Welcoming three-dozen women from a correctional institution in San Juan, Puerto Rico, is one of the biggest highlights of the year for José Alberto Rodríguez, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Puerto Rico, and his wife, Christina. The couple, who live in Mayaguez, have opened their home to these women every year for the past six years.
The institution in San Juan is a type of halfway house facility for those with criminal backgrounds serving the final period of their sentences. The bus ride to Rodríguez’s home in Mayaguez takes about three hours, yet the women arrive with smiles on their faces. It is an opportunity for them to spend time away from their problems, their troubled past, and an uncertain future. During the visit, they are encouraged to draw, color, mingle, feast on delicious food, sing, and hear about the love of Jesus and the hope He can bring to their lives.
Rodríguez is grinning from ear to ear as he watches the women laugh, draw and color together. “This is your home,” he says. “You get to serve the food yourself, as many times as you would like and you don’t have to ask me permission to sit here or there or use the restroom. You are home to relax and take in the day.”
“Grab a lollipop or a piece of candy in front of you and taste how sweet,” says Christina, during the special reception. “The love of God is as sweet as honey, and the more you taste it, the more you will want.
“God’s love can transform you because you are His princess, a daughter of the King of Kings, and He wants you to feel valuable, loved, respected and welcomed in our home today,” she continues.
Experiencing God’s Forgiveness
Teresa, a 38-year-old mother of four, draws a cross and a heart and calls out “Papá mira” or “Father look,” as she shows her pencil drawing to Rodríguez. Rodríguez has been a father figure to Teresa since they met.
Teresa’s dad died recently and she says she never met her biological father. “I love Papa Rodríguez, he has always told me that I’m special and that he sees me preaching one day.”
Her life story is long but she thanks God that He changed and transformed her by the loving sacrifice Jesus made on the cross for her.
“I went from being called ‘the wolf’ on the streets to now a princess of the Lord,” says Teresa. “God’s mercy and grace have rescued me time and time again from the grasp of the Enemy.”
There are still things she needs to work on in her character, she says, but she’s taking Bible studies, has completed therapy courses and is currently selling newspapers during the day.
As reward for good behavior, women at the facility can hold a job during the day and use a family pass every month, but still are supervised all day. The center provides therapy, training courses and evaluations regularly, according to Rodríguez.
Teresa takes one day at time and wants to help the homeless and needy when she gets out. “I know God is refining me and preparing me to share my testimony,” she says.
Teresa sang about God’s love and forgiveness during the special program at the Rodríguez home. Other women also took part in drama performances.
Each received a gift bag filled with toiletries and a pajama set thanks to church members who brought in donations and items to the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) office in West Puerto Rico.
“I don’t want the church to close their eyes to the needs of people in prison,” says Rodríguez. “Many of those incarcerated have lost their identity, their families, and it’s difficult for them to start all over again,” he explained.
“We have to do our part to share God’s love and forgiveness and help them succeed in life and for eternity.”
Doing her part to bring happiness to the group of women was just what Alba González wanted. She traveled from the Buena Vista Cayey Adventist Church, in Cayey, more than 93 miles, or 150 kilometers, away. González brought six other women from her church to sing and surprise Jennifer, who is nearly eight months pregnant, with a baby shower.
They collected baby items, made baby outfits and provided all the baby’s and mom’s needs.
“We wanted to be here and show our love to this new mom for whom Jesus died on the cross,” says González. The group from Cayey had met Jennifer back in March when they visited the center and spent a fun day playing games and doing crafts with the group of women.
“The church heard our request for brand new baby items for Jennifer and we collected so many that we had to prepare other packages to help other mothers in the community,” said González. “We just couldn’t miss experiencing this moment with her.”
Opportunity to Grow
For Viviette, 31, the day was one of the happiest she will never forget. She was dressed in a cap and gown and was presented with a sample of the diploma that she could receive when she graduates from university.
“In life, there is always time to grow, and you will get that opportunity, Viviette,” says Rodríguez.
Dressed in academic regalia, Obed Jímenez, president of Antillean Adventist University, presented a scholarship for Viviette to study a nursing degree and showed her a taste of what it would be like when she would receive her diploma. Tears filled her eyes at the thought of experiencing that accomplishment and the possibility of a better future for herself and her family.
Anette Cruz, director of chaplaincy for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in Puerto Rico, praised the work of the Adventist Church. “We know the love of God through your love and commitment as you provide resources so that others can have new opportunities.”
Moved by Love
For 12 years Rodríguez has worked with Puerto Rico’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in ministering to men and women in prison facilities across the island. It is that relationship and commitment that drove him to raise funds on the church’s radio stations, invite entire churches to donate funds and toiletries, assist women in starting micro businesses through ADRA projects, and speak to those confined about God’s redeeming power and transformation.
Sinaira Camacho, director of the center, thanked the church on behalf of the center and the 13,000 men and women in correction facilities across the island. “I publicly commit to working closer with the department to keep the doors open to the church and its ministry to help those confined in our centers.”
So far, 36 women have started Bible studies from José Marrero, an Adventist pastor, who began prison ministries at the San Juan women’s facility in October. Two of the women will soon be baptized, he says.
“The only thing that moves us is the love of God and we will continue to partner in this ministry,” says Rodríguez as the celebration drew to a close. Rodríguez smiles with a twinkle in his eye like he would about his own two grown children and two grandchildren. He sees all 36 women who spent the day at his home as his daughters, as children of God. He sees the potential in each one and encourages the team of 20 church leaders and members who took part in the special day to get others involved in prison ministries.
The Adventist Church across Puerto Rico is preparing to mobilize all the churches to focus on helping 436 young adults correction facilities who do not have any close family or relatives, on Sabbath, October 21, 2017. Church members will collect toiletries and needed supplies, spend the day with them and share love and the hope of salvation.