‘There’s Beauty in Midst of Ashes,’ Pastor on COVID-19 Panel Says


Reopening America’s economy is going to take leadership and insight from every sphere of society, including the faith community. 

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and a member of the National Coronavirus Recovery Commission, joins The Daily Signal Podcast to talk about what a pastor brings to the panel and when we can expect churches and businesses to open their doors again. 

As America and the rest of the world face the challenges and fears created by COVID-19, Rodriguez says, it might be helpful to view this time as a “reset” or opportunity to refocus our priorities to what truly matters. 

>>> When can America reopen? The National Coronavirus Recovery Commission, a project of The Heritage Foundation, is gathering America’s top thinkers together to figure that out. Learn more here.

“Just like when we reset our iPhones, it goes back to its default settings,” Rodriguez says. “What if this is a hard reset, and we go back to our default settings of faith and family, of the true essential elements in our lives, of the things that really matter?”

Listen to the podcast or read the lightly edited transcript below. 

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Virginia Allen: I am joined by the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and a member of a National Coronavirus Recovery Commission. Sam, thanks so much for being here today.

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez: Thank you for having me.

Allen: Now, The Heritage Foundation has just launched the National Coronavirus Recovery Commission, a commission created to strengthen the American economy and help Americans get back to work after the coronavirus.

You are one of 17 people on this commission that’s chaired by Heritage Foundation President Kay C. James and composed of leaders and experts in the field of government, public health, disaster response and relief, academia, education business, and of course, the faith community.

But in addition to being a pastor and president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, you’ve also served as an adviser to President [Donald] Trump on immigration issues. So how did you really first become involved in that field of public policy?

Rodriguez: It’s been a long journey. It’s been a lifelong endeavor to a great degree. I began advising the Bush administration, on the invite of [top White House aide] Karl Rove and others in the Bush administration, regarding the issues of immigration back in 2006.

Subsequently, President [Barack] Obama engaged me on the fatherhood task force, and likewise, [I] met with him on various occasions on immigration issues and religious liberty issues.

And now with President Trump, [I’m] advising him on issues of life, religious liberty, and what I deem my categorization would be biblical justice issues that include prison reform, justice reform, and immigration.

Allen: In your opinion, why do you think it’s so important for faith leaders to be involved in that public policy space?

Rodriguez: Oh, indeed. Because as faith leaders, and let me speak particularly on my faith narrative, which is Christianity, I take the cross as a symbolic characterization, or better yet, a symbolic manifestation of my faith because it’s spoke vertical or horizontal. The cross is both vertical and horizontal.

We’re committed to saving lives vertically, that’s our clarion call, but the cross is likewise horizontal. The best way that I phrase it is, I’m committed to the message of Billy Graham, salvation through Christ, but I’m likewise committed to a justice of Mother Teresa. So it’s both vertical and horizontal, and that’s what compels us to address these issues.

Allen: I love that analogy. That’s really neat. I’ve never heard that before. That’s so cool.

Now, it’s going to take everyone kind of onboard to rebuild the economy after the coronavirus, and that certainly takes people like yourself who are deeply involved in the faith community. Can you just explain a little bit about what your role is within the National Coronavirus Recovery Commission?

Rodriguez: Sure. Advising on all fronts regarding the five pillars outlined by the commission, dealing with the health issues, continual mitigation, looking at testing, contact tracing, isolation, quarantine of course, increasing testing across the board in a very expedited matter. But likewise, restarting the economy. And I do believe there is great wisdom and strategies laid out.

We are beginning to restart the economy, or we will begin to restart the economy, in regions that have demonstrated de minimis, not as egregious sort of consequences that we have seen in New York, Michigan, New Orleans, and so forth. So there’s a very logical continuum to the way this would take place.

But as a faith leader now, I have a commitment to making sure we engage the faith community in both social distancing and the preventive and the firewall against the virus. Likewise, in engaging in the economic restart.

I do have a third caveat, or a third motivating drive, which is my concern regarding civil liberties and religious liberty. I still have a little bit of angst, to be very forthright with you, a bit of angst.

If we can go to Costco and Walmart, if we can go to liquor stores and we can maintain social distancing, this idea that churches have to be shut down completely—and I have been one that has advocated for churches not to meet in person, I recommended drive-in services.

But when certain jurisdictions around the country even forbid and fine drive-in services where the windows are completely shut, there is no physical interaction, no one is going to the restroom and parishioners are streaming from a parking lot on Easter Sunday, then I do believe that there is government overreach and we need to somehow address civil liberty and religious liberty concerns.

Allen: Yeah. And is that something that you’ve been voicing concerns to political leaders about?

Rodriguez: I have, I have. I have expressed the concerns to the highest office in the land.

