Reverend Samuel Rodriguez has been called “One of America’s most influential voices” for a reason. Not just for his dedication to the church, but also for his determination to bring freedom, equality and hope to the world through the spread of the gospel. Which makes him not only an influential voice in America, but a very needed voice in this season of deteriorating unity across nearly every facet of American culture.
Not only is he one of the most prominent voices among the Latino church, but he has consistently refused to be defined or boxed in by anything other than Jesus and has fought to push past the boundaries of race, denomination and culture. In light of the new movie—My Brother’s Crossing—which Rodriguez served as executive producer for, the two of us sat down (so to speak) to talk about how the message of this movie can speak into the current climate of our country and, more importantly, the Church’s responsibilities to be a voice of freedom and hope to a world that is desperate for both.
My prayer is that, as you read this, you won’t allow it to be just words on a paper. But that rather, you will put yourself in the room with us and join this very important conversation. The world needs us, Church. Let’s dive in!
Michael: Let’s talk about your new movie—My Brother’s Crossing—which premiered last month. Before we really dive into what we can really learn from that story, can I ask what motivated you to be a part of this project?
Rodriguez: For such a time as this. What motivated me is our current social cultural, social, political melees. And the need for a reconciliatory message that is redemptive, that offers hope, that is not politically based, but is rather prophetic in its meat. And when I read the script and I saw the initial production elements imbedded, I went, “Absolutely, how can I not be a part of this?”
So, by the grace of God, we saw the favor of God with our Breakthrough movie and—again, because our current reality demands that the church stands up and speaks prophetically into this moment of darkness. This movie really came on a—it’s just eerie, the timing of it. In a good way. It can’t be a coincidence. That’s what prompted me to join.
Michael: That’s beautiful. I was actually thinking about that a lot as I was reading up on the movie. I couldn’t believe how perfect the timing was. Even all that has been going on in the world since you began filming. It’s just so relevant. After all, this is based on events in 2015, when the world was going through some very similar tension revolving around race. How do you think it can also speak into today’s situations?
Rodriguez: It came at the heel of Missouri and Ferguson. And that took place—It literally took place right at the heels of Ferguson. And the expectation in Virginia was that Virginia would be the new Missouri—the new Ferguson. Here’s an African American man who is driving on the wrong side of the road and they kill a white person, part of a biking club. And you would think: this is it. This right here is the death nail on peace in the commonwealth of Virginia. And to see the redemptive elements, to see voices emerge from the most unexpected places. That white gang, bike club, coming to his defense. I mean, who does that? All because of their devotion to Christ. So to me it speaks accolades. That mercy, hope, love recognizing the image of God in one another. Moving beyond the pigmentation of one’s skin and looking at the humanity that is embedded in each and every one of us. That’s sort of the inner narrative of “My Brother’s Crossing.”
Michael: That brings me to two thoughts. One being: Do you think that the Church should be a major voice in the midst of this kind of tension in the world? But also how can the church contribute to the conversation that are happening around the country right now? How can we be a voice of unity in the midst of seasons like this?
Rodriguez: The Church must be the leading voice. The quintessential leading voice. Historically, throughout the course of American history—I would argue that since the days of Constantine—for the last two thousand years, throughout the course of the evolution of civilization, what we have seen is the church leading the way prophetically. The church is not perfect. We haven’t been perfect throughout the course of our history. Nevertheless, every single vertical aspect or measurable increase in mobility—becoming better human beings, created in the image of God—has come primarily via the conduit of the efficacy of the Christian church. You name it.
From bringing an end to infanticide, to women’s right to vote, to ending slavery, labor force. In America, Dr. King, Lincoln of course, Frederick Douglas, Booker T Washington, Dr. King bringing an end to segregation and Jim Crow. It’s been church led. If the church doesn’t lead, someone else will fill that vacuum and when someone else fills that vacuum, then we see riots. Then we see violence. We see elements that are not in alignment with love, hope, truth, grace, and mercy. So the church must lead the way. The question is: How do we do it?
We do it by transcending political affiliations. We do it by not speaking about the agenda of the donkey or the elephant. But exclusively speaking from the agenda of the lamb, who is the lion of the tribe of Judah. We do it by speaking a Christian language and doing Christian acts of charity, love and mercy that transcend political myopic silo thinking. This echo chamber of mutual affirmation that is currently very disruptive to civility. It’s what we need to transcend. So we do it by being prophetic, by being proactive, by speaking every single time we see acts of injustice. We need to speak up. And we need to do it in a way that doesn’t drink the Kool-Aid of political correctness or sacrifice truth on the altar of political expediency. We do it from love.
