A call to thrive
A pastoral perspective on faith, politics, Hispanic values, and moving beyond survival mode
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Samuel Rodriguez, 51, is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and an Assemblies of God pastor in Sacramento, Calif. Here are edited excerpts of our Dec. 18 conversation.
Wearing both hats—senior pastor of New Season Christian Worship Center and very much involved in politics—seems hard. How did that work out in 2020? Our church is about 40 percent white, 40 percent African American, 20 percent Latino and Asian. The protests after the George Floyd incident that morphed into riots placed me in a very precarious situation because we confronted an issue of injustice, but I refused to bow to a movement that was out of alignment with the Word of God.
You refer to Psalm 89, with its melding of righteousness, justice, love, and faithfulness. Every person is created in God’s image, so I repudiate all vestiges of bigotry and racism, but in American streets I saw the spirit of Malcolm X, not Micah. We saw burning, riots, vandalism, physical assaults on innocent individuals eating at restaurants or shops: Completely out of alignment with the Word of God.
When you’re so politically involved, how do you explain to your congregation that the gospel is primary and politics secondary? I explain to them that the gospel compels us to address issues that may have political implications, but we are not to be politically driven. I constantly tell my church we can’t be married to the agenda of the donkey or the elephant—we must exclusively be married to the agenda of the Lamb. I am 100 percent pro-life—I believe it’s one of the most critical issues of our lifetime. I am likewise committed to preserving religious liberty and supporting not social justice but Biblical justice, righteousness applied in our public sphere.
What percentage of your church members do you think voted Republican in the last election? We did not do a survey. My speculation would be 75-80 percent. A strong part of our African American leaders are staunch pro-lifers. They can’t vote for a party that advances the abortion narrative. They voted for life, religious liberty, and Biblical justice, not necessarily for the Trump personality. We say no to socialism, which is antithetical to a Biblical worldview.
The Hispanic electorate will reinvigorate the conservative movement. The Latino community is the vaccine against socialism in America.
Cuban Americans who saw socialism close-up tend to vote Republican. What about Venezuelans, as more have come to this country after experiencing Chávez and Maduro? Yes, and not only Venezuelans: Bolivians and Nicaraguans have seen the same thing.
What about immigrants from Mexico? Mexican values are not cartel values. Mexicans are some of the hardest-working individuals on the planet—12- to 14-hour workdays, strong faith, familia. That sounds like the values that made this nation exceptional—hard work, faith, and family. The idea that Mexican Americans or Hispanics generally would end up in perpetuity as a solid voting constituency for the Democratic Party is untrue. The Hispanic electorate will reinvigorate the conservative movement. The Latino community is the vaccine against socialism in America.
What do you recommend concerning the roughly 11 million people who are in the United States illegally? Let’s legalize with a green card those who have been here in this country for many years, who are hard-working, not criminals, not dependent on government subsidies or entitlements, not living off welfare. Let’s let their children who came here through no fault of their own become citizens.
Did most Hispanics in California vote against resuming affirmative action there? Yes. They don’t want to go back to discriminatory practices where we elevate one race over the other. That proposition came out at the same time the San Diego school district decided African American students did not have it within them, culturally speaking, to hand in their homework on time: Handing in work on time is supposedly a racist, Anglo-Saxon, Caucasian, Western world motif. That’s racism.
If you tell kids—whatever their color and ethnicity—that “it doesn’t matter when you hand in your homework,” many will hand it in late, and they’ll do worse in life. This idea that handing your work in on time, or that the language of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare, is inherently racist—these notions are absurd. They’re part of a deconstructive modus operandi pushed by leftist extremists with a Marxist worldview. It’s antithetical to Scripture. The Latino community pushed back.
Hispanics are now 34 percent of all University of California admissions, up from 14 percent a quarter century ago, without affirmative action. Government tells me, “You are, in perpetuity, a victim. You’re second-class. You can’t make it on the God-given gifts and abilities that are in you. You can’t make it without government.” Uncle Sam is just an uncle. He will never be my Heavenly Father. I would like to see every Hispanic, every African American push back on the notion that without government we can’t thrive. Yes, we can.
What’s the potential within the Hispanic community to support school choice arguments? We do have “systemic racism”: It’s what the school district of Los Angeles and other school districts practice. We have a system in place where Latinos and African Americans and kids in the inner city are learning Dora the Explorer, when their counterparts in the suburbs are learning Chaucer and Milton. We socially promote people who are not academically advancing. We care more about political correctness than we do about STEM—science, technology, engineering, math. We’re harming beautiful African American and Latino young men and women with a public educational system that is completely morally reprehensible. We need school choice. Hispanics want more charter schools, more Christian schools, more private schools.
You write in your new book, From Survive to Thrive, “Our trials can become opportunities for God’s light to shine through the cracks of our brokenness.” In discussing Psalm 23, you write, “When I walk through the darkest valley,” not “if.” Is the gospel of suffering still strong in Hispanic churches, or is the prosperity gospel making inroads? The prosperity gospel message has had an impact in the Hispanic church, but I want to define the term. There is no gospel of prosperity. There is the gospel of Jesus Christ—the vicarious, atoning work of Jesus, the finished work on the cross, His resurrection, His ascension, and the birth of the Church. The notion that if you’re a Christian you should be rich and prospering is hard to swallow. If you say brothers and sisters in Christ around the world are not good Christians because they’re not rich, that’s heresy. But Psalm 1 does say, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked. … In all that he does, he prospers.” So does God want you to prosper? Yes. Should making money and owning homes be the marker of a Christian walk? Absolutely not, and what we’re seeing in the Latino community is a middle ground.
Which is … Latinos saying that suffering solidifies and validates Christianity—that in the midst of our suffering, we count our faith for joy. Our hope is in Christ who works all things for good. We likewise see the Hispanic community saying “I’m not going to measure my Christianity by my Maserati or Mercedes-Benz” —that’s silly—“but God does want me to live a life where I can prosper spiritually, mentally, relationally, and become a blessing to people.”
I wonder about your redefining of the Greek word makarios from “blessed” to “happy”? I don’t believe in a theology of happiness where we are driven to be happy. But the joy of the Lord, if properly in place in your life, will prompt you to exhibit an emotional return on that investment of joy that was paid for on the cross, so even in the most difficult circumstances you will be happy. It’s not happiness independent of God-ordained joy, but joy as a byproduct of God’s indwelling through His Spirit.
Later in the book you talk about how your victories will exceed your defeats. How do you know that? The moment you receive Christ as your Lord and Savior, the victory of the cross literally trumps all of the defeats in your past. It’s equivalent to losing every other game you ever played in your past, and somehow you ended up in the Super Bowl by the grace of God, and you win. All your defeats cannot compare to a personal relationship with Christ where you have eternal life, as in John 3:16, John 10:10, and 2 Corinthians 5:17.
You write, “God is looking for thrivers, his champions who dare fight for justice.” Does that sound like God is looking for cool people and then signing them up? Is God looking for thrivers? Sure, He’s looking for the blind to give them sight. He’s looking for the lame to tell them to stand up, take up your mat, and start walking. He’s looking for the lost sheep. But He’s also looking for those willing to come out of perpetual survival mode. Thrivers are individuals who come out of the desert and step into the land of milk and honey knowing there are giants we have to bring down for the sake of our children and our children’s children.
Where do we see people doing that in America today? Many examples. Those who are fighting for life and ending this abortion obsession in America are what I call modern day Gideons, thrivers who said, “No, I’m not just going to survive. I’m going to thrive for the sake of my children and my children’s children.”
—For a previous Rodriguez interview, see “The Lamb's agenda,” Dec. 1, 2012
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