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Interview: Samuel Rodriguez

Samuel Rodriguez

Rev. Rodriguez is on the executive board of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the largest Latino Christian organization in America. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 13, 2010.

Tell me about your own personal journey to faith.

My parents are not preachers or ministers. I was born in a very Christian ... household, but no sort of ministerial commitment, ... so no interest at all whatsoever in ministry.

“Somehow, to many white evangelicals, it seems that the flag trumps the cross, and that patriotism, however defined, is more important than a commitment to our Christian faith.”

But about when I was 14 years old, I had my epiphany, my Damascus moment, which was simple: I was viewing a very well-known televangelist around 10:00 in the evening, back in the early '80s, and it resonated with me. Something in my spirit, something in my heart said, "Samuel, you're going to do that one day; you're going to preach." ...

Who was it you were watching?

[Jimmy] Swaggart, a Pentecostal preacher back in the '80s. An hour later, there was a PBS special on Martin Luther King. And again, that little voice said, "You're going to do that."

Now here I am; I'm having ... a moment of identity moratorium. Is it going to be MLK? Is it going to be a Billy Graham sort of evangelistic outreach? What's it going to be?

That all really developed in such a way that it was "natural," or supernatural, however you want to say it. It really evolved. Doors opened up; pastors would give me opportunities to speak and say, "We really see something in you."

And at the end of the day, we see ourselves just fighting for righteousness and justice, all [under] the canopy of faith. So it's been one interesting journey. ...

What was the message?

That message is righteousness and justice. It truly is. It's Christianity in the 21st century that is not polarizing, that is not confrontational in a sense where it's stereotypically defined as abrasive, non-inviting.

I'm looking at the Christianity of Christ, one that addresses Luke 4 and Matthew 25, the fishes and the bread of compassion, of love, of tolerance, of mercy. It is a Christianity that truly reconciles both the vertical and horizontal elements of the Christian cross.

My argument all along has been that Christianity has received a very inappropriate, skewed definition, be it intentionally or our own fault, or be it because of some of the issues that we address. Truth.

But at the end of the day, in the past 30, 40, 50 years, we've seen a hijacking of the term "Christianity," particularly evangelicalism. ... And Christianity, and evangelicalism for that matter, emerge as the anti-religion, anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-this, anti-that.

In reality, Christianity is more pro than anti. It's pro-compassion; it's pro-charity; it's pro-faith; it's pro-hope, without acquiescing or compromising core values. There is a Christianity that reinvigorates and revitalizes rather than obstructs and oppresses, and that's the Christianity that I would love to see really inundate all sectors of our society.

White evangelicals focused on the vertical. African American Christians focused on the horizontal. Martin Luther King Jr., social justice, fighting racism, discrimination, poverty, health care, educational apathy -- that's a horizontal Christian ethos. ... Vertically we see Billy Graham. So now comes in the 21st century, the brown evangelicals, the Hispanic Christians in America, this vast, growing demographic.

What will America look like as it pertains to the 21st century via our Christian ethos and our Christian commitment? Because of the Hispanic American community, I believe that America will not experience the same outcome of a postmodern Europe. I don't think America is converging into this post-Christian America because of the Hispanic immigration reality.

I think by the end of the 21st century, come 2099, you're going to read about an America that has once again found Jesus, not the Jesus of the Christian right, the Jesus of political partisanship; not the Jesus that is somehow affiliated with a quasi-political movement, but that Jesus that is centered at the nexus of the vertical and the horizontal, where righteousness meets justice; where it's salvation and transformation; where it's covenant and community; where it's faith and public policy; where it's Billy Graham and Dr. King.

At that point of convergence, where Billy Graham meets Dr. King, that's where you will see the Hispanic Christian community emerge.

Vertical like Billy Graham: What do you mean?

