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An Interview with Hanibal Rodriguez, Iglesia del Pueblo Lead Pastor
Yes. When people ask me where I’m from, they get a long answer: I am Colombian but was born in Argentina, where my mom was a college student. My dad is from Chile, and my grandma is from Ecuador, so I am actually Chilean, Ecuadoran, and Colombian. And my wife is from Guatemala.
After my mom finished her degree, we went back to Colombia, and I got Colombian citizenship. Later we lived in Ecuador for five years, and when I was about 17, we came to the US.
Does that help you connect with the people who come to Iglesia de Pueblo from so many different places and backgrounds?
Yes, it’s a blessing, because our congregation is pretty mixed. I’m not hyper-Colombian or hyper-Ecuadoran, but I’m still very much Latino.
Why did your family emigrate to the US?
My mom came to the United States to pursue an education. She’s a psychologist—in Colombia she had what is equivalent to a master’s degree—and she came here hoping to earn a PhD. Unfortunately, not many educational institutions here will validate schoolwork done in Latin America, but they did give her credit for a basic college degree, so she went into teaching.
Where did you land in the US?
Like most immigrants, we went where our family was. I had an aunt who was a doctor in Southfield, Michigan—a wealthy suburb of Detroit. We lived the American Dream with her family for eight months. They had a big house, a boat, and five cars. (When we moved to Chicago later, we had a more typical immigrant experience.)
You were a high school student at that point?
I was a junior and one of only two Hispanics in the school. The other kid, a third-generation Hispanic, didn’t even speak Spanish. Because I was the only non-English speaker and it was a wealthy school, they hired a private tutor for me for the entire school year. None of my teachers knew Spanish, so without the tutor’s help, I would have been communicating mostly through gestures. My tutor was also able to answer a lot of questions for me about the culture and school and clarify a lot of things I didn’t understand.
I wasn’t a Christian then, but I feel that whole experience was a God thing. One of the troubles immigrants have is feeling we don’t belong. So I was fortunate to have friends—even though I couldn’t understand what they were saying most of the time. Because I was unique, I was kind of a celebrity. I could play soccer, and the girls liked me [Hanibal says with a grin].
Why did your family leave that “paradise” in Michigan to come to Chicago?
Our relatives had good hearts and good intentions, but I can see what an extra burden it was for them to have us staying with them. It soon became clear that it was time to move on.
We had another aunt who lived in Chicago, and we stayed with her for a couple of months until we found our own place on the North Side of Chicago, near Lincoln Avenue. My aunt hired my mom to work in her travel agency. She earned just enough to pay our rent, and I worked as a busboy. With our two incomes, we were able to rent a studio apartment—a good-size kitchen with a tiny dining area, plus one big room for my brother and sister and me. A big closet was my mom’s room. We lived there for a year.
When I transferred to Amundsen High School, which had a bunch of Hispanics, I wasn’t such a novelty anymore. But I had my little crew of soccer people. And during my senior year, I met my future wife, Heidi, who was a sophomore then.
Was your mom ever able to finish her education?
No, but because enough of her education was validated to allow her to get her teaching certification, she taught on the South Side of Chicago for three or four years. With her better job, we were able to get a better place to live. We were looking for a better school for my brother and sister because my brother was getting into trouble. We got a really nice apartment in Oak Park. My mom was working, and I was working a little bit and going to Northeastern University, working on a degree in Spanish literature.
It was during that time that I came to know the Lord.
Tell us about that.
The Lord did an amazing thing in my mom’s life. She not only became a Christian; she also became a missionary and moved to the South Side to work with an organization that ministers to alcoholics and prostitutes and people recovering from drug abuse. Pretty soon my brother—the one who had been getting into trouble—was converted, and then my sister. My brother even went to Puerto Rico as a missionary.
At that point, I was left behind, but God was beginning to work in my heart. I was twenty-one and needed a place to live. My mom invited me to live with her, but she was involved in God’s business. So I moved in with an aunt, but I visited my mom every weekend and saw what God was doing in her life.
This is the lady who was a psychologist in Colombia and then a teacher here—and now she’s working in a thrift store. To me that looked like a big demotion. But instead of complaining, she was full of joy. I’m thinking, Something’s wrong here. But God used what I saw in her to give me a different perspective on what life is really all about.
How did your mom come to faith?
By reading the Bible. Her dad had been a pastor, but even though my mom grew up knowing about God, she walked away from Him for about twenty years. Then her life was completely transformed.
Then my brother came back from Puerto Rico. When he left, he was a troublemaker—involved in drugs and more—but when he came back, he was completely different. Responsible. Completely calm and talking about God—and eating vegetables! He had never done that before!