Michael: Which brings up another great question. How do you feel about how political the church has become on both sides? It almost seems like wherever you look, the church is the loudest voice fighting for these political platforms. Are you firmly against that? Should we stay out of politics entirely, and only focus on the gospel?
Rodriguez: No, we need to speak into the political apparatus, because politics have—elections have consequences. And because I am committed to the gospel, I want to make sure I have the privilege—or better yet, the right—to preach the gospel. So I can’t become apathetic. If I become apathetic, laws will be placed that will hinder the preaching of the gospel for the sake of my children and my children’s children. We can be engaged politically—yes. Are we to be married to a political party? No. And that requires maturity.
That requires us to be involved politically, to address public policy, to do away with being enamored with a personality. Look beyond the personality—look at the public policy and advance an agenda that is Psalm 89:14. Righteousness and justice truth and love. So yeah, I believe we can do both. We’re big kids. We can chew gum and walk at the same time. We can be involved politically without marrying the political party. In my crazy world, I would ask every Christian to register as an independent voter. And every single election—and I mean every Christian. Black, White, Latino, Asian. And every single election, let the candidates try to win our vote. So it’s a more righteousness and justice, truth and love agenda.
Michael: I want to go back to something you said before. You said that the church must be the leading voice regarding race and division in our country. What I kind of want to talk about is that same racial divide that takes place within the church. How do you feel about the church’s structure surrounding race? Do you think we can do better there? Do we need to have this conversation a little closer to home before we can be that leading voice in the world?
Rodriguez: I think there is culpability on both ends. I look at race from a different worldview. Race is beautiful, and the diversity of race is God’s perfect will. It’s Revelation at the end—all ethnicities, all races and creeds coming together worshipping in the throne room of grace. So it’s beautiful. The mosaic of God’s tapestry of creation—it’s brilliant. So if you’re born white, praise be God. If you’re born black, praise be God. If you’re born brown, praise be the Lord. All the colors are beautiful. Equally beautiful, by the way. And I do believe racism is a sin, and not just a sin in one community. That’s illogical.
There’s no sin that only impacts one community. So just like adultery, fornication, idolatry impacts everyone.- as does racism. There’s racism in the white community, in the black community, in the Latino community, and the Asian community. As it pertains to the church’s reality—as it pertains to a structural demographical makeup, there’s culpability on both sides. There’s culpability on both sides of the conversation. We need to do a lot better.
Again, I have a different worldview. I have an idea that the number one antidote to racism is the planting of multi-ethnic, multi-cultural churches. If you can’t worship together on Sunday, if you can’t marry one another and just worship together, if you can’t see your children married to someone of another race, you need to bring some things to the throne room of grace. And if you can’t worship together, you need to come before the throne room of grace and there needs to be some repentance. So, I do believe the answer is more multi-ethnic, multi-cultural churches. And we have to do better across the board.
Michael: And how do we reconcile the differences in culture regarding things like worship, and the way we pray and the way we preach? Because a lot of people would argue that the reason that we are divided is not because of race, necessarily, but because of our cultural preferences. How do we find unity in the midst of that and really learn to center Jesus?
Rodriguez: The cross trumps culture. I’m not on this planet for cultural preservation. I’m on this planet to do the will of God. To exalt Christ. To live out my God-ordained purpose. And I’m not here for cultural preservation. When I wake up in the morning, I don’t see myself as a Latino, first and foremost. I see myself as a Christian—as a child of the living God. My Christianity trumps everything. And again, I do believe there are dynamics and threads that are beautiful.
Listen, I pastor a multi-ethnic church. It’s 40% white, 40% black, and 20% Latino and Asian. And any given Sunday, you’ll hear a gospel song, you’ll hear a song with a little bit more rhythm, you’ll hear a song that’s in a little bit more alignment with an Anglo-Saxon sort of worship. And that’s fine. It’s that diversity, man. It’s beautiful! It really is. And we’ve been able to maintain our demographical diversity because we’re intentional—it requires work. I can’t deny it. It’s not easy. It is very difficult actually, but it’s doable. It’s definitely doable. Some of the fastest-growing churches are multi-ethnic diverse in America. And it’s happening. It can be done.