Salvation, eternal life, biblical orthodoxy -- not fundamentalism but orthodoxy. Understanding that there are some moral absolutes. There is a narrow way; there is eternal truth. …

Billy Graham really truly embodies the spirit of evangelism in the modern context -- its platform, its engagement of, at that time, technology. Today we would see digital platforms apply and more of a virtual sort of outreach. But to have to stand before a podium via the means of a microphone and a conduit of communication and transmit a message of hope and eternal life, of conviction and repentance, of self-reflection, that's salvation. ...

The fact that you can start all over again, there could be a Chapter 1, that all things are made new through Christ and in Christ, that's John 3:16: "For God so loved the world." Billy Graham really embodied that.

This articulate, handsome young man transformed America, that vertical message of salvation. That's why that it still resonates. It's still applicable to preach a message of vertical aspiration and hope of heaven, of salvation, of liberty through Christ.

But that message does not stand alone. ... We can't preach, "Let's get to heaven; let's be born again; let us address the issues of sin in our lives," without addressing the issues of sin in our collective communities -- and let me say, sin being apathy, apathy toward the poor, those that are hurting and oppressed and disenfranchised.

If all I care about is getting to heaven and preaching a message of salvation through Christ without talking about how that salvation will impact my neighbors, we are abandoning the parable of the Good Samaritan.

So we need a holistic Christian message to re-emerge in the 21st century. And I am convinced -- not as some sort of presumptuous messianic manner -- I am convinced that the Hispanic Christian community will reconcile the vertical and horizontal elements of the Gospel message.

Just to be clear, because you said it for us, the horizontal is justice, and that's King.

That's King. That's equality. That's repudiating the spirit of racism and discrimination. That's coming against bigotry. It's addressing the issues that obstruct and oppress. It's Luke 4. It's Isaiah 61: "For the spirit of the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor and freedom to the captive, to bring sight to the blind."

There are those currently that are blinded even within our nation, be it by greed, uberconsumerism, materialism. It's not Christianity. We have within many of our churches now a strong commitment where we measure our Christian law according to the luxury items that we somehow hold dear to us. Truly, is that the message of Christ? Absolutely not.

What we want to see is the re-emergence of pure Christianity, that unfiltered, uncensored Christian faith, not the one that has been ethno-culturally contextualized by the American narrative or by Anglo-Saxon Europeans.

Christianity is not European. It's not Anglo-Saxon. It's not even American. The Christian faith transcends ethnicity and cultural experiences. It fortifies, it strengthens, it enriches, it empowers you individually and subsequently those around you. That's the Christian faith that we are committed to expressing.

What is it about the Hispanic community and its faith that is going to bring these strands together?

... The Hispanic evangelical community, in our cultural experience, embedded within our cultural DNA, is a commitment to multiethnicity that I believe will be a great contribution to the evangelical movement in America. We will make the evangelical movement multiethnic. ...

The second way that I think we're going to somehow transform the American religious landscape comes via the vehicle of that commitment to righteousness and justice.

And the third way is a multigenerational commitment. Hispanics are committed to la familia. So we're not just satisfied having Abraham in church or Isaac. We want to see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph all attend church together, and not only attend church but really live out, daily, 24 hours, seven days a week, that Christian message of righteousness and justice. ...

Tell me a story of how the Hispanic community's faith has evolved in this country, particularly in Southern California, over the last 50 years. Fifty years ago, most Hispanics out here would have been Catholic.

... We never experienced a Protestant Reformation in Latin America. It never really reached our shores. It stayed in Europe. Spain's control, its grip over Latin America was so strong, and of course with Spain, the Catholic Church. ...

So Los Angeles, 1960, Catholic churches completely filled. A minimal amount of Protestant churches. Very small Presbyterian, Methodist, mainline denominational Hispanic affinity.

[By] 2010, megachurches, evangelical, primarily the Pentecostal charismatic persuasion. What happened? The Reformation. There was this incredible occurrence in Latin America where these evangelical pastors said: "Hold on a second. What if you can have church where [you include] your cultural inclinations, the threads, the dynamic component of your culture -- for example, your music? If you're Mexican and you love mariachi music, what about if you incorporate your mariachi music and bring it into your worship service with your Christian faith worshipping your Christ? We can provide that." It's Customization 101. It really is. It's the Starbucks -- it's the franchising of Christianity with specificity and intentionality. ... Bring in the music; bring in the food; don't abandon your culture at the door.