Allen: Wow. Well, good. We appreciate you advocating, obviously, for our faith community. It’s something that is so important to our society, and I know to many of our listeners, including myself, so we do appreciate that.

Now, Heritage Foundation President Kay C. James, who’s chairing the commission, she said that saving lives and livelihoods are part of the same road to recovery, and that we have to pursue both and a physically healthy America and an economically strong America, … you can’t have one without the other. You need both.

Can you explain a little bit more about how the commission is working to find this balance in accomplishing both saving physical lives, but also beginning to reopen the economy?

Rodriguez: And she receives, of course, a very vociferous, unabashed “amen” from yours truly. What I love from the commission, what I love about Heritage is it’s not linear sequential in its strategy.

It’s not, “Let’s get all 300 and 350-plus, 365, 70 million Americans tested first, and then let’s restart the economy.” We understand that that’s not practical.

So the commission strategy of doing it is both and not either or, it’s not a dichotomy, and doing them simultaneously. I think that’s brilliant.

We continue to increase testing. We continue to isolate and quarantine, and the contact tracing, to me, is critical. Testing contact tracing, who had it, who still has it, or who may currently have it, let’s contact trace. Let’s isolate, let’s quarantine, let’s protect the most vulnerable.

We can do that simultaneously to restarting the economy—segments of the economy, economic sectors, particular industries that have already demonstrated they have the capability and the capacity to protect the workers. Let’s begin that as expeditiously as possible. Let’s look at regions and let’s phase things in.

This idea of one button that will restart the economy, of course, there’s no such animal whatsoever. But we can phase this in and I do support what the president stated in his press conference yesterday. It looks like it’s going to be in the beginning of May. But again, we can do both ends.

So I love the Heritage sort of modus operandi. It’s not linear sequential, it’s not one after the other.

“Let’s make sure every single American has been tested first. Let’s make sure every single American has been, and then we restart.” I think that strategy is not practical. The economic ramifications would be so egregious for generations to come that my children and my children’s children will pay the price and the impact.

Allen: As you mentioned, The Heritage Foundation and the commission has kind of laid out a process of reopening the economy, and they’ve laid out these five phases of step one, step two, and so on of how we can begin to “get back to normal.”

The first step of that plan is return to a more normal level of business activity at the regional level, based on scientific data. And, of course, that return to a more normal level of business, we hope, will include the reopening of churches and places of worship.

Do you have any sense of the timeline on what the commission is maybe tentatively advising for when businesses and churches and so forth can begin to reopen?

Rodriguez: I don’t want to be presumptuous in articulating a rigid timeline coming out of the commission. I can speak on behalf of Samuel Rodriguez. I can tell you that the timeline … currently reflects what the president is continuing to advocate for. So, in my interpretation of the tea leaves, it looks like the 1st of May. …

Some States and regions are receiving a nod from Pennsylvania Avenue, as it pertains to even an earlier start. Again, there are regions of the country I want your audience to be aware of, and I know that they are completely aware of. There are regions of the country that [have] very de minimis, close to nul, as it pertains to impact regarding the pandemic.

And these regions, because of course, they may be isolated, [they’re] not as densely populated as New Jersey or New York or San Francisco … should have the right to reopen their economies and reopen businesses and reopen restaurants.

Again, adhering to some practical [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommendations that will continue to build a firewall against the spreading of this pandemic.

But I do believe that … in the next few days, you’re going to hear about regions and cities, parts of the country that will begin to reopen. And then come May 1, I think you’re going to hear, at a greater scale, states and regions of the country, completely, that will begin to reopen.

Allen: It’s exciting. I know many people, including myself, are ready for that, excited for that day.

Rodriguez: Let me interject, if I can. There will be a glitch in the proverbial matrix. There will be some anxiety and there will be some conflict, some legal confrontation. Let me explain.

In the state of California, where I live in California—I reside in California, the state of California—they have extended, the governor’s extending, of course, the stay-at-home executive order and so forth.

We never really experienced an apex, by the grace of God, we have not. We flattened the curve. Wait a minute, there wasn’t even a curve. I mean, again, by the grace of God, California was spared. But the stay-at-home … executive order now stands extended, right? Now the federal government is going to begin to unleash and say, “Go ahead, let’s do this fully.”

What will churches [do] in the state of California? Would they adhere to the federal advice or the federal recommendation or adhere to what they see their fellow church pastors [doing] in states who have been similarly impacted gathering and so forth?

So I have proposed a phase, in sort of a church setting, where it may be 25%, 30% of parishioners regarding building capacity, week one and two, maybe move up to 60% weeks three and four. And by week five and six, we’re up to 90%, 100% at capacity.

So there’s a phased-in building capacity sort of. We may have multiple services, but we won’t deny the physical gathering of the saints, as the Apostle Paul would write.

