The Rev. Carmelo Rodriguez Jr., and his wife, the Rev. Nancy Rodriguez, are active participants in efforts to revitalize their home city of New Britain, for the city’s many Latino residents and non-Latinos alike. He is chairman of the New Britain Latino Coalition, and she serves as vice chairman of the city’s Commission on Community & Neighborhood Development,
All of that in addition to both serving as assistant pastors at a church in Groton, a drive of about 60 miles from their home. Managing their schedules requires careful planning and a lot of motivation.
“Everything we do, we know we believe in it, and we know we’re going to enjoy it,” Carmelo Rodriguez said.
A resident of New Britain since 1985, he served two terms as a Republican city alderman. The Latino coalition is nonpartisan. Regardless of their political affiliation, “everybody involved in the coalition is there because they care for the city,” he said. The goal is to bring a better life and better conditions to the city’s Latino residents, and address issues that affect them such as immigration.
“Our greatest interest is what can we do to make the city better, not just for Latinos but for everyone,” he added.
The coalition has a number of subcommittees that address areas such housing, encouraging Latinos to purchase homes in the city and assisting when issues arise with city landlords, and education, by inspiring Latinos to get involved with the Board of Education and at the schools their children attend.
Economic development is another focus; the coalition played an important role in convincing the city to designate Arch Street a Barrio Latino.
The Barrio Latino designation is already paying dividends, such as a change in the mentality of business owners, and city efforts that have brought the crime rate down and kept the area cleaner, Carmelo Rodriguez said.
Coalition members also work to support new and established Latino businesses and offer business education. Another thrust of the coalition has been promoting voter registration and providing the Latino community with opportunities to get to know the candidates, he said.
A life of service
“From a young age, I knew I wanted to be a servant,” Carmelo Rodriguez said. Life has always been about serving God by serving those in need.
After high school, he joined the military. He later went to work for the state as a corrections officer, retiring after 20 years on the job.
It was New Britain Mayor Tim Stewart who got him involved in city government, appointing him to the city’s board of ethics and encouraging him to be a voice of Latinos and, at the same time, a representative of the city’s Christian pastors.
By then, Rodriguez had been ordained by the Asociación Emanuel, a big step that Nancy Rodriguez also took more recently. When the organization seemed ready to send Carmelo to a church in another state, “God said no; you need to stay here and help your father,” she said.
As assistant pastor at the Iglesia Cristiana Emanuel Visión Celestial in Groton, where his father, the Rev. Carmelo Rodriguez Sr. is the pastor, does not pay. “This is not something I inherited; it was a call,” he said.
He and Nancy are able to work together and he’s learned from her.
Nancy Rodriguez feels the same way about Carmelo. “My husband’s my best friend and her’s also been my mentor,” she said. “In the early years of our marriage, my role was basically as a housewife and raising our children,” but that doesn’t mean that men and women aren’t equal, she added, though she chooses to be his helper in the ministry.
“When I have activities outside of his, he’s right there to help me,” she said.
In September, they’ll celebrate their 25th anniversary.
The couple has three adult children. Their son, 20 years old and a musician who lives in Texas, recently decided he wants to go into ministry, a source of pride for his father. Their daughters are not directly involved in ministry but do whatever they can to support anything their parents are doing in the community.
As was the case for her husband, Nancy Rodriguez’s service started in the church but then began “expanding out into the city,” she said.
“That led to our roles as leaders in the community. Our whole belief and faith means to believe in Jesus, which is to serve,” she said.
She had worked for 13 years in the city’s school system. “I looked at my job as service because I worked with teenagers,” trying to help them determine what direction they would take in life after finishing high school and helping them prepare for college, she said.
Finally, she decided to take an early retirement. “Certain seasons in your life come to an end. I said this was a time to make a change and help (Carmelo) go into full-time ministry, she said.
She knew ordination was the right step for her husband. “Even without the title, his care and his worry and his heart were with caring for the people,” she said.
Just within the past year, Nancy Rodriguez said she realized it was the right time for her to also step into the role of pastor.
“Our friends and family have always seen us in that role, of being able to come to us for care and advice,” she added.
Breast cancer survivor
There was a time more than a decade ago, when Nancy Rodriguez needed the care and prayers of others.
“I am a breast cancer survivor. In 2001, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I’m in remission, 14 years now,” she said.
This year she is serving as chairperson for the Connecticut Breast Health Initiative’s breakfast, during which breast cancer survivors share their stories and socialize.
The breakfast will be held in conjunction with CBHI’s 2016 Race in the Park, to be held on Saturday, May 7, the day before Mother’s Day, in New Britain’s Walnut Hill Park. Race day festivities and events honor survivors, remember loved ones and celebrate life, while raising funds to advance the fight against breast cancer in the state.
According to a story in the March 30, New Britain Herald, Nancy Rodriguez was just 34 when she was tested and diagnosed, after noticing something out-of-the-ordinary during a routine self-examination. She had no family history of breast cancer, and the news was devastating.
She underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatment and her faith, along with the support of Carmelo and their family, were her rock, she told the Herald.
“I looked at it as a time in my life like a chapter in a book. When you read a book, each chapter is different and I didn’t want to get stuck in that one chapter. There was more to the book and more to my life,” she said in the Herald story.
Nancy Rodriguez was recommended to chair the breakfast by New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart, who called her, “very articulate, very enthusiastic and dedicated. She is so into making this event a great experience for all survivors,” the Herald reported.
A person may face “a lot of times of trials and tribulations, but God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle,” Nancy Rodriguez said. She believes she is a stronger person because of her cancer battle.
Working for neighborhood development
A lifelong New Britain resident, Nancy Rodriguez said the city’s Commission on Community & Neighborhood Development works with new businesses and makes recommendations to the Common Council on how to allocate funding that is available for business improvement projects.
The commission meets monthly, but is especially busy in March, when the city learns what it will receive in grants that can be used to assist businesses. The board hears presentations from many business owners who would like to make improvements or changes that could benefit their neighborhoods as well as their business, she said.
“It’s a great responsibility, one that I definitely need prayer for,” she said. “We have a very good board. Members come from all different angles.”
Often, commission members find themselves saying, “it’s a good need, but can we fund it?” Typically, there are more worthy requests than the city has the resources to fund.
“Thank goodness our city is up and moving. Our mayor has opened up the city to business, so we’re definitely on the map,” she said.
Carmelo Rodriguez agreed. “The mayor and her team will do everything to make the process of bringing a business to town a smooth one,” he said.
A more personal responsibility for Nancy Rodriguez is her elderly parents, both of whom are afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease. “The elderly sometimes can be the forgotten people,” she said.
She sees that as an issue that needs more attention, and she believes churches such as theirs need to be more present in convalescent homes and other places where persons struggling with dementia live, and try to make a difference in their lives.
Carmelo Rodriguez has similar concerns for many of the men he used to guard in the state’s prisons.
When he started, being a corrections officer was what he did to support his family, but over time he became more aware of the tragic situations of so many inmates, with untreated addictions, little or no education and broken families, all of which would likely take a terrible toll as they grew older.
“As a church, we have to be part of the solution,” he said.