At some point during that season God started to change my heart. I spent time in my room at my aunt’s house and started to study the Bible. I started to go to the church my mom attended. That’s where I met Sergio—who is our worship pastor in Iglesia de Pueblo today. Back then, he was the youth pastor and worship pastor at that little church in Melrose Park. And he pastored me and discipled me.
God started giving me a desire to know more about Him. I was studying Spanish literature, reading about the social movements and history of Latin America, but I never had a real desire to read until I was converted. Then my desire to read in order to know God better transferred to all my other areas of study. I started reading a book a week, theology and biblical literature. That reading started to influence my other studies, so most of my college papers were about secular literature from a biblical perspective.
Were you still dating Heidi at that point?
By the time I came to Christ, I’d had a relationship of five years with Heidi, who had not been converted. It was clear that I could not marry an unbeliever, yet I loved Heidi, and she loved me.
I struggled that whole year, because I wanted to follow the Lord but was entangled in a relationship I knew was not right. I knew I could not marry Heidi, but I didn’t have the courage to end the relationship.
Heidi saw the change in me, and at times I tried to convert her by force. Of course, that did not work. Eventually I gave up and told God, “Just take her away, because I can’t do this.”
That whole year I went to church and read the Bible, and on December 31, Heidi said, “I’m going to go to church with you. Let’s see what happens.”
I had invited her many times before that, so when she said she’d go with me, it was almost as if she was saying, “God, I’m going to give you a chance.” About six months later, she was converted—and I proposed. We got married a year-and-a-half later, and we’ve been married thirteen years.
What came next for you?
I finished my degree and started to look for a new job. One day one of my colleagues at the cemetery where I processed cremation boxes, asked me, “What can you do with a Spanish literature degree?”
I said, “Well, I could teach or write.”
My coworker said, “My husband works in a school. They’re looking for a teacher.” I didn’t have a background in education, but I was going to be married soon, and I was thinking, I’ve got to do right for my future wife. So I went to the school, and I saw how God works providentially. I met the principal, and he took me around the school, showing me everything, and he said, “Do you have any experience teaching?”
I said, “Well, I teach a Sunday school class, fourth grade.” (I had probably four students in that class.) And he said, “Well, if you’re interested, we have a sixth-grade class for you.”
I didn’t have an education degree, but because the immigrant population was so high, there was a great need for Spanish-speaking teachers. So they created a provisional certificate. I took a test to prove that I knew the language and that I had some basic skills, and they gave me a teaching certificate good for seven years. That’s how I became a teacher at the José de Diego School in a Puerto Rican neighborhood around Western and Division, where I taught for five years.
What was going on spiritually then?
Heidi and I continued to go to the church in Melrose Park, where Sergio was worship pastor. I was reading lots of theology—my office at home was full of books—and I became sort of a leader. I didn’t have a title, but I was working with a group of high school students.
Then God called Sergio to Wheaton Bible Church/Iglesia del Pueblo. Our first daughter, Camila, was also born about that time, and Heidi and I started looking for a place where we could be part of a church or plant one.
Not long after that, I visited Iglesia del Pueblo, which was looking for a youth pastor. My brother—who was getting ready to go to China as a missionary—was going to be in the area for six months, so they hired him to do youth ministry until he left for China.
At the end of six months, Pastor Al Guerra asked my brother, “Do you know anybody who could take your role as you leave?” and my brother said, “Well, my brother.” I had been to the church a couple of times, mostly just to support my brother in his ministry, but I remember liking the church and Pastor Al’s preaching. So I came here and started doing youth ministry part-time.
Were you still teaching?
Yes, but coming to church was a two-hour drive on Friday nights. I was doing youth ministry on Friday nights and then again on Sunday evenings. I’d leave work at two or two-thirty on Friday in the city, eat lunch, pick up my wife and daughter at four, drive so we could be here at six to get ready for the service at seven, finish at nine, and get home in the city at eleven. Sundays were also very long days for my family. We did that for about a year.
It was too much, but my desire to be part of the ministry was growing. We knew this was the church for us. I wanted to continue working in ministry, but I also had a job that, to me, was a lot more than just where I earned my money. My job was my ministry, too. I loved the kids in my school. Prayed for them every day. Preached to them—especially my sixth graders, because in sixth-grade social studies, you get to teach a lot about Mesopotamia and its history. You get to teach about Israel and the Ten Commandments. Those lessons were supposed to be two weeks, but it took me three months to teach all that.
My classroom was a ministry, but the commute was too crazy. So Heidi and I agreed to take a leap of faith and move closer to the church—even though it meant losing my job in the city, because when you work for the city, you’ve got to live in the city.
So I finished my school year in the city and started to look for work in this area.