Again, there may be some sort of clashes. Churches and others may get angsty in states that continue to extend the quarantine.

In perpetuity, we’re going to have inevitable institutions that will fight back and say, “Wait a minute, we have the right to gather and so forth, but we have constitutional rights and civil liberties that we will never sacrifice on the alter of the pandemic or on the alter of political expediency.”

Allen: What is your advice then to faith leaders, who … for one, they’re trying to encourage their congregations during a really, really difficult time, they’re trying to continue to build community online, but they’re also, yeah, looking at these kind of potential roadblocks and challenges moving forward and trying to figure out, “How do we navigate reopening and at the same time, of course, honoring the government and obeying those laws?”

Rodriguez: No. 1, let not your heart be troubled. When we speak, as an evangelical now, we serve a Lord, a Christ, who is on the throne. He is sovereign. God is with us and we will overcome by the blood of the lamb and the word of our testimony. So we know that God is staple.

No. 2, the church has survived wars, other pandemics. The church is alive and well and nothing will be able to stop the church of Jesus.

No. 3, we need to incorporate a similar strategy, and let me explain. Churches should be meeting via some sort of social media platform, interactive platform, video platform, whatever it may be. Churches should be meeting as I speak—church leadership, executive management teams—regarding restarting churches.

The idea of a one button, the church restarts, we’re back to normal—not going to happen. We have to phase this in.

What does that look like for a church? What does that look like, doing ministry, in a phased-in model that may take a month, a month and a half, two months, three months? What does that look like?

So we should already build that sort of infrastructure, build some capacity with leadership and begin to incorporate.

Another item the church should … do their thorough due diligence on is risk management regarding insurance. Make sure they have insurance coverages that will protect parishioners, members’ adherence.

Let’s just say if a member attends to litigate, “I came back after the quarantine and this happened and so forth,” make sure the risk management element is completely addressed by church leadership, that the judiciary governance board, the board of trustees, deacons or directors, at your discretion.

So these things are the things to do for churches and pastors.

“But hey, we’re going to be back and we’re not going to have church online.” My church is going to have church online from now until the coming of the Lord, prayerfully, in addition to physical meetings, because we discovered that online has an audience that we were not aware of before. And many of us grew online at a very high-rated, exponential manner.

We’re going to continue to nurture that while meeting physically. And we can’t deny, meeting physically is a biblical mandate. Do not deny the physical fellowship of believers, the saints.

So we want to meet, we want to see each other, we want to greet each other. and we want to worship the Lord together. It’s right around the corner, let your heart be troubled.

Allen: How do you think that the coronavirus has, and I guess moving forward, will continue to really affect the global church? Being a pastor and a faith leader, I’m sure that you’re in touch with so many other leaders across the world. What are pastors kind of talking about and saying that they’re seeing that’s encouraging in their faith communities?

Rodriguez: Yeah. We’re part of something called the Congress of Christian Leaders with Johnnie Moore, myself, and we have a network of the largest mega-church pastors from around the world. So I’ve had conversations with them.

Now, I want to be careful and nuance regarding the following statement. This may be the greatest hour for the church in a very long time. Let me explain.

Prior to World War I, in America and around the world, it was the church, either the Catholic or the Protestant church, primarily responsible for quenching the thirst, feeding the hungry, taking care of the widowed and the orphaned and those that are suffering in our society, taking care of the homeless.

Somehow we acquiesced, and right after World War I, we basically stood within the confines of our buildings. And many churches, particularly in the Protestant world, said, “We’re going to focus on having services.”

The cross is both vertical and horizontal, I alluded to that analogy previously. And it’s both and not either/or. The strongest part of the cross is the nexus, where the vertical and the horizontal intersect. That’s where the fishes meet the bread.

Here’s my prayer. I pray at the church, at this hour around the world. Even if this pandemic continues, I pray the church be the primary conduit by which those that are suffering in our communities receive help.

I pray the church, as many of our churches are going to nursing homes. Many of our churches, we have millennials and Generation Z, young people from our church, literally with gloves and masks being heavily sanitized as it pertains to the disinfectants and germ killers. They are out there delivering food, putting it in the doorsteps, with protective, it’s amazing.

Let’s change the world. Let’s take care of those that are suffering.

So I do believe it may be the brightest hour, the greatest opportunity for a church to rise up and shine the light of Christ, without ever sacrificing simultaneously the preaching of the gospel of Jesus.

Allen: Yeah. Oh, that’s so good. I’ve been so encouraged. I think there’s so much bad news out there, but I feel like right now, more so than I’ve ever seen before, is a lot of good news.

