What God Hath Joined Together
After divorcing wife and snubbing God, an AG pastor’s ministry and marriage are restored.With his marriage and ministry both in shambles, Assemblies of God pastor and church planter Ralph Almaguer not only walked away from his wife, Joyce, but also from God.
Even so, Joyce kept praying for her husband. In time, she says she received a word from the Lord that all the locusts had eaten would be restored.
It looked impossible. But she clung to that hope and kept praying.
Radically redeemed in 1980 in an AG church from a distressed home, Ralph Almaguer and two of his brothers and a sister largely had been raised by their dad. Ralph had a heart for reaching people like those he had grown up around who had no hope without Christ.
As a new Christian studying at the San Antonio school then known as Latin American Bible Institute (now Christ Mission College), Ralph in 1986 met quiet, reserved Joyce, who taught there as well as in Texas public schools.
Raised in a conservative Christian home, Joyce’s upbringing involved everything Ralph’s did not: centered on faith, church, and worshipping the Lord through music. After the couple wed, Ralph wanted to plant an inner-city San Antonio church for gang members and addicts.
Their home congregation, where they served as associate pastors, however, found such an outreach too edgy. The church nixed the plan.
Ralph was oblivious to the culture shock Joyce endured amid a population of people not like her family and the churchgoers around whom she had been raised. He moved forward with the plan, leaving their home church. That departure, however, removed vital support essential to accomplishing his ministry vision. The couple faced the daunting task all alone.
“I had a passion, but I didn’t take into consideration the toll it would take,” Ralph says. “I just wanted to reach broken people. I failed in that area where I didn’t recognize my wife’s needs as a quiet-spirited woman.”
Meanwhile, Joyce taught middle-school music in an inner-city school, which proved enlightening. “I didn’t realize there were so many hurting people out there,” she says. “I had to see the hurt of what parents go through.”
Ralph set out on his own, expecting Joyce to dutifully follow. He transformed their home into a rehabilitation house, filling a spare bedroom with bunk beds and opening their home to troubled teenaged boys.
The church the couple planted thrived. In the first year, it grew to around 125.
Then the Almaguers rented a three-story rehab home for alcoholic and drug-addicted men. At one point, the three-story house had 25 male residents. Joyce was the only female occupant.
Tensions rose. Joyce, an introvert, said little about how unsettled the arrangement made her feel. Ralph, absorbed in ministry, didn’t notice his wife’s discomfort until their marriage reached the breaking point.
“I thought ministry was my identity, that everything else was secondary,” he says. “I later learned our identity is who we are in Christ.”
Some ministry peers, sadly, blamed Joyce for the couple’s conflict and told Ralph he should divorce her.
In time, this advice led them to a long separation. In 2002, they divorced.
Ralph didn’t just walk away from Joyce. He left behind his faith in Jesus.
“I felt like a complete failure in marriage and in Christ,” he says. As Ralph had always been drawn to helping delinquent youth, he became a juvenile probation officer, serving Bexar County, where San Antonio is located. There he worked with gang members, drug addicts, and alcoholics, seeing some of the same people to whom he’d ministered.
“Little did I know that my wife was praying that God would send people around me at my job to minister to me,” Ralph says. “He threw me right back into the same mix so it was a daily reminder to me.”
Ralph and Joyce remained friends and in regular contact. Neither pursued any other romantic interest.
“God wasn’t done with him — or us,” Joyce says.
Through the years, even amid his unbelief and anger at God, Ralph attended church services. Sometimes he went to the church Joyce attended. She believes the Lord told her each Sunday after she played piano to sit in the back next to Ralph during the pastor’s message. Later she learned that the simple gesture gave Ralph hope.
Joyce brought Ralph to a Christ Mission College graduation, where he reconnected with his old friend Manuel Vallejo III, pastor of Highland Park Assembly, assistant superintendent of the Texas Louisiana Hispanic District, and a Christ Mission College teacher. Vallejo and his wife, Rosario, invited Ralph and Joyce afterward out to a restaurant, where Ralph relished rekindling their old friendship.
Ralph and Joyce continued attending family events together.
One day, Vallejo encouraged Ralph to remarry his former wife. “You still love and care for each other,” Vallejo stated to him. “Maybe God is trying to tell you something.”
A week before Joyce’s mother died, she told Joyce that the Lord revealed to her that Ralph would indeed return.
The couple went to a marriage retreat, where they addressed their deepest issues. Ralph divulged that his tumultuous relationship with his own mother carried over in his attitude toward his mother-in-law, who through the years had warned Ralph that Joyce shouldn’t have to put up with being in the back seat while his ministry took precedence.
In 2014, a dozen years after the divorce, Vallejo officiated Ralph and Joyce’s wedding ceremony in the nursing home where Joyce’s father and brother resided. “My dad got to see God’s promise come to pass,” Joyce says.
Ralph reflects on what the trial taught him. “God is first, but my wife and family come second,” he says. “A lot of ministers think ministry is their life, but it’s not. I need to love my wife as Christ loved the Church — provide for her and meet her needs before anybody else’s.”
This year, Ralph, 59, retired after 23 years from his work with juvenile justice, joining Joyce, 61, who retired from teaching in 2014. The pair had no intention of returning to ministry. They had allowed their credentials lapse in the late 1990s.
But even while the couple lived apart, Joyce continued her own outreach to those with deep needs in the inner city.
Ralph and Joyce received ministerial ordination in 2018. Ralph is the new interim secretary-treasurer for the Texas Louisiana Hispanic District. Together the Almaguers began NewHope Ministries of Texas and soon will launch NewHope Church, an AG congregation.