And please bring in your language, so the liturgy won't be in Latin, and the person before you on the pulpit, it's not an Irish-born or a Scottish-born. And God bless 'em -- they love Hispanics, and they speak the Spanish vernacular. This is one of your own who has been through your journey, who has faced poverty. Maybe they've come out of an experience from gangs or drugs or whatever it may be. There's a narrative to that individual that you're seeing before you, not just Catholic seminary and the bureaucracy and the hierarchy. That person has lived a story, and that story provides authenticity and legitimizes them to share with you and to transmit the Gospel to you.

So at multiple levels -- psychologically, ideologically, culturally, experientially -- there is a connection between evangelicalism and the Hispanic community. It's a natural fit. ...

Some scholars call it the "browning" of Christianity.

It is the browning of Christianity. It's Christianity contextualized outside of the sphere of European, Anglo-Saxon context. But there are some modifications to that, both vertical and horizontal.

For example, politically there are some serious consequences to this browning of the evangelical community. White evangelicals from 1973, after Roe v. Wade, have primarily voted conservative, Republican. African American Christians ... have a problem in identifying themselves as evangelicals, because "evangelicalism" is too strong of a white term, so they are born again, and they are committed to the same level of biblical orthodoxy as I am. But African Americans have voted historically for the Democratic Party.

The brown evangelical comes along and says: "You know what? We don't want to be married to either party; we really don't. We would love to be the quintessential independents. And rather than endorse a candidate, we would love them to endorse our agenda and endorse our worldview."

So this is the quintessential independent. I see the Hispanic Christian community emerging as the game changers and the power brokers politically in America.

... Politically, where do you stand on some of the red-button issues for the evangelical right: abortion, gay marriage? And then where do you differ from them?

... Pew Research would indicate that Hispanic Christians are even more pro-life than white evangelicals, ... so there is a stronger commitment toward a life ethos. ...

On the issue of marriage, not necessarily anti-gay, but more we understand that la familia, mom and dad, in the home, is the number one firewall against our children [getting] into drugs, gang violence, educational apathy. So, would Hispanic evangelicalism be in favor of preserving traditional marriage? One hundred percent absolutely yes, but they would simultaneously say, "We must repudiate homophobia."

Does that sound oxymoronic or contradictory in terms? We don't find it to be. I've participated personally in conversations, in mobilization strategies in defense of traditional marriage, while I have simultaneously participated in defending the rights of the gay and lesbian community as it pertains to making sure they're not discriminated [against].

I don't find that to be a contradiction at all whatsoever. I find that to be a reconciliation of the vertical and the horizontal, because we do have our belief that marriage has a biblical, institutionalized definition. However, to label out exclusively one community and say, "This is the taboo bad community," that's egregious.

How in the world can we point the finger to one community when we have divorce and adultery and pornography and so many other issues that are impacting marriages in our churches? So we need to somehow extrapolate some of the hypocritical nodes that have embedded our churches and look at these again from the lens of compassion and mercy and outreach, viable outreach.

You've been active on immigration?

I've been very active on immigration. ... We've worked with senators and congressmen across the aisle. Had a great opportunity of meeting extensively with Sen. Ted Kennedy [D-Mass.] and worked with [Sen.] John McCain [R-Ariz.] on the initial McCain-Kennedy bill, in looking at a reconciliatory sort of agenda: Do we stop illegal immigration? Do we have open borders? Do we address the issue of the 12 million that are currently undocumented?

And we thought [of] a biblical solution. Leviticus 19 will tell us, welcome the stranger amongst you as one of your own; treat the alien in your community as one of your family members. Romans 13, on the other hand, would say, respect the rule of law.

So we presented a solution. Let's do that. Let's reconcile both Leviticus 19 and Romans 13. Can we stop illegal immigration? Sure, we can. Should we? Absolutely. Should we shut down the borders? Absolutely not. But should we stop illegal immigration? Sure.

