When Pastor Sam Rodriguez steps onto the inaugural stage Friday to lead a prayer for incoming President Donald Trump, he will be the first Latino evangelical reverend to ever take part in this nation’s ceremony.
It’s a historical, yet astonishingly uncomfortable position for Rodriguez, 47, one of the leading religious advocates for Latino immigrants, who condemned Trump’s hardline immigration rhetoric during the campaign, and saw Trump’s words as direct threats and insults to the parishioners in his pews.
“I went, what’s going on?” Rodriguez told CNN at his Sacramento church. “Something’s happening. I’m not here to justify what Donald Trump stated during the campaign. I do know there has been a change in tone.”
Rodriguez is referring to direct conversations with the Trump transition team. Rodriguez said days after the election, he and the 40,000 US churches he says he leads as the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, girded against the incoming administration. Hispanic evangelical leaders feared an “emptying out of our churches.”
Rodriguez, who had met face-to-face with Trump during the campaign, asked for an emergency conference call between Hispanic religious leaders and the transition team.
In the call, Rodriguez asked directly: “Will you deport 12 million? The answer is explicitly no.”
The transition team assured the pastor the administration’s focus would be on the undocumented immigrants who commit felonies, a position Rodriguez agrees with, and a policy pursued by the Obama administration. But he also feels strongly that the 700,000 children brought illegally to the US by their parents and now allowed to stay under President Barack Obama’s executive action in 2012, must remain untouched.
To that concern, he said the transition team said, “We’re not going to harm those kids.”
Two hours after the conference call, explained Rodriguez, Trump sat down with Time Magazine and said of the so-called Dreamer children: “We’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud. They got brought here at a very young age, they’ve worked here, they’ve gone to school here. Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs. And they’re in never-never land because they don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“I believe he’s committed to deporting people involved in nefarious activity. But I believe he’s likewise committed to finding a pathway to legalization to the rest,” Rodriguez said.
The transition team call and the Trump team’s public statements since were enough to convince Rodriguez to accept the invitation to the inauguration.
Lessons of the Hispanic Vote for 2020
Exit polls show about 30% of Hispanics voted for Donald Trump, despite the harsh and anti-Mexican rhetoric of his campaign.
“It’s a wake up call to both parties,” Rodriguez said. “The Democratic Party has an issue with faith. If they have an issue with faith, they have an issue with the Latino community. We understand the pro-choice platform, but you can at least be nuanced with that, like President Obama.”
Obama also engaged in outreach in churches, explained Rodriguez, something he didn’t see from the Clinton campaign. The sense he was left with was the Democrats had gone too secular.
“Who do we vote for?” said Rodriguez, who engaged in a public, illness-inducing 40-day fast to urge comprehensive immigration reform. “I’m a Latino and I’m a Christian, so which one should I prioritize? Which one is more important?”
On November 2, days before the election, Rodriguez spoke at a faith event still not endorsing a candidate. Instead, he asked evangelicals to focus on the platforms of the candidates. They would have to choose what issue, faith or identity, would determine their vote.
The day after the election, Rodriguez awoke to mixed emotion.
“My spirit celebrated the protection of my biblical beliefs. My soul began to worry for my people – for immigrants,” he said.
To Republicans, Rodriguez said: “Don’t blow it. If you actually dare act out the rhetoric of the campaign, it’s political suicide. What you say is one thing, but what you do, by your fruit you shall be known. Let’s see what happens. I’m open to being surprised.”
And if he’s wrong? And the fears of deportation forces and separated families materializes as policy?
Rodriguez said he will be the first to admit his errors and repent. But he lays the primary blame on the national political parties, who have failed again and again to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
“Who would be at fault are Republicans and Democrats who have sacrificed the Latino and immigrant community at the altar of political expediency,” he said.