On a dark and rainy day during the height of Christmas-shopping frenzy, a team of 10 departs from Mountain View Community Church in Fresno on a special kind of treasure hunt.
They huddle up in their church the morning of Dec. 19 to pray to God for clues that will lead them to their treasures: people.
Their mission: pray with these walking, talking gifts from God throughout Fresno and Clovis.
Ernie Escobedo, 52, a volunteer with Mountain View’s prayer ministry, leads these hunts on the third Saturday of every month. He got the idea from a church in Tulare and started the treasure hunting at Mountain View a year ago. There are sometimes as many as 25 participants, of all ages.
“All you are doing is walking away and blessing people! Why would more people not want to do that?” Escobedo says. “So we knew we had to bring it here.”
Last month’s quest began at 9 a.m. with Escobedo leading a group prayer. During the prayer, he asks those assembled to write descriptions of the people they’ll meet this morning – their names, how they look, what they’re wearing, where they’ll meet, and any other details.
Sharing these clues aloud, a long and detailed list is formed.
Names range from the more common – Claire, Mitch, Greg, Brandon – to Luck, Green, Barnabas and “just Cra.”
All kinds of attire is imagined, from many colored scarfs and jackets to “Star Wars” costumes (later found by one young man near a movie theater). Some are described with facial hair, nose rings, freckles – the list goes on – and many are facing a number of issues and illnesses.
And there are unusual details to help point them in the right direction, things like a unicorn, rocking chairs, a scar on a face, and grapes.
With this map, the team splits into small groups bound for different destinations. Each person also has a handful of $5 gift cards to Starbucks to give away. They’ll meet back at the church around noon to share their findings.
I tag along with Escobedo, Sandy Vukson, 51, and Morgan Broaddus, 13, through a couple of Clovis department stores.
They first approach a man wearing a Raiders jacket, someone’s clue. The 45-year-old Fresno man almost didn’t wear it. DonQual Jordan ran back inside his house to grab it because of the rain.
He’s delighted to hear he’s a treasure. “You got to be kidding me.”
Standing nearby, Stephanie Casares, 35, adds, “It’s got to be God.”
The Mountain View group asks if they can pray for them and they happily agree. Standing beside a rack of clothes, a circle is formed. The prayer is kind, not preachy, and full of blessings for joy, peace, love and healing.
“I’m thankful to have them to pray for me,” Jordan says. “It made me feel good within myself, within my heart.”
Tears fill Casares’ eyes.
“It meant a lot to me cuz I’ve been going through a whole lot and her prayer really touched home,” she says. “So it kind of brightened me a little bit more … I appreciate it, so much.”
The three went on to pray with another dozen people. Several others cried. All but one person appeared touched by the prayers.
“I just hope that it gives them questions about what they believe,” says 13-year-old Morgan. “But also that it just provides them with encouragement.”
At one point, they deviate from their list of clues to pray with a sweating and faint 26-year-old woman pushing a cart with her two daughters down a toys aisle.
By the end of the prayer, Christina Aparicio seems revived.
“That was sent by God right there. … I knew I couldn’t go any more,” she says. “I was going to fall or faint. I had to calm down. I had no idea what was wrong with me, I think I was overheating, and they came to help me.” Aparicio says she suffers from anxiety and that “it felt good to feel more protection.”
Later, the group spots a 9-year-old girl wearing a shirt with a unicorn, one of the clues. They pray over Katelyn Johnson and her mother, Stephanie.
“I hope they reach people with the love of Christ – that’s really what it’s all about,” Stephanie Johnson says. “They are doing a great thing.”
Escobedo hopes so, too.
“We just want God to be glorified and we feel like that’s what we’re doing. We’re bringing God glory through encouraging other people that he wants us to reach. They are the treasure, they are the treasure. They are God’s treasure.”