Rev. Dr. Samuel Solivan calls himself Pentecostal and Arminian—not exactly a run-of- the-mill Western graduate! From the moment he was born, this year’s distinguished alum has lived a life full of surprises and God’s miraculous intervention.
When Sam’s mother was only seven months pregnant, she was at the church cleaning around the altar when suddenly she began to go into labor. The pastor and some members of the church helped her to the floor and she gave birth right there. The pastor held the boy in his arms and named him Samuel.
Sam’s parents had moved to East Harlem, NY from Puerto Rico. His father was a quiet military man, and his mother was a devout Christ-follower who took her six sons to church nearly every day. Sam learned a deep love for the church from her.
As a child, Sam was diagnosed with hearing loss and what was then called “mental retardation.” His mother was encouraged to send him to a special school for the deaf, but it was too far away, so he remained in remedial classes at public school.
Doctors attempted four different surgeries to improve his hearing, but the last surgery caused part of his face to become disfigured. He dealt with a lot of bullying, leading his teachers to suggest home school, but his mother insisted he stay in school. “We believe in a healing God,” she said.
He later transferred to a vocational school, and there his guidance counselor told him not to expect much out of life. “Just do your best.”
During this time, Sam met his future wife, Irene. Her parents sponsored youth activities and prayer vigils at their home. When Sam was 13, he entered their home and saw Irene playing the piano.
The next year, during one of these vigils, Sam sensed the Lord calling him to “preach and teach My word.” He thought it was just emotionalism and wondered how God could use him with his learning disabilities. He asked God to confirm this call through his Word and through others. He also thought he would need to speak Spanish, so he asked to learn it. Then he opened his Bible and it landed on Jeremiah 1: “I have called you and known you since you were in your mother’s womb.”
That same night, Irene’s father asked Sam to join him at an evangelistic meeting the next day. When the evangelist (whom Sam had never met) went forward to speak, he asked, “Is there a Sam Solivan in the room?” Sam nervously stepped forward, and the man said, “The Lord said he will heal your mind and body and teach you Spanish.”
A few years later when Sam graduated from high school, he was drafted into the Air Force. Once he passed training, the military realized he had pre-existing conditions that would prevent him from getting insurance during active duty. They offered him an option: either go to Vietnam without insurance, or receive an honorable discharge as a veteran of the United States.
“I may be [mentally disabled], but I’m no fool!” Dr. Solivan recalls thinking.
He returned home and went to church to thank God for not having to go to war. In normal Pentecostal tradition, Sam began to speak in tongues as he prayed at the front of the church. In the back of the church, someone offered the interpretation: “I permitted this [sickness] in your life to save your life, and now I’m going to heal you. The four years you would have given to the Air Force, you will give to Me to serve Me.”
From that day forward, his hearing began to improve. Over the years, his facial deformation has healed to the point that it is now barely noticeable.
Sam heard about Central Bible College in Springfield, MO from Irene’s pastor and decided to apply. Even though he was at a second grade reading level, his compassionate professors helped him as the Lord healed his mind and body.
He completed his Bachelor of Arts in 1970 and returned to the Pentecostal church where he was raised, this time as the head pastor. He also began work as a community organizer in East Harlem. Traditionally, Pentecostal pastors are not required to attend seminary, so Sam would have been happy not to go—but the Lord had other plans.
In 1973, Sam received a call from Dr. I. John Hesselink of Western Theological Seminary. Dr. Hesselink was working with the Reformed Church in America to recruit Latino leadership in the denomination and wanted Sam to come for an interview to be a student. The sheer unconventionality of the situation told Sam that this was a sign from God. A month later, he and his wife and three young children moved to Holland, MI for the Greek summer course.
“As an Arminian, a Latino, and a Pentecostal, it was somewhat strange, but also amazing and wonderful,” he shares. “There’s been no other community that was so powerful in transforming and equipping me. Western Theological Seminary is the institution that has most marked my life.”
During his time in Holland, Sam was named the city’s Commissioner of Education and Housing for the Human Relations Commission, and he also started the West Michigan Latino Ministers Association. He graduated with the class of 1976, alongside current WTS president Timothy Brown.
“I have kept looking over Western’s shoulders over the years, seeing their efforts to recruit Latino, African Americans, and other minorities,” says Sam. “I’ve been encouraged by that.”
One interaction with Professor John Piet stuck with Sam. “I’m going to speak to you as a Pentecostal,” Dr. Piet said one day to Sam’s surprise. “The Holy Spirit is leading me to tell you this: The Lord is going to open the doors for you to get a Ph.D.”
Dr. Piet was right. The following year, Sam was accepted to Union Theological Seminary in New York City for a one-year research degree, the Master of Sacred Theology. Later, after serving four years as an RCA missionary in Venezuela, he would return to Union for his Ph.D.
Even though Sam came from a Pentecostal background, the WTS faculty certified him to be ordained in the RCA by the Classis of New York. When he and his family returned from Venezuela, he served as lead pastor of Bethel Reformed Church in New Jersey and later Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn.
Eventually, Dr. Solivan transferred to the Assemblies of God, the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination. He moved to Boston and taught Christian theology at Andover Newton Theological School. Harvard Medical School invited him to be the theologian on a team studying medicine and spirituality. Eventually the study became a required course, and he was asked to be an adjunct faculty member.
In 1999, the Lord called Dr. Solivan to Puerto Rico. He was invited to serve as vice president of religious affairs at InterAmerican University, the largest bi-lingual evangelical protestant university in the world. He still serves there as a tenured professor of theology, and he helped to found their Ph.D. program. He has also served for nine years at the Theological Seminary of Puerto Rico.
Dr. Solivan helped to found the Eurasian Theological Seminary in Moscow, the European Leadership Academy in Malaga, Spain, and spent eleven years as part of the international faculty for the Haggai Institute with locations in Maui and Singapore.
The Haggai Institute trains professionals and executives from all over the world in evangelism and leadership. Students have included supreme court justices, lawyers, engineers, and even princesses.
“These are the kinds of things that keep me busy,” Dr. Solivan laughs.
He and Irene run the ecumenical Center for Theological Reflection in Puerto Rico, which meets monthly to pray and discuss theology with others. Also, for the last 14 years Dr. Solivan has led a radio program on theological reflection called “Thinking out Loud” with fellow theologians.
The Solivans have four grown children who live in the U.S.: three daughters and one son.
Before going off to Bible college, Dr. Solivan recalls his father (who barely ever spoke about spiritual matters) telling him, “Do it with excellence, because the Lord requires excellence.”
After a challenging childhood but a deep faithfulness to God and community, Dr. Solivan’s life has certainly been marked by excellence and a grateful spirit.