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Former Clinton staffer reflects on spiritual journey, Cuba’s struggles, working for a president

Former Clinton staffer reflects on spiritual journey, Cuba’s struggles, working for a president

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Former Clinton staffer reflects on spiritual journey, Cuba’s struggles, working for a president

Sept. 10, 2006  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0544}

An e-Review Feature
By John Michael De Marco**

Elio Muller served as former President Bill Clinton's deputy director of the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) at the U.S. Department of Commerce. Photo courtesy of Elio Muller, Photo #06-433. Web photo only.
Tampa’s Elio Muller Jr. is in the prime of a journey that has taken him from his native Cuba to the halls of the White House and through a miracle of healing that enables him to serve the Florida Conference and beyond.

Currently the president of an international business consulting firm, the Hyde Park United Methodist Church member works with emerging companies in Latin America and helps mid-sized U.S. firms develop their international business capacities. A lawyer by training, Muller transitioned into the business world after getting involved in political campaigns and serving in the Clinton administration as deputy director of the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) at the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Muller’s impressive resume and seemingly unlimited potential were of little value, however, when he faced a life-threatening crisis a year and a half ago that led to major surgery. Instead, the only experience and savvy that mattered was a lifelong pursuit of knowing Christ and being grounded in prayer.

“They removed my gall bladder, half of my stomach, half of my duodenum, half of my pancreas, reorganized all my bile ducts and took a tumor the size of a baseball from the head of my pancreas,” Muller recalls. “Five days before that surgery, when they diagnosed the large tumor that they believed to be cancerous … the doctors were preparing me and my family for a five-week survival.”

As many as 300 visitors came to “say goodbye,” Muller remembers, making him feel as if he were attending his own wake.

Upon receiving the prognosis, Muller says, “I realized that my mortal ‘control freak’ powers were woefully inadequate for the mountain that appeared before me. I started praying to our Lord for peace and strength. I was immediately overcome with a peace and serenity that I cannot find words to explain. That peace and strength has remained uninterrupted to this day.”

A pastor friend named Bob Wooten led Muller in a prayer for healing, applying a “Dr. Jesus” supplication Wooten had learned from African-American preachers. “I continued to invoke the healing power of ‘Dr. Jesus’ throughout my recovery. I was certain that I would be healed and that the Lord was not ready to call me. I literally felt the presence and grace of God all around me as if I were being cradled in his arms.”

Muller said he remembers his surgeon commenting that holding the tumor in his hands made him more certain than ever that it was cancerous, but after sending it to the hospital pathology lab it came back benign.

“The surgeon could not believe it and forced the entire pathology group to the hospital to re-examine the tissue and confirm the result before coming to tell me,” Muller says. “My doctors say one in hundreds of thousands of cases that present themselves like mine are benign. God had graced me and my family with a miracle. I was on such a spiritual high that it made the physical inconvenience of my recovery seem trivial. I pray that this spiritual high never goes away.”

A few month after surgery Muller felt physically recovered, but then became jaundiced and underwent exhaustive testing that included trips to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He received a diagnosis of LPSC, a rare autoimmune disorder that attacks the biliary system in the pancreas and liver.

“The sub-category into which they have classified my case has had only five cases identified, ever,” Muller said. “They are all being treated by two doctors at the Mayo Clinic. Four of these five cases had responded well to a steroid treatment.”

After months of treatment, Muller was blessed with remission from the disease. “I look back upon each of these occurrences in my life as times of tremendous spiritual growth. I am convinced that these spiritual growth experiences would not have happened but for the severity of the test of faith that I was put through,” Muller says. “Given a choice I would never have voluntarily chosen these tough roads.”

God clearly has additional plans for Muller, the product of a Presbyterian mission in Cuba with an enduring powerful heart for the people of his home country. His parents attended the La Progressiva school in Cardenas, Cuba, and Muller was in the last kindergarten class “before they closed it down.” The family moved to the Tampa area from Cuba in 1961 and began attending a Methodist, Spanish-speaking congregation. “We’ve been Methodist ever since,” he says.

After earning a social science education degree at the University of South Florida, Muller stumbled across a full United Methodist-related scholarship that enabled him to attend South Texas College of Law in Houston. Upon graduation he served as a prosecutor and then went into private practice, with most of his client base grounded in the Cuban American and Hispanic communities of Tampa.

“I got very involved with Cuban democracy issues and a lot of human rights movements. A lot of stuff was going on around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall,” recalls Muller, who soon found himself assisting the late Gov. Lawton Chiles and then working on President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign.

