A Latino evangelical leader had never been asked to read Scripture at a presidential inauguration until Donald Trump invited the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez to do so in front of a global audience on Jan. 20, a remarkable turn of events given Rodriguez’s passionate advocacy for immigrants and Trump’s rhetorical hostility toward them.
“The irony of my presence at the inaugural speaks to the mysteries of God,” Rodriguez told me last week at his preferred Starbucks in Elk Grove where the preacher goes unnoticed despite a growing national profile as a faith leader of consequence. Rodriguez and his wife, Eva, are the pastors at the New Season Christian Worship Center on 44th Street, just off Highway 99, in an otherwise humble stretch of empty lots and open fields near the Fruitridge Vista neighborhood in south Sacramento.
The son of Puerto Rican immigrants raised in the rust belt of Bethlehem, Pa., the 47-year-old Rodriguez has the build of an infielder he would have loved to have been for his beloved New York Yankees. Instead, Rodriguez answered the call of God. He relocated to Sacramento more than 20 years ago to preach to a robust evangelical community, and refined his oratory skills to the point of being able to command large groups of people with ease.
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When Rodriguez preaches, his sermons are neither fire nor brimstone. Billy Graham is an inspiration, but Rodriguez brings the full spectrum of his life to his work, offering his immigrant-household, Rust Belt America, post-baby boomer, 21st century Californian perspective. He’s on Twitter daily, promoting the sanctity of life and the power of serving others.
Trump took notice, even though Rodriguez had criticized him for his divisive remarks toward immigrants during Trump’s turbulent march to the White House. Others are noticing Rodriguez these days, too. A week before Trump’s inaugural, Rodriguez joined with Jewish leaders from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the global human rights organization, to urge Trump to sign an executive order forming a Commission for National Healing, which would work to unify our divided country.
“I travel the world and we’re always looking for people (to partner with) who give religion a good name,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. “Sammy Rodriguez is one of those guys.”
On inauguration day, it was easy to see why Rodriguez is ascending. In a gray coat and striped tie, he spoke to the crowd moments before Trump took the oath of office, offering an ancient prayer with made-for-TV looks. Of the six spiritual leaders chosen by Trump to lead prayers at his inaugural, Rodriguez was the only one under 50.
Since George Washington took the oath of office with his hand on a King James Bible, expressions of spirituality have consecrated the peaceful transference of power as a solemn occasion of national unity. Rodriguez was on hand as a pastor and a leader in the largest Latino Christian organization in America. His organization, the National Hispanic Christian Leader Conference, is a growing network of more than 40,000 evangelical congregations around America.
Trump isn’t the first president to request Rodriguez’s services. Former President Barack Obama had sought Rodriguez’s counsel on immigration and education many times during Obama’s eight-year term.
If Rodriguez has advocated for anything over the years, it has been for immigration reform that would legalize millions of undocumented people so that they could emerge from the shadows and live with safety and dignity. But most of all, Rodriguez has advocated for policy that would prevent families from being separated by deportations.
To say these passionate beliefs put him at odds with Trump is an understatement. Rodriguez was horrified by Trump’s campaign promises of mass deportations of undocumented immigrants. But in June, when Trump reached out to Rodriguez and invited him to have a conversation, the influential preacher agreed to meet with the presidential candidate. Rodriguez said he was soothed by Trump’s assurances that law-abiding families would not be separated by Trump’s immigration policies.
At times, Trump has publicly backed off his mass deportation threats, and Rodriguez decided to take him at his word. After Trump was elected, Rodriguez decided it was his spiritual duty to accept Trump’s invitation to speak at the inaugural. But first he talked it over with his congregation. “Half my church voted for Hillary Clinton; half my church voted for Trump,” said Rodriguez, who describes himself as a registered independent. “I wanted everyone to understand my participation was not a political endorsement.”
Rodriguez would preach that day by equally trying to reach those who voted for Trump and those who didn’t. He chose a prayer that is central to the ministry of Jesus Christ, “The Sermon on the Mount” from the Gospel of Matthew. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Rodriguez read while standing at the inaugural platform, with Trump to his right and Obama to his left. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
He chose this Scripture because “it’s a message that transcends politics,” he said. “It says now that I have been blessed, go become a blessing to others.”
Rodriguez described the moment as overwhelming: “The enormity crept into my mind five minutes before I took the stage. I was nervous on steroids. My knees were shaking like I was having a charismatic experience. I sat directly behind President George W. Bush and Laura Bush. I had the overwhelming sense of ‘How did I get here and what are the implications?’ ”
He would soon find out.
Not long after taking office, when Trump issued an executive order on deportations, Rodriguez became worried anew, he said. He thought Trump’s criteria were too broad. He feared the federal agents would go after hardworking people as well as violent criminals and drug dealers. Specifically, he feared that federal agents would round up people whose only crime was possessing false documents deployed so they could earn a living – or not having documents at all.
“Let’s say I was driving around without documents, are you going to put me in the same boat as narco-traffickers?” he asked.
One of the first people deported under Trump’s new executive order was Guadalupe Garcia, a mother of two whose only crime was entering America without documents and then possessing a false document so she could work and care for her family.
She had lived in the United States for more than 20 years. In 2008, she had been caught using a fake Social Security number during a raid at a water park near Phoenix, where she was employed. She was convicted of a low-level felony. After her conviction, she was required to check in regularly at the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, which she did for years.
When she checked in on Wednesday, she was arrested by ICE agents, detained and then transported from Arizona to northern Mexico by federal authorities in a case that gained national attention and was a prelude to additional immigration arrests in Southern California.
Any reasonable person would not object to deporting people who, as Rodriguez says, commit “nefarious acts.” But using false documents to work and provide for your family? What kind of threat does that constitute?
“Families should not be separated,” Rodriguez told me on Friday, adding that the Garcia deportation was exactly what Trump said he wouldn’t do when Rodriguez spoke with Trump last summer. “When I asked the president, if there would be a deportation force, he said ‘No,’ ” Rodriguez said. “Would families be separated? ‘No.’ Would undocumented immigrants who came here as babies be punished for the sins of their parents? ‘No.’ ”
On Friday, as federal agents conducted immigration enforcement raids in six states, Rodriguez sounded like a faith leader whose faith was being tested. He once had been concerned that some in his congregation would view his participation in Trump’s inaugural as a betrayal. But now it seemed Trump was betraying his word to Rodriguez.
That executive order that Rodriguez and Jewish leaders wanted Trump to sign about creating a National Commission of Healing? There has been no response from the Trump administration.
Rodriguez is trying to be faithful to the idea that Trump will make good on his word to protect families from deportation. The preacher is trying to be faithful to his own mission: “Can we help people? Can we bring them some peace, bring them together?”
Left unsaid and unknown is whether Rodriguez will be working with the president to bring peace to downtrodden families, or against him.
Editor’s note: This article was changed Feb. 12 to correct information about Billy Graham.