We're a sovereign nation. There are some narco traffickers; there are some other terrorist activities that could very well infringe in our security. So we need to do whatever it takes to stop illegal immigration.

However, we must reconcile that with some marketplace-driven realities. With agribusiness in California alone, Bakersfield and Fresno, we need more visas [than] the federal government allot annually. So there are some marketplace-driven economic realities that need to be addressed.

More importantly, morally, we have 12 million people here, 99 percent of which came for one reason: ... a better day for their families. How in the world can we think of deporting 12 million people when we de facto gave them a wink-wink, nod, come on board, join us in the great train we call the American Express?

So we need to deal with these in a practical manner. And the solution would be an earned pathway to citizenship: admonition of guilt, paying fines, demonstrating proficiency in the English vernacular.

We will deport the felons. Those that have committed serious crimes would be deported, but 99 percent of these individuals are really just committed to making a better day. And as Christians, we need to commit ourselves to addressing that issue. ...

Some of my white evangelical brothers and sisters have been at odds with that point of view, and they have listened more to the rhetoric of [right-wing commentators] Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. That concerns me.

... Somehow, to many white evangelicals, it seems that the flag trumps the cross, and that patriotism, however defined, is more important than a commitment to our Christian faith.

Now, that's not necessarily lining up with our ideology and our theology, biblically, as Christians. I think white evangelicals need to revisit the prioritization of their commitments, whether or not the cross and the message of the cross trumps everything else. ...

Do you think the political evangelical right got too close to power? If so, what are the lessons for any faith-based movement in terms of possibly losing its prophetic voice by getting too close to power?

White evangelicals married the elephant, absolutely. For that matter, to be completely balanced, African Americans married a donkey. We are committed to marrying the lamb and to focusing on the agenda of the lamb.

Sure, it's not like the Republican Party neglected the evangelical community. It's that they neglected them for three years and 11 months outside of the election cycle. It's a give-and-take. Is the Republican Party exclusively to blame?

We find ourselves as Hispanic evangelicals at a crossroads. We find ourselves in a place where we have a Republican Party that in its platform, in its core values, really resonate to our community, particularly on ... those core issues of family values. ...

Here's a party that on paper resonates with us, but they truly don't want us. The Democratic Party really wants us, but their values don't really coincide with the Hispanic American experience. ...

We find ourselves going, "Where do we go?" We're caught between the proverbial rock and the hard place. ... What do we do? And that's where we find ourselves in the 21st century. ...

Do you find that the Democratic Party -- particularly with Obama but also with [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton during her campaign -- has become more comfortable talking about faith?

... I think President Obama has been very successful in addressing issues of faith.

Prior to Obama, Sen. [John] Kerry [D-Mass.] -- and God bless him, but to have so much trepidation in speaking about faith. Remember the great faith descriptors of Sen. John Kerry? Wind, spirit, big love? You've got to be kidding me. It sounds like a Showtime special. That's not faith. ...

But President Obama came along. I think he was brilliant. The Democratic Party realized, look, the future of really building a broad coalition, you have 47 million Hispanics, we can't neglect them, can't connect to them without addressing the issue of faith or la familia, family. So we're going to have to speak their language. ...

Here's the Democratic Party, and here's a president, a Democratic president, addressing fatherhood, addressing issues of abortion reduction. That resonates with the Hispanic American community.

Now, we don't agree with President Obama in every single issue, absolutely not. But we do need to give him credit for addressing issues that prior Democratic administrations would be trepidatious at best, and reluctant at worst, to address.

[Obama] said -- and it sounds like you would agree with this -- that you just can't ignore faith. It's part of the experience. The idea that it's just going to go away and not factor in is just not going to happen.

You can't extrapolate faith from the American experience. It's our DNA. It really is our historical and cultural DNA. We still are today the children, the descendents of Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. ...