Muller believes Cuban president Fidel Castro’s eventual death will lead to change in his native country. “Castro leads Cuba with his charisma and his genius, evil as it may be. Someone so absolutely in power as he is doesn’t exactly create a good stable of substitutes for himself — but delegates to those who don’t have to make a lot of decisions on their own.”

He adds: “With the prospects of Cuba opening up, I believe the way to build a lasting foundation in Cuba is through the church. Cuba has gone through a dark chapter where religion was persecuted for a long time. Now it’s just ignored. There’s been a breakdown of the family, of faith, of a lot of good, moral social order that the church could replace faster than any other structure.”

Muller has made an impact in laying this foundation by supporting Hyde Park’s sister church in Guanito, Cuba, located in the Sierra Maestra District. “The thing that has given me the most joy over the last several years — being frustrated by history not being as ready as I am — is the Florida-Cuba Covenant and getting involved through Hyde Park. I have not been there (to Guanito). I am dying to go.”

In addition to the hundreds of Americans praying for Muller during his illness, Muller later learned that the Guanito church and the Cuban district mobilized 500 people into intercession as soon as word of his struggle was received. “All of the pastors went into fasting. There were people praying for me all over the world. And I could feel it.”

The power of prayer has been evidenced in other members of Muller’s family. His son, Eliot, was born premature at just 27 weeks gestation and given a 5 percent chance of having a quality life. “He’s a beautiful 20-year-old man, a sophomore in college, and defied all the predictions,” Muller beams. He adds: “My mother is my greatest Christian mentor. I’ve lived watching her turn it over to the Lord, at every tough moment and every common moment.”

A new — and he feels somewhat ironic — endeavor for Muller is serving on the Conference Capital Campaign, which is developing a new vision for supporting ministries across the Florida Conference.

“I do have a lot of experience from organizing campaigns on the political side. The only thing I’ve ever shied away from is raising money,” he notes. “But I guess my organizing abilities were some of the qualities that Jim (Harnish, senior pastor of the Hyde Park church and co-chairman of the campaign) thought would be helpful to this on the strategic side. There’s great projects there. I think it’s a great strategy, to relieve the individual churches from doing some of this stuff.”

But Muller feels principally called to support mission work, particularly in Latin America and Cuba. His Muller Group International (MGI) is spending a lot of time and resources in Ecuador, developing biodiesel out of African palm oil and helping with a cedar reforestation project, work which he says enables him to stumble across ministry opportunities.

Muller recently connected with a Methodist bishop in the capitol city of Quito and learned of a “beautiful mission project there that needs dissemination of its good works.”

“We don’t want to just be writing checks,” he adds. “We want to pray with these people; we want to go there. They’ve just become Methodist over the last four years. It used to be a group of missions independently supported. This is the stuff that gives me the most joy and applying the skills and preparation and experiences that the Lord has put in my life.”

Muller admits his time serving under Clinton and the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown changed the focus of his vocation. “I went from being a small city lawyer to really seeing the top of the world as far as international business is concerned. I was given the opportunity to do some really fascinating things, internationalizing mid-size companies and preparing them to go overseas. After that, practicing law had lost its saltiness.”

Brown’s untimely death in a plane crash led Muller to form his company and serve as a “surrogate for any group that contacted me, enabling me to keep doing the work.”

He interacted quite a bit with Clinton himself during the 1992 campaign and then again during a crisis involving the downing of two planes in Cuba. Muller served on a temporary task force to advise on Cuban-American issues, working out of the White House for a couple of weeks. He describes Clinton as “an amazing man, a very populist man. He understands people from a variety of walks of life immediately. He has an incredible memory. He’ll meet you five years later, totally out of context in another side of the world, and remember what you talked about. He was a lot of fun to work for.”

Open to serving another president at some future opportunity, Muller reflects on the challenge of Christians involved in politics. “We Democrat Christians do a poor job — we get too secular about our public service. I think the Republicans do the opposite. I think that if a Christian treats his public service in a secular perspective, he still comes to work everyday as a Christian. His values and morals are still there, without wearing it on his sleeve every day.

“It’s too easy, when you push your faith together with politics, to lose perspective and get too caught up in some micro-mission. I think the more you call attention to your Christianity, the more you get caught up in defending certain ideological positions. A lot of times they become people’s vision, and not the Lord’s vision.”

So considering his diverse journey and opportunities that continue to unfold, what is Muller’s
enduring advice to believers of all political stripes and vocations? “Don’t take your mortal life so seriously that you are not ready for a transition to eternal life whenever that moment appears eminent.”


This article relates to Christian Discipleship.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a commissioned minister of the Florida Conference and a freelance writer, speaker and consultant.