When Jack Rodriguez went home every night, he entered hell. His dad would come home from work and beat his mom in the other room. As the yelling and screaming and cries started, Jack and his four older sisters would climb out of the window with blankets in hand. They’d run to the nearest railroad track, while one of Jack’s sisters ran back and forth to see if their dad had fallen asleep yet. The four of them often waited until daylight broke before returning home.
By the time Jack turned eight, his dad had abandoned the family. Two of his sisters eventually became heroin addicts and the other two became alcoholics. And by all accounts, Jack was on his way to following the footsteps of his father.
Jack soon ran around with the local gang in his neighborhood, partaking in strong-arm robberies and grand theft auto. By the age of 14, Jack couldn’t read or write very well, but he owned a gun. Nights regularly rang with gunshots around his home. By all accounts, Jack’s life should have been cut short by incarceration or by death.
In ninth grade, however, Jack’s girlfriend, Lisa, informed him that she now loved Jesus, and if he wanted to keep dating her, he had to go to church with her. Jack first thought the church was brainwashing his girlfriend. Christians are fake, he insisted. They just want your money. There’s no way they are really this happy. But on one Saturday night, as a pastor named Raul Ries began to teach his message, Jack started to cry. Confused and scared by this uncharacteristic display of emotion, Jack made a decision to accept Christ into his heart right then and there.
Yet, his lifestyle failed to follow his decision.
“My girlfriend had bought me a Bible, and she told me to read it,” Jack says.
says. “I asked her, ‘What am I going to do with this? I can’t even really read it.’ So when we would go out at night, we would end up in my car in the alley of where she lived, and she would read the Bible to me. But I was not going to tell my friends that. And then, when I would drop her off, I would go with my friends and we would do crimes.”
Jack knew God and knew he wanted to learn more, yet his vision on life only went as far as his gang. He couldn’t find the willpower to leave his current lifestyle behind. Disgusted with himself, Jack began praying for his life to end altogether. Lord, let one of those gunshots take my life.
“Really, God was changing me, but I just had a battle going on,” Jack remembers.
Lisa knew Jack was living in two worlds, and it was dragging her down. She had no other choice but to break up with him. Jack pleaded with Lisa not to leave him. It didn’t work. Then, he resorted to threats, telling her he would kill her. That failed too. She simply replied, “You know what? I’m following Jesus, and I’m sorry.”
At 18 years old, Jack no longer had a girlfriend. His heels were deep into a gang he didn’t want to be a part of anymore. He was a high school drop out.
Jack was a lost cause by all accounts. Except for one, that is. God’s.
One night, as Jack hung out with his friends, one of them turned to him and said, “This Jesus that you believe in…he’s made a punk out of you.”
“And that was disrespectful when I was growing up, and you had to fight,” Jack explains. “So, we got in a fight. One of them held me. The other one pulled a knife out to stab me. And I remembered that prayer, and I remember saying, ‘God, I didn’t really mean I want to die.’ And He got me out of it.”
Another friend stepped in, and eventually both Jack and the other friend got away.
“That was the last day I ever hung around with my friends that I grew up with,” Jack says. “The very last day. He answered my prayer and it wasn’t pretty, but He took care of it.”
As a way of staying out of trouble, Jack picked up more hours at his janitorial job at night. For the next several months, he immersed himself into his work and stayed away from his friends. He started praying more and reading the Bible as best as he could. And although he didn’t do drugs or drink alcohol, he started attending drug and alcohol classes at a local church, Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa.
“I just went and sat in church,” Jack says. “I said, ‘God, I blew it. If I ever have another chance with a Christian girl, I want to do it right.’”
So when Jack’s mom informed him that Lisa had stopped by while he was at work, Jack couldn’t believe it. He called her and asked if she wanted to go to lunch. She said no. He promised no commitment, so she agreed.
One lunch turned into a dinner, which turned into two. And slowly, the two began talking regularly again.
“He was just changing from the inside and out,” Lisa remembers. “Some things were more gradual, but I could see that his heart was sincere. He was loving the Word. He was going to Bible studies at church and reading and praying.”
Once Lisa observed the sincere transformation in him, the two started dating again. But this time, it became an entirely new relationship. This time, they prayed together. This time, they read the Bible together. This time, they centered their love around Jesus.
