My name is Denise Rodriguez and I’m here to share my faith story. I grew up in a Catholic household with very strict parents. There wasn’t a lot of socializing outside the house unless it was with them. Every Sunday we went to church, and ironically, I grew up in a church that spoke Spanish, and I didn’t speak Spanish, so I went as a ritual.
Every Sunday I sat in the pew, listened to a sermon that I really didn’t understand because that was what was expected of me. I always knew Jesus existed, but I didn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus. In my younger years, I just remember that was the thing that we did every Sunday.
When I was the age of five, we had a tragedy in our family. My 10-year-old brother hung himself. I grew into a very angry person, not understanding when they told me that God was so good. Why would He allow my brother to hang himself?
I remember watching my parents going through depression and having a very difficult time accepting the death of my brother.
But they continued in their faith and I grew apart in my teenage years, still attending church because I had no choice, but not really having a relationship with God. In my early 20s I stopped going to church. I still kind of believed that there was a God, but I just never had a relationship with God.
As years went on, I experienced traumas in my life stemming from being in unhealthy relationships. My first husband was an addict and I thought that if I just loved him enough, if I was just the perfect wife, that I could change him and get him to stop using drugs. That didn’t work. Instead of me helping him to change, I was changing as a person. I became a very angry person, and our relationship was very volatile.
I vividly remember some of the arguments we had. In my early to mid-20s I was arrested several times for assaultive behavior. Instead of becoming the victim, I became the perpetrator as a defense mechanism to everything that I was going through. That relationship didn’t last, but I did have two children.
I was pretty much a single mom through the whole time we were together, but then we separated and I was blessed to meet somebody else. He believed in God. We started going to church together and life seemed pretty good. He accepted my two boys, and I accepted his son. Then God blessed me with a fourth boy and life was good.
My husband, Ron, was ex-military. He lived a structured life. We were from two very different cultures. I’m Puerto Rican, and Ron said he was somewhere between Pennsylvania Dutch, Irish, and German. He loved my big family. I remember the first time we had dinner at my mom’s house, and he whispered in my ear, “What’s the occasion?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “There’s so many people in your house, is this a party?” And I said, “No, this is just Sunday in a Puerto Rican home.” He loved that about our culture.
Ron was into camping. I was definitely not into camping. He would plan a trip with my boys. I said I would never go camping, because you just can’t take a curling iron or blow dryer on a camping trip. As they were planning the camping trip, I felt like maybe I should go and try the experience. I went camping with them and it was a little rough, but I really enjoyed the experience and that became a tradition in our family.
We continued to go to church on Sundays. I can’t tell you that I was really in a relationship with God, but I was making it more of a tradition to go to church. Five years into the relationship, we were engaged to be married. We had our sons living under the same roof for the most part.
A month before we got married, Ron passed away in his sleep. I’m not understanding why God did this to me once again. I’m happy, my boys were happy, and God again ripped somebody out of my life.
I stopped going to church. My relationship with God, the little relationship that I had was no longer there. And I just kind of was going through the motions.
Fast forward to about six years ago. My nephew continued asking me to come to church with him, but I just wasn’t interested. He went to a whole different church. I told him, “Hey, I go to Catholic Church,” even though I really wasn’t going to Catholic Church, “I’m not going to go to your church.”
One day, just to please him, I went to this church called The Journey Church. I walked in and felt goosebumps. I said, “Well, maybe it’s cold in here, but I don’t know.” I kept going through the motions, meeting all these wonderful people, everybody kept smiling. I just could not believe that everybody was so nice at this church. I said, well, this is just the first day. So I came back again, and I came back again, and I kept trying to find reasons not to come back to this church.
I was still dealing with a lot of trauma. Still trying to deal with a lot of depression and anxiety, going through the motions. I mean, I did find a job that I really loved doing, became a director of a drop-in center dealing with people that are homeless, in addiction, and dealing with mental health issues. That job felt like it was filling this void that I had, because I really do enjoy helping people.
But I just still did not learn how to help the most important person, which was myself. I kept going to the church and I started getting involved, started greeting people. Even though I’m not a morning person, I would go in the morning and just smile and wave at people and welcome them into the church because I wanted them to feel welcomed, like I started to feel welcomed.
I kept trying to find excuses not to go to church, like maybe this is a cult. That’s what I kept saying to myself. This has got to be a cult. So one day I remember being at church and I saw a homeless man come in. I’m drawn to homeless people because I always like to help. I thought that somebody from the church was going to tell this man to leave because he was not clean and his clothes were all disheveled.
I saw someone from the security team walk up to him and I thought, they’re going to tell him to leave and this is the excuse I’ve been looking for to not come back to church. I saw the security guy talking to the man and they both turned around and looked at me. I wondered why they kept looking at me. They both walked up to me asked whether I worked with homeless people. I said yeah, and he said, “Do you think you can give this individual some information and then have him take a seat inside to listen to the service.
At that moment, I felt the goosebumps that I’d felt when I first walked into The Journey, multiplied by 1000. I realized that I was where I needed to be for myself and for other people. I realized that I was no longer going to church just for the motions. I wasn’t going to church to please anybody but myself. I’ve realized that God had me there for a reason.
I started having this deep relationship with Jesus in a way that I never had before. I realized that I was there because God called me to be there. I’ve been able to work on myself and my past traumas because, as I always say, I’m a work in progress. I now run a trauma group as one of the J groups at The Journey Church because I realized that even though I was always helping people, I never even talked about my traumas. I never talked about attempting suicide twice in the past. I never talked about my depression or my anxiety. I never talked about constantly feeling hopeless. Now I’m able to talk about it.
The trauma is no longer my story as it was in the past where it was just deeply embedded. Now it’s on the surface and it’s there to help other people. I enjoy being able to connect my church with my job. The Journey Church is really supportive of what we do with the Horizon House Peer Recovery Center.
We do events together. I get to travel and do mission trips to other countries and help people in different areas. I’ve been part of building things in other countries. I’ve been able to just bring hope to other people. For the most part I’m really grateful that I’ve learned self-care, mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually and most important have been able to improve my relationship with God every day. I can talk about God at work. I can pray at my job. Before, that wasn’t even an option.
I can honestly say that my faith story has come a long way. I continue to grow in faith. I continue to make God a part of my life every single day. I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful that I’m still here. I’m grateful that I’m able to share my story and hopefully give hope to other people.
More Faith Stories
I remember being in church and going up to the altar and crying. I was so tired of the life I was living. I needed help. I felt a sense of peace at that time and knew that if this Jesus thing can work for some of these other guys, then it can definitely work for me.
I said to myself, “Why should anyone envy me and want to be in my shoes?”
God has led me to amazing places in my life, so let me explain how God led me from South Carolina to Kenya.
We built the first church with great difficulty. We went back to the States and the board asked us to become mission staff with the Outreach Foundation. That was 25 years ago, just about, and we’ve gotten more involved with Kenya as days and years went on.
I am a chef by profession. I’m happy because I do what I love. Now I work at Villadise Tours and Safaris, where I meet so many different people coming from far. Being helpful is just a blessing to other people.
Then God started tugging on my heart. There was a church sermon series that was about taking your God-given dream off the shelf. I was like, “I don’t know what my dream is. God, if you have a dream for me you’re going to have to tell me what it is.”