And people are, like you say, they’re stepping out, they’re taking ownership of their community, and they’re really looking for opportunities for how to help and serve. And that’s something that I hope that we’ll see continue even after this pandemic passes.

Rodriguez: There’s beauty in the midst of ashes, and we were seeing that every single day in communities across America and around the world.

Allen: It really is. Now, how do you think that America’s going to look different after all of this? People keep talking about a return to normal, but is there going to be just a totally new normal? [What] do you think?

Rodriguez: Sam Rodriguez has issues with the idea that there’s a new normal. Was there a new normal after 9/11? Yes. I experienced that as a heavy traveler, every single day I go through TSA. There is a new normal, as it pertains to traveling post-9/11. Yes, there is a new normal.

Would there be a new normal after COVID-19? The idea that this pandemic has the power of redefining who we are, as Americans, and redefining the American experience—if there’s anything that may be lost, I don’t think it will be, [but what] may be lost is the handshake. …

So if there’s anything that will be lost and maybe lost for a very long while, [it] is the shaking of hands. But this idea of perpetual social distancing, it’s not who we are as humanity. It’s not who we are as Christians, but it’s not as we are as humanity.

We understand we have to do that now, but not in perpetuity. We are wired to interact. We are wired to demonstrate affirmation, validation, love, affection. Some of us are wired to hug. We’re wired to pat on the back. And some of us actually like to shake hands.

Again, … we are now cognizant of the fact that these viruses can be transmitted primarily through the shaking of hands, through human interaction. But I do believe that we are going to be cleaning our hands more than ever before, at least in my generation.

There’s going to be constant washing of hands. There’s going to be more vigilance, of course, in the short term. Hopefully, we will have that memory span issue one year, two years, three years from now.

So, will America be radically transformed? I think inevitably we’re going to go back to what we understood as the old normal prior to COVID-19, with some embedded safety mechanisms and firewalls, both personally and culturally together as a community.

But I hope and pray the pandemic doesn’t radically transform who we are as Americans. I want to watch my New York Yankees play the Red Sox—I need to watch my Yankees play the Red Sox.

So, my point is, yeah, we’re going to go back to that, the idea of no-mask gatherings for now, for the next year. And now we’re going to get a vaccine. The vaccine will be around, a worst-case scenario, 18 months from now. Best-case scenario, 12 months from now. We’re going to have a vaccine. With that vaccine, we dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic.

So let me answer your question in a very simple way because I just blew that objective. Here it is: There may be a new normal for 12 months. After 18 months, we’ll be back to the old normal.

Allen: That’s encouraging to hear. And as a Red Sox fan, I certainly want to see the Yankees play the Red Sox again, myself. I think I want a different outcome than the one that you want. That’s going to be an exciting day, when we can be back at the stadium once again.

Now, before I let you go, I do just want to give you the opportunity just to maybe share a word of encouragement to anyone listening who [is really] struggling with anxiety. Maybe they’ve lost their job or they have a family member who’s sick, or they’re elderly and they’re very worried about getting COVID-19 themselves. What would you say to them?

Rodriguez: I was fascinated. It’s post-Easter, and as a pastor, I do my devotions and look at Scripture, try to line it up with the current timeline and so forth.

Right after the resurrection, the Bible speaks about an interesting story where a door was closed, the disciples met post facto after resurrection. There was a bit of confusion. There was noise in the system. “What do we do? What happens next? Some of you all, you claim to see him. Thomas has yet, he’s doubting, there’s questions.” And all of a sudden the Bible says, “Behind a closed door.” Now do your biblical due diligence on that.

It’s pretty powerful. The door was closed, and all of a sudden Jesus shows up. He shows up. Of course, there’s that Thomas encounter and the disciples are overwhelmed by the presence of Christ.

He speaks to them behind closed doors. We are collectively, to a great degree, behind closed doors. We find ourselves closed in, sheltered in, in this quarantine. We’re behind closed doors.

Do not negate the power of Jesus showing up through his word, through his spirit, behind closed doors. The fact that we can find comfort, that he can comfort us. He is the comforter and through his spirit, he comforts us. Behind closed doors, amazing things may happen.

This may very well be just a hard reset for me, for you, for our families, for our faith. Just like when we reset our iPhones, it goes back to its default settings. What if this is a hard reset and we go back to our default settings of faith and family, of the true essential elements in our lives, of the things that really matter?

So at the end of the day, when the door opens up, we’re going to come out or we’re going to look better than before, or actually, we may be healthier with our families, with our children, with our marriages than before the pandemic. So it may be a hard reset, but God does amazing things behind closed doors.

Allen: Yeah. Sam, we really appreciate your words of encouragement and all the work that you’re doing on the National Coronavirus Recovery Commission. Thank you for your time today.

Rodriguez: Thank you for having me.





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