Embedded within our constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the documents of our Founding Fathers, whether they were Deists or Bible-believing or whatever, at least we know as a matter of fact, everyone would concur that faith has been, is and will be an important ingredient in the collective American landscape. ...

... A lot of the Catholic leaders [in L.A.] will say, "We're embracing a more evangelical approach to faith, but rooted within the structure of the Catholic Church." Is that possible?

... Over 50 percent of American Hispanic Catholics are of the charismatic persuasion. They embrace the supernatural relationship with the Holy Spirit. Many of them practice glossolalia [speaking in tongues], which means they have a lot more in common with the heart of the evangelical Hispanic community.

All of a sudden, Hispanic evangelicals are looking across that parish and saying, it's no longer my enemy; that's my brother and sister who's basically in step one. He gets the message, he's getting the Spirit, got the power, and eventually that Catholic charismatic experience will serve as a bridge toward full inclusion in our evangelical family. …

Now we see ourselves partnering with the Catholic community like we've never seen before.

Is there trepidation on behalf of the Catholic community as it pertains to losing so many of its members to the evangelical community? Sure. But I am, again, committed to building bridges and looking at: We are part of the same Christ family, serving the cause of Christ. There are some theological differences, of course. We're not going to surrender or compromise our beliefs for the sake of ecumenical coming together. However, there are so many areas where we can coalesce, converge and work together, and I think we're finding more common ground than differences.

So are we going to continue to grow, the evangelical community? Sure. Is the Catholic Church going to continue to lose members to the evangelical community? I would rather not say "lose"; I would rather say "promote."

They wouldn't see it as promotion.

They see it as part of the same family. They're just shifting from one framework with limited experiences and theology to one that is a bit more comprehensive, in our opinion, of course. More theologically whole and holistic. The Catholic Church is becoming more evangelical.

Take somebody who's from a white, Episcopalian background into a Hispanic Pentecostal service. Help us make sense of it for them.

It is truly a celebration. It is a vociferous expression of faith, all the trappings of culture that you could imagine.

The music will be loud. It will be vibrant; it will be engaging. You will be hard pressed not to move. By the end of that service you will do the two-step. You may not be doing the waltz, but you will move; you will dance. The preaching, the sermon, the engagement -- very prophetic. ...

Holiness is a strong component of the Hispanic evangelical sermon, message and theology, a commitment to righteousness, both personal and communal. It's a commitment to sanctification, but to address the issues that really limit us from reaching our full potential in Christ.

[There's a] strong message on holiness, a strong message on empowerment: You can do it. You can thrive. You can succeed. You can overcome the obstacles of poverty, of racism, of educational apathy. You can overcome. ...

You shouldn't be satisfied with being the lawnmower man. Your goal should be to own a lawn-mowing service and business, and then to transmit and transfer that business over to your children.

That's the message you'll hear in a Hispanic Pentecostal charismatic church. Be filled with the power, power both vertical and horizontal; power to succeed, power to live holy, to live righteous, power to do God's will. ...

So it is a hybrid of Billy Graham, of Rick Warren's "purpose," of Dr. King's justice revival. You converge them all in a blender, put a lot of salsa sauce on top, you have a Hispanic Pentecostal service.

Do you consider yourself part of the prophetic movement?

Absolutely. Prophetic ... in the sense of truth telling, not as a Daniel or a Joseph or a Jeremiah, but rather a commitment to addressing the corridors of power and speaking truth to power with integrity and accountability. ...

Is America a Christian country?

America is a country founded on a Judeo-Christian value system. I am one more inclined to supporting an America that is embracing religious pluralism.

The moment we do a Constantine here, and D.C. becomes Constantinople again and America is Christian, we are then swaying away from the heart of why this nation was founded. I am one that believes that religious pluralism is significant.

The number one threat globally around the world today is religious totalitarianism. The antidote to religious totalitarianism is religious pluralism. As Americans, as a Christian, as an evangelical, I will support the right of Muslims and of Hindus and Buddhists to worship freely, without any sort of government intrusion or limitation in our nation.

