding of who they were as a family and to learn the cultural background they came from. Eventually, it became clear to the couple they needed to do something to help Christo and his family get through the confusing web of immigration and do anything they could to help make life easier for them.

"Both of our kids were in school so we had an empty house most of the time so he'd (Christo) come over and hang out and watch football or TV at night or just hang out and play games," Doug said. "For me and Raschelle, he became a part of our family at that point and it wasn't like there was a decision that I made or Raschelle made that said we're going to do this."

Few people ask the couple why they decided to help a complete stranger work toward becoming a U.S. citizen, but they have an answer for those that do.

"It's because God opened our eyes and our hearts to a need and we knew that we had something to give," Raschelle said. "What we didn't have, we had a God that could show us and direct us."

Raschelle began to make some phone calls, unsure of what all the immigration process entailed. One of her first phone calls was to a friend at the Baylor University Law School to find a good immigration attorney. Not only did her friend give her a recommendation, she recommended one of the top immigration attorneys in the country, Michelle Rodriguez. News9.com left several messages with Rodriguez' office, but was unable to reach Rodriguez for comment in this story.

Christo's whole family and Raschelle went across town to see Rodriguez at her office in Dallas. When the situation was explained to Rodriguez, she said it was the toughest case she'd ever seen, given the amount of time Christo had been living in the United States and his lack of paperwork. She said it wouldn't be easy, but it was not impossible. She agreed to do it and in a move that stunned everyone present, agreed to do it pro bono.

"I was really excited when she asked me questions that no other attorney had asked me before," Christo said. "She knew what she was doing.

"It was pretty emotional because she started crying. This was the first attorney that I felt really understood what I was going through."

The process was long and hard, but through it all, Christo remained calm and collected, confident things would work themselves out in the end. In fact, Raschelle said she often found comfort from Christo during the hard times.

"I would say, ‘Christo, it's so frustrating,'" Raschelle recalled. "He would say to me, ‘Well, don't be frustrated, it will work out; somehow, it will work out. We're not giving up.' I saw him down, but I never saw him out.

"There were times when I was like God, I hope you know what you're doing because this looks humanly impossible, so it's got to be providentially directed."

One particular moment had everyone involved concerned about Christo being approved. Samantha's application came back approved first since she was the youngest and didn't have to prove as much to immigration officials regarding her location over the years. Christo's came back with a hole in a particular month. The immigration office asked them to prove Christo was in the country on a specific day during the month. After much time spent wracking their brains, Raschelle realized Christo had been in the wedding of Mike Pruitt's daughter, Brittany, that very day. They quickly acquired a picture as well as a wedding program that listed him as an usher.

Another complication was getting original birth certificates from Africa. It was an expensive and long process that required the actual birth certificate, as well as the correct translation from the native language. Christo had to go through the process four times due to three separate errors: a misspelled name, listing him as a female, and a date error.

When everything was finally collected and correct, Christo submitted the information and began playing the waiting game.

***

Southern Nazarene football coach Mike Cochran sits behind his desk in the SNU football offices, with helmets from his past coaching stops adorning the cabinets above his desk with other football paraphernalia scattered throughout the room. In the fall of 2011, two of Cochran's players, Blake Cavil and Damien Johnson, came to him with a suggestion. They had been teammates with Christo at Navarro and thought he would be an excellent addition to the Crimson Storm defense.

Cochran jumped right in like he would with any other recruit. After watching film, Cochran decided to meet with Christo. Due to different immigration laws in Oklahoma compared to Texas, there was concern over Christo traveling to Bethany, Okla. for an on-campus visit. So, in December of 2011, Cochran, Christo and Raschelle sat down at a table at Fuzzy's Taco Shop in Denton, Texas to discuss Christo playing at SNU. Raschelle, who went with Christo to make sure Cochran wasn't yanking any chains, was very impressed.

"When I met the coach, I was blown away," Raschelle said. "He was the real deal. Christo looked at me and asked what I thought. I said, ‘I think he's legit. I think he's the real deal, Christo, and I think he can be trusted.'"

Cochran listened intently as Christo laid out his story to Cochran. There were complications, but the story itself wasn't something completely new for him.

"Doing this as long as I have, you run into very unique situations and you see people that have overcome pretty phenomenal things," Cochran said. "Everything from orphans, which is kind of his case, to being from another country—I've seen that on a couple of occasions—to someone who was homeless, even at the point where you're recruiting them. There are a lot of tragic stories that you come into contact with."