My children are Millennials. They are never going to tolerate a monochromatic, monolithic church. They want to live in a world where the church is reflective of the world they live in. And the world is not monochromatic. It’s not monolithic. It’s diverse. And diversity is a beautiful, beautiful God ordained reality. In creation, the universe, and even in the church.
Michael: Obviously some of this comes down to our pulpits. Like you said, starting multi-ethnic churches and expressing the cultures of everyone involved. But there’s also an element that has to happen in the home. So do you think there is a way for us to—as a church—to fight this battle through intimacy as individual believers, as opposed to just relying on our pastors to make room for open culture?
Rodriguez: I would look at your contact list. At your favorites list on your iPhone. If you don’t have people of other, if you don’t have other—If you’re black and you don’t have white people and Latino people—whatever it may be. If you don’t have people of “other” on your favorite list, on your contact list, you’re living in a silo. In an echo chamber. So it begins with your personal life. Even your contacts and your friends. Who speaks into you? Who do you speak with? And who comes into your home?
The way I phrase it is: I want you to visualize your children. I want you to visualize your children getting married. I want you to visualize your children getting married to someone from another race. If you get any kind of acid reflux, if you feel any uncomfortability with that reality, you have an issue. If you don’t, God bless you. You’re in good shape. And so, it’s about our friends and our family members. It’s not tokenism. I’m not politically correct, so I don’t do the whole political bow to the altar of political realities. I don’t. I think it can be even counter-productive to even acquiesce to that kind of thinking. Meaning, I want to bring an end to racism in my generation.
But not in the name of a movement. I want to do it in the name of Jesus. With that being said, we have to be convicted to make sure that we’re reflective of our friendships, of our family. Who do we interact with, who do our kids interact with, who do we call friends? I think Sam Rodriguez is a better person because I don’t have a majority group of friends. I have white friends, I have Latino friends and African American friends and there is no majority group. There isn’t. And it’s intentional, by the way. But I grew up that way. I grew up in a very multi-ethnic, diverse setting and my friends growing up were never just one silo. It took me years to figure out that there were these walls of separation. So I think it’s a better thing for us and for our children and for our culture and for our society.
Michael: And what about on the other end of the spectrum, where there’s a large portion of the church that is saying, “Hey, race is not something that we should still be talking about. Racism no longer exists.” Many of them are openly condemning those who are speaking up about injustice or fighting for inclusion. What would you say to them, but also to Christians who are calling for change? How can they be encouraged to love Christians who are openly condemning their call for freedom?
Rodriguez: I understand where some of my brothers and sisters are saying, “We’re tired of this”. I understand that. And to them I would say, “You know what. You’re partially correct.” We’re not where we used to be. Number two, you’re not born racist. So I agree with that. Just like the idea that if you’re white you’re automatically a racist. That’s anti-biblical, antithetical to logic. I agree with that. And number three: You have nothing to do with slavery in America. I agree with all of that. And number four: Your children should not be paying for the sins of your great-grandparents. I agree with all of that. Number five: the vast majority of Americans were actually immigrants. So we’re talking about Ireland, we’re talking about people that were not involved in the slave trade. So not the original. I agree with all of that. All factual.
Nevertheless, my fellow Americans. America may not be a racist nation. We’re not, because an idea can not be racist in its core when the ideas are already very explicitly stated in our founding documents and there is no vestige of slavery in there. However, there are racist people in America. And because there are still threads of racism in America, it behooves us to—as we attack a virus, before it permeates all of us, we have to be vigilant in building a firewall, a vaccine. And every time it pops up, we can’t be silent. If not, it will spread. So, using COVID-19 as an example, we have to address it. We have to address it as expeditiously as possible. Do whatever it takes to mitigate. If not, it will spread and it will be deadly. That would be my answer to those who are saying, “We’re tired of addressing the same issues.”
Michael: And what about to the rest of the church? Amid our current climate, our culture has not made room for Caucasian voices to have an opinion, or to really respond to the racial divide that many of them were not even aware existed. So we are left with a climate where some people are saying there is not a problem so they don’t want to talk about it anymore, and others are saying there is a major problem, and it needs to get fixed without too many questions or raw conversations. So, as Christians, how do we make room for conversations that neither side actually wants to have?