After working as a janitor for seven years, Jack received a phone call from an old friend who wanted to know if he was looking for a job. If so, the friend explained, the poultry company he worked for was hiring. Jack just had to show up. He got hired immediately and before long, Jack and his friend found themselves in charge. Working seven days a week with a salaried position allowed Jack to save enough money to move his mom out of the neighborhood and to marry Lisa, his junior high sweetheart.
With a new wife, a steady job, and a growing savings account, life seemed as though it couldn’t get any better. By all accounts, it shouldn’t have. Except for one, that is.
After three years at the poultry company, a woman in the office informed Jack that her husband worked for a cold storage company in Los Angeles, and they were hiring. She brought him an application, which he took to Lisa to fill out.
“I didn’t know how to do anything,” Jack says. “They asked me, ‘Why should I hire you?’ and I said, ‘I’m a hard worker. I’ll work for the first week or two weeks for free. If you like me, you keep me. If not, you send me on my way.’ And they hired me.”
Three and a half years later, in 1990, the company asked Jack to be a supervisor. He initially answered “no.” Upper-management positions were all about filling out reports and paperwork, and Jack knew he couldn’t do it. But when he told his wife, she encouraged him to do it. After praying about it, Jack took the position. A decision that Lisa considers a turning point in Jack’s reading and writing ability.
“I think when he took on that manager position, he stepped out in faith and just went for that,” Lisa says.
During his down time at work, Jack often pulled out the pocket dictionary that Lisa bought him, reading the words out loud to practice.
that Lisa bought him, reading the words out loud to practice. In the evenings, he continued this practice by reading children’s books to his daughters.
For the last 24 years, Jack has maintained his position as a manager for the company, which provides refrigeration, storage, and services to clients like major grocer Trader Joe’s. It’s a position that gave Jack a life he never thought he could live.
“God blessed us with that job,” Jack says. “My wife was able to be a stay-home mom. We bought a house. We raised our kids, put them through private school. And I don’t deserve any of it.”
By all accounts, Jack shouldn’t have a well-paying position as a manager at a successful company. He didn’t graduate college, let alone high school. Yet, God had a different plan. A plan to simply bless him so that he could bless others.
Throughout the 28 years that Jack has worked at the cold storage company, he has been given opportunities to pray in an empty room in the morning before work with his coworkers. He has seen an office manager go from problem employee to passionate Christian, who shares about her faith any opportunity she gets. He has seen unprecedented favor among his bosses and customers, who give him permission to donate damaged products—that are without labels or simply unable to sell—to church.
One company wanted to give Jack three 40-foot truckloads of chicken and beef tacos that their customer simply didn’t like. Jack asked his boss if he could store them in the company’s freezers while he found individuals and churches to give them away to. Although it would normally cost upward $900 to freeze and store, his boss let him store it for free.
“And it’s been amazing how God’s used that through different churches, different ministries that He’s provided for,” Jack says.
different ministries that He’s provided for,” Jack says. “And people are like, ‘Oh, you do a good job.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not doing this. I don’t own any of this. He just allows me.’ But He’s used this channel to bless so many different ministries.”
Including a past that, by all accounts, most people would be ashamed of.
Jack grew up always feeling outcasted, which gave him a heart for the outcast. He knew how lonely it could be not knowing how to read, not knowing how to write, without a dad, and constantly threatened by the gang lifestyle.
“We started noticing that we were just kind of fitting into the church,” Jack explains. “We knew everybody but we weren’t really reaching out to the lost. We were saved. Our group, our church was doing great. The kids were growing. But we wanted our kids to see that this is not about going to a church and sitting. We’re supposed to go and maybe talk to somebody that we wouldn’t normally talk to.”
This desire eventually landed Jack into the backyard of a house in Anaheim, California. Lisa informed Jack that their church was hosting a weekly Bible study for the kids in the predominantly Hispanic, low-income neighborhood.
“My heart has always been especially for these neighborhoods,” Jack says. “People would come in and brainwash them with that gang mentality or drugs or anything like that. And I wanted to tell them if I had a chance, ‘Don’t believe that. That’s Satan’s lies, and you’re better than that.’ And if I can tell one kid that and it would change their life, that was going to be worth it.”
So Jack started attending these Bible studies. He stood in the back, observing the kids and listening to the teachings. For the most part, the kids stayed away from the scary looking bald-headed guy in the back, who said nothing for weeks.
stayed away from the scary looking bald-headed guy in the back, who said nothing for weeks. A few months later, however, a church leader asked Jack to share his testimony in front of everyone. He initially said “no” but after his wife’s encouragement, he agreed to pray about it.
