By Rayna Pittman, Special to the Message
[img_assist|nid=7361|title=Spreading the Word|desc=Pastor Gonzalo Rodriguez, shown delivering his sermon, has seen the congregation of Good Shepherd Baptist Church grow to 600 strong. It is projected to jump to 1,000 by year’s end.|link=none|align=left|width=91|height=100]METAIRIE – “Dios le bendiga” fills the air as members of Good Shepherd Baptist Hispanic Church head to their unofficially assigned pews on Sunday mornings.
As they bless one another in the name of God and prepare their hearts for worship, the outside world takes a back seat. But in a Hispanic congregation such as this one, certain issues preoccupy the minds of worshippers and even make their way into the corporate prayer time. As Pastor Gonzalo Rodriguez delivers the sermon, he is mindful that someone in his audience may be an undocumented resident who lives with the fear of deportation.
“We all are welcome here before God’s throne,” Rodriguez said. “He loves us all equally.”
While the Senate works to reintroduce the DREAM Act, which would give undocumented young people who plan to attend college or join the military a path to legal status, buried beneath the political debate of immigration lie real live people.
No matter where you come down regarding this issue, it presents Good Shepherd with the opportunity to share the love of Christ and minister to people. The church provides legal advice, food and comfort to everybody, because people come to be treated fairly. And come they do.
This growing congregation of almost 600 members projects it will have 1,000 members by year-end. The 300-seat worship center can hardly accommodate everyone during the three services that take place Saturday and Sunday.
Good Shepherd had had recent plans to purchase the Transcontinental campus of Celebration Church but finances and ultimately God caused them to expand in their current location. The church recently bought four houses in the neighborhood for expansion and parking. Rodriguez said the church baptizes at least 15 people every month. About 95 percent of his new members come from Catholic backgrounds.
The high percentage of Catholic converts corresponds with the high number of Latinos raised in the Catholic Church. While some Latinos leave the Catholic Church, immigration keeps the number of Latino Catholics at a steady 70 percent of their U.S. population. In addition, in 2003 immigration and high domestic birth rates contributed to Latinos surpassing African-Americans as the largest minority in the United States.
Rodriguez, who himself has a Catholic upbringing, grew up in Honduras. However, when his parents sent him away to school in Mexico to study medicine, his life changed when he visited a Baptist church and accepted Jesus as his Savior. When his parents moved to New Orleans he joined them.
Rodriguez said he would hold a Saturday night Bible study that started with about five people but continued to grow. He mentioned to his pastor that the church might want to start a mission to address the needs of the people in his Bible study in the Metairie area.
Three months later the pastor came back to him and announced that the church was starting the mission and that Rodriguez would be the leader.
Thirty years later Rodriguez recalls how inexperienced he felt, but says that God gave him the tools. Now he has television and radio ministries, which are how many of his new members hear of Good Shepherd’s ministry.
He says that while the controversy surrounding allegations of sexual abuse and the closing of many Catholic churches contributes to the migration of many of his new members, the message ultimately attracts them.
“I do not preach religion or attack the Catholic religion,” Rodriguez said. “I merely share the Gospel and people come.”
Rodriguez gauges the growth of Good Shepherd on more than numbers. On Wednesday evenings 200 people come to discipleship training and 50 come to leadership training on Mondays.
“Seeing people trying to learn means the ministry is doing what God has called it to do because people eagerly learn and serve,” the pastor said. “Giving is like a thermometer of the growth and commitment of the congregation to the ministry of the church. Even in these tough economic times of widespread joblessness, members continue to give because they believe in the mission of Good Shepherd.”
Rodriguez said his vision for Good Shepherd hinges on discipleship, “because people need it in order to grow,” he said. In addition, the Latin American Catholic background of the congregation uniquely positions the members to carry out a call to reach Latinos with the gospel.
Rodriguez said he lives out his calling in accordance to Psalm 37:4 – he delights in God and gives his best, as he trusts God to provide.
Giving his best includes sharing the gospel with Latino inmates at a recent four-day revival at the Oakdale Detention Center near Alexandria.
It also includes being a husband and father of three. When he has time, Rodriguez enjoys reading and hiking. He also has a passion for pastors.
“When I retire, I want to help pastors,” Rodriguez said. “I feel if I help the pastor, I help the whole congregation.”
As the debate rages about what to do with the immigrant, the ministry worldview at Good Shepherd Baptist Hispanic Church goes deeper than which political party to side with or the economic ramifications of non-contributing beneficiaries of government sponsored programs.
President Barack Obama told the audience at the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast in early May that immigration reform is not only a national security and economics imperative but also a moral imperative. For Pastor Rodriguez and Good Shepherd Baptist Hispanic Church, the moral imperative has eternal consequences.