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A Heart for the Down and Out

Chaplain Tino Rodriguez Jr. helps men get back on their feet at Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles.

For Agustin "Tino" Rodriguez Jr., more than four decades of ministry as an Assemblies of God chaplain began with a day at the races.

Rodriguez and his wife Linda had graduated from Latin America Bible Institute only a couple of years earlier and were serving as pastors in the San Francisco Bay Area. An invitation came to visit the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, the San Diego-area racetrack where so many horses and jockeys had galloped into history.

The Rodriguezes did not visit Del Mar in pursuit of any elusive trifectas, though. They were exploring the potential for chaplain ministry to those who worked behind the scenes of the multimillion-dollar horses and riders seeking the glory of the winner's circle: the grooms, exercisers, walkers and trainers, and track staff.

"I was trained to be a pastor, but when I saw what a chaplain could do in that setting, I couldn't believe it," Rodriguez says. "I could see myself in that setting, and within a short time I was there. It was a lot like being a missionary."

For the next 11 years, the couple shared the gospel in word and deed, counseling those with alcohol and drug problems, helping estranged couples save their marriages, and holding summer barbecues and Christmas celebrations for their families.

In 1996, having earned a bachelor's degree from Vanguard University, a master's degree in clinical psychology from Azusa Pacific University, plus gaining drug and alcohol counselor certification, Rodriguez left Del Mar. He headed for the mean streets of Los Angeles, and its nearly 60,000 homeless men, women, and children. He joined the staff of the Union Rescue Mission.

Rodriguez, now 64, spent more than 17 years overseeing URM's first-year program for men seeking to overcome addictions and get off the streets. Now, he works in the men's next-level, apprenticeship program, which incorporates education, vocational training, housing, employment, and integration in working with local churches toward sobriety and salvation.

In addition to his five days a week as an AG U.S. missionary chaplain with URM, Rodriguez serves as an associate pastor at the Church of the Redeemer in Baldwin Park, teaching, speaking, and counseling. Evenings often find him lending his expertise as a marriage and family therapist to the Samaritan Counseling Center in Upland.

The plight of the homeless makes his heart ache most. Leaving the life of addiction, hopelessness, poverty, and nights in shelters or on the streets may seem an easy decision to make -- but it is extremely difficult to successfully follow through.

Many of the men in the mission's first-year program as well as the apprenticeship program fail to complete it.

"We often get men who return and try again," Rodriguez explains. "It's very difficult for these men to become independent, and also to become good stewards of their resources, to acquire the mindset of being responsible, seeking employment, learning job interview skills."

When the majority of those accepted into the mission's programs drop out or fail, Rodriguez admits it can be discouraging to those trying to mentor them into new lives of faith and good citizenship.

"In dealing with this population, though, you learn -- and accept -- that part of their recovery is going to be relapse," he says. "But we continue to work to strengthen our programs and the aftercare."

Manuel Cordero, senior director of AG U.S. Missions Chaplaincy Ministries, sees Rodriguez both as a role model and as uniquely matched by temperament and experience for his callings.

"He is compassionate and caring," Cordero says. "As a chaplain, he meets people at their point of need, but he does not judge them. It does not matter their religion, ethnic background, or condition. He is there to exemplify Jesus to those in need."

Rodriguez's training as a counselor also allows him to integrate emotional and mental health assistance with pastoral work.

Many people see the homeless only as the desperate dredges of society, filthy beggars chasing down passersby, or waiving cardboard signs trolling for enough spare change to buy that next bottle of booze or hit of crack cocaine, methamphetamine or heroin.

Rodriguez sees individuals. Some who walk through the mission are just out of prison, others suffer mental illnesses. Many have lost hope after prolonged unemployment or estrangement from family.

But Rodriguez says each is a human being yearning for recognition and dignity.

"These are men who have gifts and skills," he says. "They have a story they need to tell, but they have trust issues, believing people won't listen to them, or try to understand. But that story is one that could open the door for them to new story, one where they can come to know Christ. That spiritual foundation begins with just listening."


Robert E. Mims

Robert Mims has been a journalist for more than 40 years, including stints as a news wire service and newspaper writer and editor. He also had done numerous book and magazine assignments as a freelance writer and editor.