(916) 919-7476


Some Christian Leaders Say Deportations Would Jeopardize Their Churches

Both the challenges and opportunities of U.S. Christianity are evident at Fairmeadows Baptist Church in Duncanville, Texas, just south of Dallas.

On some Sundays, services at the church draw as few as a dozen worshippers, most of them white.

For the past year, however, the church has also been home to a largely Hispanic tenant congregation that calls itself Erez Baptist, and in that incarnation the church is thriving. The average Sunday attendance is around 80, and the congregation has a youth music group and already sponsors a missionary in Brazil.

“Everything we do is about making disciples,” says the Rev. Roland Rodriguez, who founded the Erez congregation in December 2016.

The contrast between the two congregations is emblematic of broader changes in U.S. Christianity. With the number of Americans who do not attend church or identify with any organized religion increasing, immigrants are accounting for a larger share of the Christian population.

“This is the fastest-growing element of American Christianity, across the board,” says the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “[Whether in] Catholicism, evangelicalism, mainline denominations, if you’re a follower of Christ, you want to embrace the immigrants.”

The increased dependence on immigrants to fill U.S. church pews means that Christian leaders have a big stake in the current debate over immigration policy. While many cite the biblical instruction to welcome the stranger, some have a more existential concern for supporting a generous approach: Without immigrants, they fear the U.S. Christian church may not survive in its current form.

“Mass deportation of current immigrants would do nothing less than cripple American Christianity for generations to come,” says Samuel Rodriguez, who prayed at President Trump’s inauguration. “If you deport the immigrants, you are deporting the future of Christianity.”

According to surveys by the Pew Research Center, one-fourth of all U.S. Catholics are immigrants. An estimated 40 percent of Eastern Orthodox Christians in the United States were born outside the country. Even the Episcopal church, one of the whitest and most traditional of the Christian denominations in the United States, is seeing an influx of immigrant worshippers.

The concern over immigrant Christians is especially acute among evangelicals, who place great importance on “church planting,” the establishment of new congregations from scratch. For Roland Rodriguez, the founder of Erez Baptist, it’s a specialty. Over the past 20 years, he has founded or “planted” more than a dozen new congregations in Texas. With that experience, he is now director of Hispanic Ministries for the Texas Baptist Convention.

“The convention is not asking me, ‘You have to plant churches,’ ” Rodriguez says. “I do it because it’s my calling.”

Over the years, he has established a routine, which he now follows carefully.

“No. 1, find my core group — two, three families,” he says. He then trains them in church leadership and looks for a place to hold worship services, prayer groups and other activities. And then he sets out to raise some money.

“To plant a church, you need funding,” he says. “You need resources.”

Having put Erez Baptist on relatively firm footing, Rodriguez (no relation to Samuel Rodriguez) is already preparing to plant another church.

Now 52, Rodriguez and his parents arrived in the United States from Mexico in the early 1980s without permanent visas and won legal residency status only as a result of the amnesty provisions in the 1986 immigration reform. Now working almost exclusively with immigrants, Rodriguez thinks their experience coming to the country leaves them especially open to the evangelical Christian message.

“When they come and see that somebody is lending a hand when they need it the most, they become very receptive to the Gospel,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity for us not just to tell them about Christ but show them.”

Many Hispanic immigrants come from a Catholic background, and Catholic parishes in Texas and across the country have also welcomed the newcomers.

“In times of crisis, we become much more acutely aware of our needs, and immigration is a time of crisis,” says Bishop Michael Olson, who heads the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas. “When coming to a new nation, it is very important and critical that people find safety and something familiar so they can encounter God and their neighbor.”

But if immigrants need churches, it’s also true that churches need immigrants.

Not surprisingly, the prospect of increased immigration restriction can be unsettling to Christian leaders. The Trump administration is ending large parts of the temporary protected status program, which has offered temporary residence to people fleeing violence or natural disaster. The termination of the program will affect more than 200,000 immigrants from El Salvador and other troubled countries.

In addition, the failure by the White House and Congress to agree on a way to protect the “DREAMer” immigrants who have benefited from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program could mean that at least 700,000 people could face deportation. And Trump also wants to step up efforts to find and deport other immigrants who have arrived in the country illegally.

“If you round people up and get mass deportations, combined with TPS expiration and no DACA deal, it would have a massive, massive immediate impact,” says the Rev. Tim Holland, who leads a nondenominational bilingual church in Grapevine, Texas.

Holland’s church actually has two congregations: one for English speakers, organized as LifeChurch, and one for Spanish speakers, organized as Mundo de Fe. The combined membership is about 3,000, but Holland says only about 400 come for the weekly English services.

Read more

Praying, Pleading, for Consensus That Protects Dreamers

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick,” the Bible tells us. Regrettably, Dreamers throughout the country have lived that experience repeatedly in recent months.

By Rev. Samuel Rodriguez And Abigail Molina

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick,” the Bible tells us.