Rodriguez: I would begin, as a Pastor, with speaking of the idolatry of race. This obsession with race—with how race defines you—is antithetical to scripture. We are created in the image of God. Christ defines you. Galatians 2:20 defines you. You were crucified with Christ, nevertheless you live. So I would begin with that—this obsession with race. And to say, that one race doesn’t have legitimacy to speak into another is cognitively incoherent. So if we follow that logic—if black Americans say white people cannot even discuss the issue of racism, and they don’t have any legitimacy to speak, but on the other hand, blacks can automatically speak into the reality of how white people think, or whether white people are born a certain way—you can’t have it both ways. Sorry.
So we should all be able to speak into issues that have legitimacy in the Word of God. And we are called to be peacemakers. So because we are called to be—blessed are the peacemakers, because we are that group from Matthew chapter 5—we rare compelled by scripture to address every issue that divides humanity, and more importantly, divides the church. So we can’t be silent. We shouldn’t be muzzled, and we shouldn’t be brought to silence by political correctness.
Michael: There’s really one more area that I wanted to talk about with you. You know, it’s not just racial divides that we are fighting about as Christians. It is also matters regarding COVID regulations, religious freedom, etc. Do you feel our voice has been appropriately raised on these issues, and do you feel it is important that the way in which we resist unjust laws demonstrates love?
Rodriguez: Sure. I do believe that we can do both bad. I believe we have a moral right—a biblical right, a constitutional right—to push back on any and all government intrusions that violate our God-ordained rights. Whether it be life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness. So we have that right. And if we don’t [push back], we are complacent. And there is no such thing as complacent Christianity. If we don’t, we are jeopardizing our children and our children’s children. So we have that right. The question is, how do we do it? How do we push back? How do we resist totalitarianism or government overreach?
We do it with truth and love. If all we do is speak truth, then we’re either mathematicians or Pharisees. If all we love, then we’re a bunch of hippies. But if we combine truth and love, we’re Christians. So we do it with truth and love. So yeah, if we have to take legal action, we do it. But not for the purpose of harming people. Not for the sake of spreading a virus. We need to go in and say, “We want to protect our citizenry, we want to do things according to CDC recommendations. But there is a discriminatory practice when they allow liquor stores and casinos to stay open, but forbid churches to gather. They just can’t do that.” So we have no qualms if you shut down every liquor store, every casino, every single type of public gathering without exception. The problem is when you provide an exception for others and exclude the church exclusively. Then you are discriminating and that’s just not right.
Michael: How do you feel about churches that have shifted to online platforms or have begun to meet in homes in response?
Rodriguez: Yeah, that’s fine. I have no qualms with that. It’s the early church to a great degree—with the home meetings. The online speaks to the fact that we can pivot and the necessary amount of agility to change our infrastructure in order to provide our deliverable: the gospel of Jesus. However, if the author of the book of Hebrews has said, “Do not forsake the gathering of the saints”, this is God’s will. If you are committed to scripture, we can’t negate the fact that when we gather together as a tribe—even on a weekly basis—it serves as a catalyst for prophetic mobilization and messaging. So what we do as Christians is connected to our gathering as a tribe. So I do believe that we can’t forsake that. Nothing can replace us coming together in the name of Jesus. Breaking bread, enjoying the sacrament, hearing the gospel of Christ preached, being filled with God’s precious Holy Spirit afresh and changing the world around us. Nothing can replace that.
Michael: Thank you so much. I really appreciate you having this conversation with me and I am looking forward to getting this in front of our readers. Is there anything that you would leave them with, or information on how to follow you going forward?
Rodriguez: Absolutely. Pastorsam.com would be the website. Our podcasts are available everywhere. On Spotify and iTunes, and so forth. You can always follow me on Instagram and Facebook: pastor Samuel Rodriguez.
NOTE TO MY READERS: We often make the mistake of believing that unity requires us to agree on every thought. Being of one mind can be as simple as refusing to be separated from the course we have chosen together. You may not agree with every thought that was expressed during this conversation. That’s ok. I understand that this is a big conversation. One that we don’t all agree on. But the unity of the body, and our effectiveness as the body, depends on us refusing to leave the table until we have chosen a course. So please, don’t abandon the conversation. Your voice matters. Your part in the body matters. Even if you have a perspective that is different than Pastor Rodriguez’s, or different from my own, stay at the table and continue the conversation…because we’re in this together.