The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez preaches at a large church in Elk Grove, but his influence is growing beyond his many worshippers at the corner of Elk Grove and Stockton boulevards.
Telegenic and charismatic, Rodriguez is cementing a national reputation as a faith leader and crusader for immigration reform. On both counts, he is a man for his time.
The Latino evangelical Christian movement is ascending from a remote constituency to a force, while also striving to reshape culture and politics in our country.
Believers such as Rodriguez want to marry the righteousness of Billy Graham with the justice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Those two world views are not typically associated in a meaningful way but have found a nexus in Latino cultures, where people are comfortable with invoking God in everyday life while taking a less strident tone on immigration.
Given Latinos' strong influence on the last presidential election, the work of faith leaders such as Rodriguez hint at greater changes within our political culture – some of which could prove surprising.
For example: The greatest stumbling block to immigration reform is granting a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants estimated to be living in the United States. In back-channel debates in Washington, D.C., the fear among some opponents is that if you legalize the "illegals," they will become instant Democrats.
Rodriguez is not so sure that will happen.
"If Republicans change the rhetoric, if they lift the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan's optimism with Abe Lincoln's justice, Latinos will flock to the party," Rodriguez said.
In fact, he said, the Democratic Party is the one that may have a problem with future Latino generations.
"There is an anti-faith component (among Democrats)," Rodriguez said. "Sometimes Democrats walk like, talk like, sound like an anti-Christian party."
Such comments will inspire eye-rolls in a blue city like Sacramento. But Rodriguez is onto something.
Time magazine featured Rodriguez in a recent cover story titled "The Latino Reformation: Inside the New Hispanic Churches transforming religion in America."
When Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and John McCain of Arizona convened faith-based leaders to push immigration reform in Washington, D.C., recently, Rodriguez stood with them at their request.
Raised in Pennsylvania of Puerto Rican ancestry, Rodriguez seems to be gaining attention almost everywhere but his home base in the Sacramento region.
By his upbringing, ethnicity, politics and faith, Rodriguez is an outsider in standard Sacramento circles of influence. He is Latino but not Mexican American. He is Republican, not Democrat. He is Protestant, not Catholic. He is conciliatory, not strident.
Consequently, Rodriguez can walk anonymously into his favorite Starbucks near the Elk Grove Automall – and yet engage the minds of Rubio, McCain and yes, President Barack Obama.
Rodriguez has conferred with each of them on issues of immigration and faith. His approach stakes out moderate ground amid divided sides – one pushing for a speedy path to legalization, the other refusing to consider legalization at all.
Rodriguez could support a U.S. Senate bill that calls for some undocumented immigrants to wait up to 13 years to earn citizenship. He is OK with their having to admit wrongdoing, pay a fine and prove they can contribute to our country in a meaningful way.
Thirteen years is enough time to weed out pretenders who don't belong. In the meantime, families and workers living in the shadows could establish legal residency and contribute to American society while living with greater dignity.
"I'm a pastor," Rodriguez said. "I want families united."
In a broader sense, the United States has been a family divided over what to do about immigration. Rodriguez is among those pressing for solutions that reject either/or divisions and have the potential to unite families and Americans.
From his pulpit, preaching this message, the pastor sounds very convincing.