Regrettably, Dreamers throughout the country have lived that experience repeatedly in recent months and in new ways in recent days. The creation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2012 was life-changing for hundreds of thousands of young people—but the announcement of its termination last September meant, barring legislative intervention, that they would lose their jobs and potentially even face deportation. Reports of a bipartisan “deal” gave us new hope—only for it to be dashed within hours. We’re fervently praying that our elected officials will come together quickly to find consensus.

We write, respectively, as the leader of a network of more than forty thousand Hispanic evangelical congregations and as a staff member at one of those local churches—World Impact Center – Impacto de Fe in Commerce City, Colorado—whose employment is possible only because of the DACA program.

My (Abigail’s) story is similar in many ways to those of tens of thousands of others within churches that are represented by the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC). I arrived in the U.S. on a tourist visa with my family on July 4, 1999. I thought the fireworks were there to welcome us to our new home. But when my family overstayed their visas—a concept I could not understand as a small child—and became undocumented, our life was very challenging. When my friends were applying for driver’s licenses, I discovered I could not. Though I was a strong student, I was ineligible for federal financial aid or for in-state tuition rates, so I could only afford to attend college part-time.

My family and I found strength in our local church, though, and I genuinely believe it came as an answer to the prayers of many in that church and in churches throughout the country that the DACA program came about, allowing me to work lawfully, pay my taxes, pay my way through college, and give back, serving on the staff of a local elementary school and now at my church. I am so incredibly grateful for this country and the many blessings it has offered to me, and I desperately want to be able to continue to contribute. But, without congressional action, I will lose my work authorization next year—a message I conveyed to legislators as I joined a delegation of other Christian Dreamers in Washington, D.C. recently.

I (Samuel) meet young people like Abigail on a regular basis in my role with the NHCLC and within the church that I pastor in Sacramento, California. They want nothing more than to continue to live, work, and contribute, using the gifts that God has given each of them to their fullest potential. Their churches are standing with them in pleading with both Republicans and Democrats in Congress to come together to pass legislation.

But it’s not just Latino Christians who care about this: a  poll last fall found that more than 70 percent of evangelical Christians of all ethnicities support legislation to allow Dreamers to stay in the U.S. and keep their jobs. More than 60 percent of those who voted for President Trump want these individuals to be able to become U.S. citizens, according to a  Fox News poll. By roughly an eight-to-one margin, a recent  Quinnipiac University poll found, Americans prefer allowing Dreamers to stay to their deportation.

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick,” the author of Proverbs continues, “but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” Members of Congress from both parties can come together quickly to resolve their differences, and President Trump can have the opportunity to do something none of his predecessors have been able to do: offer real, permanent hope to young people who are Americans in every way except on paper. In doing so, we promise that they will bear fruit, giving back many times over to this great country.

Read more

Getting the most out of our gifts

I’m superstitious, and I have my rituals.

When I write, I take several minutes to think about what I want to put on the literary canvas — and what to leave out.

When I talk on the lecture circuit, before I’m introduced I go to the restroom and splash cold water on my face.

When I host radio shows, before I utter a word I perform the sign of the cross and ask God to let me speak clearly.

When I go on television, if I’m in New York, I’ll duck into the quiet and stillness of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I’ll sit in a pew and pray that, when the red light goes on, I’ll be able to communicate what I think and feel — in four minutes.

And when I need help with the big things — love, life, faith, family — I call a preacher.

Rev. Samuel Rodriguez is the leader of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which he founded in 2000 and which now represents more than 40,000 Evangelical Hispanic churches in the United States. The son of Puerto Rican parents is a former high school teacher who taught government and civics in the same Pennsylvania city in which he grew up, a place appropriately named Bethlehem.

Rodriguez is also my go-to-guy for personal growth and spiritual coaching. He started in that role a couple of years ago when, after interviewing him for a column, I meandered into a confession. I told him that — as a Catholic — I was trying to find my way back to God. Pastor Sam — as he is called — listened so passionately that I could feel the intensity coming through the phone line. Then he gave me some advice that helped.

Now I needed his advice again. What weighed on my mind was the task of making a living, and supporting one’s family, while using God’s gifts.

Last year, I turned 50. And I’m clear about what the ledger looks like. God didn’t give me musical, artistic or athletic ability. But he gave me this: the ability to communicate, in written or spoken form.

For that, I’m grateful. From that, I’ve built — from scratch — a good career as a national columnist and media commentator, becoming one of the few Latinos in the country who can lay claim to those titles. Not bad for the son of a cop, and the grandson of farm workers.

Now, my main industry — newspapers — is contracting, and newsrooms are shrinking. In nearly 30 years of writing for newspapers, hosting radio shows, offering TV commentary and the like, I’ve had more than two dozen jobs; I’ve lost six of them.

Almost eight years ago, I lost the highest paying job I’d ever had; two-thirds of my family’s income went out the window. But I hustled, picking up other part-time jobs to add to the ones I had. My wife went back to work. We pulled through.

But it hasn’t been easy. I often feel like that guy in the circus, spinning a dozen plates at the ends of sticks.