There were many hurdles to overcome to get Christo on the team. Academics; athletics, not to mention the legal ones surrounding Christo's immigration status. Cochran didn't have to worry about the immigration side of things since Christo, the Loudenslagers and Rodriguez were battling on that front. However, it still played a part in his research.

"We had to really take a close look at the citizenship issue and if there were any hurdles there due to immigration laws and those kinds of things," Cochran recalled. "There were none that really dealt with admission to the university or eligibility with the NCAA. You don't want—for the sake of the game of football—to put someone in a worse situation than they're already in, so we just took all that into consideration."

After meeting with Cochran, Christo was cautiously optimistic. So much had gone poorly for him over the years that he had learned to not get his hopes up when things seemed to be taking a turn for the better.

"I was staying calm," Christo said. "In the back of my head, I was thinking about the schools I could have gone to, but I was grateful. I was praying and asking God that if this was the place he wanted me to go, to give me peace."

The process took time. After meeting in December, it was another seven months before Cochran felt comfortable enough to tell Christo he was able to come up to SNU and join the team. During the process, it was hard for Christo to stay motivated to continue his workout regimen. Weeks would pass without hearing from Cochran. When Cochran did speak with Christo, it was always encouraging because Cochran knew he was dealing with a fragile situation.

"I just told him to have faith and that it would work out," Cochran said. "I didn't have all the answers right then but he had some good people in his corner working toward giving him a hope and a future. They were greater than football; his concerns and worries."

Cochran knew he was taking a risk with Christo, just as he did with any player he recruited, but the individual work Christo had put in over the previous months to get back in football shape reassured Cochran Christo would be a key addition to his team.

"That certainly made it easier for me to take a risk on him," Cochran admitted. "It gave me confidence he could come in and contribute early in his time here."

Christo arrived on campus in August 2012 and made an immediate impact. The time away from football gave him plenty to work on, but he was far from raw.

"There were some technique things that he needed to work on that he's gotten better on every day," Cochran said. "We saw that continual improvement."

Technique wasn't a big concern for Christo at first. He was just happy to be back on the gridiron, using his God-given ability to play football.

"It was exciting; I was hungry to get back out there," Christo said, a big smile plastered on his face. "I have one goal in mind and that's to go hard every day, every play. This game is the one that saved me.

"I felt free again, just felt good like I do every day now. I've always had a passion for it, but when I hit rock bottom, the things I went through, it just gives you more love for the game as well. When I'm out there, I'm loving every single minute."

Christo had a huge impact as a junior along the Crimson Storm defensive line, racking up 62 tackles, including 18.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks. His tackles for loss total led the Great American Conference while his sack total placed him fourth in the conference. SNU finished the year 2-9.

***

2013 was far from the senior season Christo wanted, but his performance on the field didn't waver despite the lack of success from a wins and losses standpoint. His 17.5 tackles for loss once again led the conference and he collected 64 total tackles. But most importantly, he accomplished all that as a free man no longer chained by immigration restrictions.

"I got a letter saying I've been approved," Christo said of his status, which was approved this past summer. "I was able to get a social (security number) and everything there was easy. I went to the DMV and got a license, went and opened up a bank account. I felt so free."

Even through simply telling his story, Christo's voice gave away the relief he felt from that enormous burden being lifted from his shoulders.

"I need to go speed so I can get pulled over and give them my state ID," he joked. "You feel like some chains, a burden, has been lifted off you. You're on top of the world."

Cochran said stories like Christo's are the reason he's in coaching.

"There's more to it than just winning football games," Cochran said. "We want to help guys win in the classroom and get the degree and we want to win guys for the Kingdom. It's more than just how we can use them to win football games and that's where the real joy comes in; seeing them grow, seeing them mature, seeing where they are two, four or five years later."

For now, Christo is focused on getting his degree. He wants to get into coaching and teaching, but there's always the possibility of playing at the next level. He said he's already spoken with some scouts throughout the season. Christo put in a lot of hard work to get where he is today, and Cochran believes that work ethic can carry him forward in his football career.

"It's very difficult to play in the NFL and I wouldn't count that out," Cochran said, "but he's definitely capable of going to Canada and playing or playing Arena Football to keep playing the game and keep developing his skill set maybe for an opportunity to play in the NFL down the road."

No matter what the future holds for Christo, the trials and tribulations will pale in comparison to what he has had to go through to this point in his young life. He's experienced more than most people would ever expect to experience in a lifetime and has responded in a way only few do.

"There's no reason why Christo, if you look at the circumstances he's had in his life," Raschelle said, "there's no earthly or human reason to explain why he isn't in a totally different situation other than his faith and God's hand."

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