I will fight for the atheist to have his right not to believe and to articulate his viewpoint wherever possible, whenever possible. That's what I believe strengthens my Christian faith: a commitment to pluralism, to many ideas.

Let's have a marketplace of religious ideas. Let's debate this. I do push back against the notion of fundamentalism, extremism, be it coming from the Christian faith, the Muslim faith, the Jewish faith, whatever faith. Again, Christianity is reconciliatory in nature. It builds bridges and not walls, and it's tolerant rather than intolerant.

You talk about speaking truth to power as a prophetic movement. What's the danger of getting too close to power?

Marrying power, loving the power, embracing the power, establishing a P.O. box in Washington, D.C., buying an apartment -- of course I'm speaking a little bit more metaphorically. But it's when you really embrace the power and say, "I like this; I like the attention," and you're willing to compromise core values for the sake of access. Absolutely not. ...

We need to preserve our commitment to our priorities. And I have an incredible amount of concern when Christians marry D.C., when we have Christ holding hands with Uncle Sam. That really concerns me.

Billy Graham was close to power, never broke with it the way that Martin Luther King did toward the end of his life. Do you have any lessons in their two approaches?

... I consider Dr. Billy Graham and Dr. King two of the most important figures that have helped me frame not only my theological framework, but my work, but my leadership model.

So you learn both from the good experiences from Dr. Graham and from the bad experience as it pertains to his engagement with the presidents and with the cores of power.

Dr. King saw government, particularly the federal government, as a viable partner in transforming our society, to be more embracive of equality, to bring an end to segregation, the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act. So he understood that only partnering, holding hands with Uncle Sam for that season, would produce the outcomes that were necessary for his generation and for generations to come. ...

I learned from Dr. Graham that there is a limit; that you are viewed in a more legitimate light when you can speak into without marrying. I learned from Dr. King that at times you may have to camp out a week or two in D.C. until you get the point across. Perseverance, tenacity, never giving up.

At times there are things you do sacrifice for the sake of righteousness and justice. But at the end of the day, what matters is that we are sincere and authentic in respect to our principles. And when we look at ourselves in the morning, we know there's no hypocrisy. There is nothing there that is self-preserving, that is self-aggrandizing. ...

If you look around this extended community here, you've got Hispanic Pentecostal storefront churches and also some huge megachurches. Tell us about each one of those and how they fit in, what they're about.

It's more about immigration realities than anything else. First-generation immigrants really feel more comfortable in a small social setting. ... So I want to preserve my language and preserve the customs of my culture, my native land. I would rather be around 50, 70, 80, 90, 100 people than around 2,000, some of which already speak English and are economically and socially mobile, when I am just beginning to identify myself and come to a point of initial assimilation. ...

Storefront churches is the initial ... step in the natural evolution of the Hispanic evangelical, particularly Pentecostal charismatic, community. ...

What do the megachurches offer the congregation?

... They offer ministries and programs. The more ministries and programs you offer -- customization -- the more menu items on the menu list, the more people you will attract.

So they offer a myriad of services, programs, products and opportunities that a small church cannot afford to address, and that's attractive for the community.

Again, it engages them on multiple levels, both the vertical and horizontal, and then you have that feel where you walked out as a Latino saying, "I'm part of a very successful, vibrant community." So there is intrinsically an affirmative sort of component where you walk out going, "Hey, I'm part of something viable, growing, thriving." ...

... Do you find in your own megachurches that they're actually driven by, if you look at it from a marketing lens, trying to appeal to people by offering certain services that people find that they want?

... Churches that are successful in addressing the vertical reality with the horizontal needs will thrive. Churches that are exclusive to one or the other will fail, and we see that in the Hispanic community, absolutely. You address the needs of poverty. There are churches that offer English acquisition courses thriving.

It could be a mediocre preacher, by the way, but if the services fit, if the programs and deliverables resonate within the community, the church will thrive. It's all about the need. What are they hungry for? Let's give them what they want and what they need without compromising spiritually what they need. When we can reconcile both, you're going to have a successful congregation. ...

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