I could make a nice living in a cushy corporate job, where I could use my skills to sell soft drinks. I don’t want to do that.

Which led me to my question for Pastor Sam. If these things are my gifts, I asked him, then why isn’t it easier to get the most out of them.Shouldn’t I be able to follow the path that God has laid out, I asked, and still support my family?

First, Rodriguez reassured me that I wasn’t alone, that many people struggle with the same question. He also agreed that I was doing what God wanted me to do, and that my voice was unique and valuable — even if it did make some people feel uncomfortable at times.

Next, he said, we’ll confront, in life, open doors and closed ones, too. God leaves open the doors he wants you to go through, but closes the ones that lead you astray. You can stubbornly push on the closed doors, but they won’t open. The trick is to listen to, and trust in God — and follow your path.

Finally, Rodriguez said, looking back on his own life, he was grateful for the open doors but also for the closed ones.

It was just what I needed to hear, and I thanked him for his counsel. Then I asked him to pray for me, so that I might be a better listener, a good provider and a more faithful servant.

“I will say a special prayer for you,” he said, “so that you will know your path. God bless you.”

Thank you, Reverend. He already has — abundantly so.


Read more

Cross-section of US religious life to welcome pope, including evangelicals, gay Catholics

By ALANNA DURKIN, Associated Press

When Pope Francis arrives at the White House at the start his U.S. visit, he will be greeted by a cross-section of American religious life — from leaders of major evangelical groups to liberal Protestants and a Roman Catholic nun who leads bus tours advocating for social justice.

Also present will be a gay Catholic blogger who credits compassionate statements by the pontiff for bringing him back to the church.

Thousands are expected on the South Lawn on Sept. 23 to help President Barack Obama greet Francis as he embarks on a tour through Washington, New York and Philadelphia that will include Masses, meetings with immigrants and speeches to Congress and the United Nations.

Among those who confirmed their attendance at the White House reception are the Rev. Joel Hunter, an evangelical megachurch pastor from Florida who is a confidant of Obama on spiritual matters; the Rev. Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents about 40 conservative Christian denominations; and the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, a major U.S. Latino evangelical group that, along with the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops, has pressed lawmakers for immigration reform.

Also in the audience will be Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Anglican bishop who’s now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a think-tank with ties to the Democratic Party, and Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby NETWORK, and a leader of the “Nuns on the Bus” advocacy tours.

Campbell’s group had been singled out in the Vatican investigation of the main umbrella group of U.S. nuns, an inquiry that began under Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. The investigation ended this year with no major changes for the nuns’ leadership group, and with a thank you from Francis for the work of religious sisters.

On this visit, the pope is expected to highlight the need for a generous welcome to immigrants and protection of the environment — two priorities of his pontificate.

“I think it’s so important that the pope is visiting because his global message is especially important for the United States,” said Campbell, who will also attend the pope’s speech to a joint meeting of Congress. “His message of changing our throwaway culture and to address the crisis of exploitation is really the key to changing our world to be more inclusive in the economy and more caretaking about the earth — and a lot of this policy starts in the U.S.”

A White House spokesman did not respond to requests for details of the reception. But more than 13,000 people filled the South Lawn when Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2008.

The ceremony for Francis falls on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and one of the most important days of the year for Jews, which means American Jewish leaders aren’t expected to attend. Still, the reception will showcase the theological breadth of the country’s religious groups. Imam Mohamed Magid, who leads the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, a mosque with thousands of members in the Washington area, will also attend the event.

“I hope he’ll see there’s tremendous good in this country,” said Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, in recent remarks about the pope’s five-day visit. Chaput will host Francis at the Vatican’s World Meeting of Families on Sept. 26 and Sept. 27.

Francis and Obama will talk privately after the South Lawn reception. The president hopes to discuss the environment, immigrants and refugees, and “protecting religious minorities and promoting religious freedom around the world,” the White House said.

Aaron Ledesma was invited last month to attend the ceremony after sharing his story with the White House. For years, Ledesma struggled with his faith as an openly gay Catholic, and he recently started a blog about the subject. Francis’ message inspired him to return to Mass last month.

“When you have someone in that kind of position saying compassionate, loving statements like that, that’s what’s going to draw the Catholic community together. That’s what’s going to draw the estranged Catholics back in,” said Ledesma, a Houston, Texas, native who now lives in Richmond, Virginia.

When asked in 2013 about a purportedly gay priest, Francis famously responded, “If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?” However, Francis has also affirmed that same-sex relationships and marriages are contrary to church teaching.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics plan to attend the World Meeting of Families and also hold separate events tied to the conference as they advocate for broader acceptance in the church.

With so many attendees at the reception, Ledesma isn’t expecting to meet Francis face-to-face. But he says that just being able to witness “progress and witness hope and compassion and love” will be the ultimate experience. He says he hopes his story will help other gay Catholics to find peace with their faith.

“You don’t have to abandon who you are for your faith and you don’t have to abandon your faith to be who you are,” he said.

Associated Press reporter Rachel Zoll contributed to this report from New York City.

Read more