Samuel Rodriguez: The Message and the March

“How can we be happy that we have a sanctuary that seats 5,000, when 10 minutes away there are people in poverty?”

Samuel Rodriguez looks back across the years to his 14-year-old self, the product of an evangelical Christian home. He sees a young teen struggling with the early onset of doubt, skepticism picking at the corners of his cultural faith. But naturalism does not stand up well to personal supernatural encounters, which brings us to his providential coincidence, his “Road to Damascus moment,” his “epiphany,” and the two names that have followed him since: Billy Graham, Dr. King.

As he now remembers it, Billy Graham was speaking, the telecast carried by local channel 69 in Bethlehem, Pa. “I had heard the message on a number of occasions in my evangelical church, but it never came across to me personalized—until then. And I responded.”

Later that same day, PBS aired a special on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the Mall in Washington, D.C., 20 years earlier. For the second timethat day a message reached Rodriguez personally, and for the second time, he responded.

“As I listened, there was a still, small voice in my heart—it wasn’t a thunderous, audible voice, resounding out of a heavenly enclosure. But a still, small voice in my heart grabbed ahold of me that day and said, ‘Samuel, that’s your mission: Billy Graham, Dr. King.’”

He wrote that simple conviction down on the inside cover of the Bible his mom had purchased for him from Hackman’s Bible Bookstore near his Pennsylvania home.

“I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t even use the term ‘reconciling’ Billy Graham and Dr. King, but I knew that God had called me to somehow marry these two ideas, these two messages of righteousness and justice.”

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Again, Rodriguez looks back across the years to his 14-year-old self, sitting in the pew of his Assemblies of God church as a visiting evangelist interrupts his own preaching to inquire, “Is there a young man in the congregation named Samuel?” As Rodriguez raised his hand, the evangelist delivered this word from God: You will be a prominent leader of your people.

Now, three decades later, the cloud of skepticism long since dissipated, Rodriguez pastors the multiethnic New Season Christian Worship Center in Sacramento, Calif. He also serves as president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, a responsibility that carries him to D.C.’s halls of political power as arguably the highest profile Hispanic evangelical in the country.

The message on the flyleaf of an old Bible he still holds serves as a sort of abbreviated job description.