Seeing The Need: Pastor Finds Fulfillment Leading Spanish Ministry

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Alfonso Rodriguez sees his life as a series of turning points and he can remember the exact date and time of each crossroad.

There is Aug. 19, 2003, the first day he arrived in the United States from Colombia. It was the first time he left his own country. He came to the United States on an I-20 student visa -- to Edinburg, Texas -- to study theology at the Rio Grande Bible Institute. He didn't speak English and he didn't know what his future would hold.

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Alfonso Rodriguez, 27, took over as pastor of La Roca one year and four months ago.

There is Dec. 14, 2003 at 9 a.m. when he first set eyes on Lillie Navarro, the woman he would marry.

He saw her on a Sunday morning. Her parents were in Texas taking classes at the same Bible college and invited Rodriguez to stay with them in Payson during Christmas break when the dorms closed.

"I was praying for almost five years for a Christian woman," Rodriguez said. "A woman who wants to be a missionary, who likes books, who is beautiful. I saw that in Lillie."

He remembers the day Christmas break ended, Jan. 3, 2004, when he had to say goodbye to Lillie.

Rodriguez had only been in the United States for four months. He was just learning the basics of English. Lillie didn't speak Spanish.

They were drawn to each other, despite the fact they could not communicate easily. They bridged the language barrier through Bible verses. They both knew the Bible well and would list off verses that conveyed a meaning.

"We connected through the Bible," Rodriguez said. "One day I was trying to explain to her that I wanted to lift a wheelbarrow, but it was very heavy. I didn't know the word for heavy, so I told her to look up a verse in Zechariah. She read it and understood."

For months, the two kept in touch through letters, phone conversations and e-mails.

Rodriguez came to Payson a second time in December 2004 to substitute for the pastor of La Roca, the Spanish language ministry of Mountain Bible Church.

He preached at La Roca ("The Rock") for two months before returning to school.

"When I was in Payson, I saw a need here in the Hispanic congregation," he said. "There are other churches with translators, but it is a different feeling than hearing a sermon in your own language."

On May 14, 2005, Rodriguez married Lillie and the two made plans to return to Payson.

Rodriguez, now 27, took over as pastor of La Roca one year and four months ago.

Rodriguez plans to stay in Payson with his wife and his 1-year-old son Nehemiah ("Nemo"), until the church is sustainable.

"When I got here, there were 20 to 25 members," he said. "Now we have 60 to 70 members." The growth came through word of mouth and door-to-door visits by the pastor to the Spanish-speaking community.

"They are in another country, another culture, they feel alone and they are more sensitive to the gospel," Rodriguez said. "Eighty percent of our congregation doesn't speak English at all. They are looking for their people."

La Roca holds services at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and 3 p.m. Sundays at Mountain Bible Church.

La Roca

Rodriguez looks out over his Spanish-speaking congregation and sees people from varied backgrounds and countries. At his church, he doesn't ask if people are in the country illegally.

"I don't think it is right to be here illegally," he said. "But I don't ask if they are legal or not. I care about them as humans. I care about their souls.

"I tell people if they came here illegally, it's not right, but if they are here, we will take care of them."

The members of La Roca have always been a tight community but the recent Payson Town Council decision to pass an ordinance cracking down on the hiring of illegal immigrants has brought them closer.

The ordinance passed on Thursday, March 15.

The next day, fliers written in Spanish were hung all over town announcing a meeting. A television channel from Phoenix that was in Payson covering the council meeting announced the meeting on the Friday night news. On Saturday, 150 immigrants gathered at the church looking for answers. Lawyers from Mesa spoke at the meeting.

"Even if you are illegal, as a human being, you have rights," Rodriguez said. "I was there to let them know that we care about them. I want them to see the church as a shelter, a refuge.

"After Thursday night, we knew many people wanted to leave town. They were really afraid."

From Colombia

Rodriguez grew up in the small rural community of La Victoria, Colombia. His father was a farmer. He was 10 years old when a neighbor gave him his first Bible. He and his siblings would read it every afternoon after they finished their work in the field.

He became a Christian when he was 15.

He graduated from high school, ranked second in his class, and was given a scholarship by his county government for college. He left La Victoria and moved to the city -- Valledupar on the coast of Colombia. In his second semester, for reasons unknown, the government didn't pay his tuition and his education was over, he thought.

He didn't know where his future would lead until he attended a Christian youth camp. During one of the services, he started crying.

"I cried all day," he said. "I didn't know why. I asked the pastor and he told me I was being called to be a pastor."

Rodriguez's first time behind the pulpit was in the mining town of El Paso, Colombia.

"I really liked seeing the change in people," he said. "They came from bad backgrounds -- drugs, alcohol -- and I watched them change. That's what fills me up every day."

It was in El Paso that Rodriguez was invited to attend Bible college in Texas -- another step in the road that would lead him here.

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