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.
San Juan correctional institution 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, and when the women arrive they are grinning. 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 also grinning as he watches the women laugh and 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.”
“God’s love can transform you because you are His princess, a daughter of the King of Kings,” says Christina, during the special reception. “He wants you to feel valuable, loved, respected and welcomed in our home today.”
Experiencing God's Forgiveness
Teresa, a 38-year-old mother of four, draws a cross and a heart and calls out “Papá mira” or “Look, Father,” as she shows her pencil drawing to Rodríguez. He has been a father figure to Teresa since they met.
Teresa’s dad died recently and says she never met her biological father. “I love Papá 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.
On good behavior, women at the facility can hold a job during the day and use a family pass every month, but are supervised all day. The center provides therapy, training courses and evaluations regularly, according to Rodríguez.
Teresa takes it one day at a time and wants to help the homeless and the needy when she gets out. “I know God is refining me and preparing me to share my testimony,” she says.
“I don’t want the church to close its 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 explains.
“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 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.
“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 that she will never forget. She was dressed with a cap and gown and was presented with a sample 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.
“We know the love of God through your love and commitment as you provide resources so that others can have new opportunities.”
Dressed in academic regalia, President of Antillean Adventist University Obed Jiménez 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 at 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
It’s been 12 years that Rodríguez has been working 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 to assisting those in prison that has driven 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, the 36 women have been receiving Bible studies from Adventist José Marrero, who began prison ministries at the San Juan women’s facility in October. Two of the women will soon be baptized, he said.
Rodríguez is adamant that the Adventist Church in Puerto Rico is on the right path. “The only thing that moves us is the love of God and we will continue to partner in this ministry,” he said.