How did your job hunt go?
That was a situation where God is working and you don’t know at the time what He’s doing. I applied in Carol Stream, West Chicago, Palatine, Elgin—every place I knew there was a Hispanic population. I was finishing my masters degree in bilingual education, and I was sure that in those suburbs, in those pockets where there are so many Hispanics, they had to need teachers like me. So I applied, and even though I had five years’ of experience—not one school district called me. It didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t know what I was going to do.
I was working only part-time at the church, with no promise of a full-time job. So I decided to apply in Wheaton. I thought, Not many Hispanics live there, but maybe they’ll hire me anyway.
So on a Sunday evening I applied to District 200. And I assumed that the school district was Christian—because the town is full of churches, right? I completed the application as if I were applying for a job at Wheaton Bible Church preschool. One question asked, “Why do you want to work in the district?” So I wrote, “Well, I feel like God is calling me here, because I’m already working in this church.” I’m giving the people my testimony about why I’m moving here. I don’t know where I got the idea from—because it’s a regular school district—but in every answer I talk about how I felt as if God was calling me to this: “I know that God has an open door.” “I believe God called me into teaching.”
On Monday, when I got out of school I received a call from a principal in District 200, who said, “I really like your application. Can you come in? I need to talk to you.”
I had an interview, and was pretty much hired on the spot. I taught full-time for a year, helping kids from kindergarten to fifth grade with subjects like social studies and math.
What was happening in Iglesia at that point?
In God’s providence, He gave me a true mentor in Pastor Al. The two of us clicked right away, and he took me under his wing. My theology started to change as he gave me things to read, and we spent time together every week.
How did your theology change?
First, I learned what it means to be a sinner who’s been saved by grace and grace alone. It’s not me cooperating with God. It’s me being a sinner—not able to come to Him because I’m blind and dead in my sins. But He comes looking for me, making it possible for me to see and repent and believe. God brings me in.
Second, Pastor Al impressed on me the centrality of the Gospel—that God is moving toward me (even when I’m not looking for Him), saving me—and I am finding in the Gospel everything I’m looking for: my identity, my place in life, my security (regardless of whether things go right or wrong). Built into my theology over those weeks and months was that the Gospel is not only the means of my salvation but also central to my sanctification, to how I grow in knowing God.
When did you join the church staff full-time?
About a year after I was hired by the school district, I was told that there might be a full-time ministry job for me at the church. I enjoyed teaching, but it had always been my desire to work in ministry, so I finished my school year and then transitioned to the position as a full-time staff member—part-time youth pastor and part-time Local Impact pastor, working with Chris McElwee.
How would you describe your role in Iglesia del Pueblo today?
The first thing that comes to mind is that I think God made me to be both a preacher and a teacher. When you preach, you give out the information, but when you teach, you have interaction and an exchange of ideas. Teaching is important because you get to spend time with people and invest in them. That’s where discipleship happens.
What’s happening at Iglesia that you are excited about?
Iglesia is a church where you can feel and see love in action. Many people from different ethnic backgrounds—somewhere around fifteen Latin American nationalities. Different levels of education—professionals and people who barely went to school. People who have been Christians for thirty years or more and people who became Christians three weeks ago. Individuals and couples in their fifties and sixties, and couples in their twenties with families. A rare combination of people who love and are marked by unity.
Tell us a little about Iglesia’s Kairos site in downtown Naperville.
I believe that the church multiplies not only as we bring people in but also as we look for people outside. That’s how the site came to be—a place to welcome new people.
The other factor is that our congregation is a combination of first-generation Hispanics (who have come to the US in their lifetimes and speak only Spanish) and second- and third-generation Hispanics (who are more likely to speak primarily English but still want to stay Hispanic in culture). Those in the Kairos congregation want to worship in English, but they also want to stay connected to their culture.
The immigration flow has stopped because of our economy, but the Hispanic community continues to grow because our families are continuing to have kids. Our kids—even my daughters—talk to me in English, and I speak to them in Spanish. I don’t think as a church we should fight that. We just create a different venue for each population.
You mention daughters, plural.
Yes, Alejandra was born two years after I came to work at the church. She’s seven now, and Camila is nine.
What language do you speak at home?
Actually, we do Spanglish. That what happens when you come to the United States young. If you come past twenty or twenty-five, you’re very solid in Spanish, and you want your kids to only speak Spanish. But when you come younger, the English comes naturally. My daughters could be having a conversation with my wife, and four out of the ten words they say come out in English, but they don’t realize it.
How can we pray for Iglesia?
Pray that our church will continue to preach the Gospel, that our people will understand the Gospel, that they will apply the Gospel, and that we will continue to reproduce.