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But soon she discovered that it wasn't so difficult to switch tacks. "In my work I began to change," she says. "I no longer felt the joy that I had felt before. I did things mechanically and couldn't wait to come home."

To her boss Bob Donofrio, the change appeared less like a religious conversion than like job devotion that had been taken too far. "She had worked so hard and was so committed; toward the end it became obvious to me that the vigor with which she stood ground and stuck to her convictions was starting to break down," he says. "You could tell that she was suffering from the traditional symptoms of job burnout."

Nonetheless, he was surprised when Estela announced her intention to quit when her contract ran out in the summer of 89. "She had worked tirelessly to get to a point where she had the credentials. She could have named her own ticket in terms of her career movement," he says.

Within a year of the time Estela quit work, Reyes' job for the diocese was cut to part-time. The Ruiz income had gone from $70,000 a year to about $13,000, but the plunging salary had brought no lessening of responsibilities. They say they have made no effort to advertise, and yet the word of their peculiar ministry has spread. Not only does their yard fill every Saturday night with seekers from across the country, but their days (and their living room) are filled with the tools of modern-day prophets: a photocopier, a fax machine, a computer, a veritable system of telephones. After the Mother of God has delivered Her weekly messages--messages that encourage the world to return to a belief in God as the foundation of life--Estela enters the messages into the computer in English and Spanish and then faxes them to those who wait throughout the country: She says the fax list now includes someone from nearly every state.

She and Reyes travel nationwide to take their story to the church groups that pay their expenses in exchange. (The Ruizes say they receive no additional pay for these appearances.) Some of these meetings have drawn up to 1,200 worshipers.

When they are at home--in the stucco house they have not been able to afford to leave, after all--the hours are filled with an endless stream of telephone calls from people seeking spiritual help, visits from wandering priests looking for a place to sleep and vagrants who've heard this is the house for a handout. (They are right: Reyes says he is always able to come up with at least an egg sandwich and a soda pop for the asking. The Ruizes do not ever turn away someone who is hungry. "You can get hung up worrying about money until someone approaches you without a meal to eat. And then you realize that you have enough money to give him a meal," he says.) The back door flaps open and shut constantly to admit the pilgrims who have visited the shrine but want to come indoors, to see and cross themselves before the photograph that the Blessed Mother appears to step out of.

"It is very hard! It is very, very hard!" Reyes says. He always speaks this way, with emphasis and adverbs, his hands flailing a rosary around in the air and his eyes and teeth flashing in his dark face. He is larger than life, both Latin and zealot.

"When you are constantly, constantly doing something, it gets to a point where you just are very, very tired!" he says. "And it still keeps coming to you! And you know you are going to continue to do it!

"The people who come from out of town all seem to think they are the only ones! They think, 'If I can only talk to the Ruizes!' They don't realize that everyone is doing the same thing!"
He points out that, every Saturday, the entire family must pitch in to clean the yard in preparation for the evening service. "It is a lot of work! It is like putting on a wedding a week! At the end of the day, we are exhausted!"

But the rewards have been great. For one thing, there are the personality changes. "She was not open and giving of herself," says Armando of his mother in the years before the visions. "She was the mother who didn't crack." He says that now he is amazed at her desire to cuddle her grandchildren, but she doesn't limit her newfound warmth to family. Anyone who has entered Estela's house has been in her arms.

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Deborah Laake