“I’m a behind-the-scenes guy,” Jack explains. “I’ll work. I’ll do anything you need. I’ll clean toilets. I’ll stack chairs. I’ll do anything. But I never want to be up front.”
The following week, however, Jack stood in front of 40 or so kids, sharing how he used to steal cars and rob people. And how Jesus turned that around.
Soon, the pastors approached Jack again, this time asking him if he wanted to teach. He initially said “no.” He was just there to help, he explained. But after some prayer and encouragement from his wife, he agreed, even though he had never led a Bible study before.
On a Sunday morning in 2011, Jack and Pastor Ozzie Castillo of Calvary Chapel East Anaheim set up 12 chairs in the parking lot of a Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) building. Jack checked his watch. It was 8:10 a.m., ten minutes after starting time, and no one was there.
“What if no one shows up?” Jack asked Ozzie nervously.
“Would you be willing to teach one kid?” Ozzie responded.
“Yes,” Jack answered, “I would.” After another five minutes, one kid came.
Every week, Jack and Ozzie set up 12 chairs. And every week, more kids from the neighborhood filled those chairs. When winter rolled around and rain became a frequent occurrence, they knew they needed a plan B. There were 15 kids and no place to go.
The VFW generously opened a storage room for them. Despite the cramped space, dingy smell, and frequent bug bites, the kids gathered week in and week out until the cold, rainy season passed. When they moved back to the parking lot, Jack and the group decided to move to a spot under the trees, providing them relief in the hot summer. Simultaneously, the Bible studies increased to twice a week: Sunday mornings and Tuesday evenings.
As neighborhood kids walked past the group of children and teenagers studying the Bible under the tree, those at the Bible study would call them over to join. Before long, kids were leading worship and praying aloud. One family, in particular, came by every few weeks to bring them soda, potato chips, and cookies. Although they never stayed, they told Jack, “Keep doing what you’re doing. It’s helping the neighborhood.” When the kids wondered why they were given all this free stuff, Jack answered, “God is touching their hearts through you guys.”
When winter rolled around again and days grew shorter, the group continued meeting under the tree. Jack eventually had to use a flashlight to read the Bible. So, on one random Tuesday night, he asked the kids to pray that God would provide them with a spotlight, so that they could see what they were studying. Two days later, on Thursday night, Pastor Ozzie informed Jack that a man nearby wanted to open up his garage to them for their Bible studies.
The following Tuesday, the wide-eyed kids walked into the renovated room with drywall, huge fluorescent lighting, and a comfortable space that kept them out of the cold and dark nights. When they asked Jack why this guy was letting them use his garage, he answered, “God put it on his heart.”
As Jack aligns plastic chairs in the garage, kids from the neighborhood gather in the parking lot and start playing soccer. One of the kids, eight-year-old Joshua, says he’s going to be a pastor when he grows up. He walks up to the adults and gives them hugs, even if he doesn’t know them.
the adults and gives them hugs, even if he doesn’t know them. He and his older siblings—Victor, Jenny, and Jonathan—all started attending the Bible study since its beginning, and they all decided to follow Jesus there, too. David is 18 years old but began attending the Bible studies at the age of 14, before Jack took over. He now teaches when Jack can’t.
Another boy, who looks to be around six or seven years old, wanders into the parking lot. Just last year, his older brother was shot in the head and killed. Because his parents don’t really watch over him, he’s often seen alone, wandering the very streets his brother died on. Tonight, however, he’s at the Bible study. He goes to the bathroom, then sits down in one of the chairs, waiting for it to begin. A college freshman, who was one of the original Bible study attendees, walks past him and playfully waves his hand across his own nose, signaling a stinky bathroom. The boy laughs. In this garage, age, experience, and background don’t create boundaries the way they do on the street. In this garage, everybody acts like family.
“God just keeps providing more and more,” Jack says. “And I don’t know. I don’t know how He taught me how to read, how to write, put together a study the best I can. But it’s perfect because it’s Him.”
By all accounts, Jack was on his way to becoming a lost cause. An illiterate gangbanger, a high school dropout with a broken family. By all accounts except one. Jesus stepped in and suddenly, none of the other accounts mattered...but one.
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