Counselor's Past Helps Him Turn the Hardest of Hearts

NEW YORK—Ishmael Rodriguez sits talking with three pregnant women at a counseling center in the South Bronx.

In what he calls his “old life,” he would have been sweet-talking these young women into getting an abortion. But now he sits on the other side of the table, as coordinator of the South Bronx Pregnancy Center, and serves as the last guard between these women and the Planned Parenthood facility directly across East 149th Street.

The crisis pregnancy center has logged 2,000 visits from clients this year. Most want the free pregnancy test advertised in the Yellow Pages, others come thinking the center performs abortions, and some come simply to talk or to get information and assistance on how to keep the babies in their wombs. Rodriguez, 43, who grew up in Spanish Harlem and lives in the Bronx, listens intently, talks plainly and works with all his power of prayer and persuasion to save the lives of the mothers and their children. This year, 321 women turned away from abortion after visiting the center and have due dates sometime in 1999.

On Dec. 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, he witnessed the baptism of a baby girl whose mother had come to the center with her mind set on abortion.

“She was a good Catholic woman who was in a parish prayer group but got involved with one of the guys in the group,” he said. “She was too embarrassed to let anyone know, so she panicked. After talking with her for an hour and showing her a video, she began crying and said she didn't know how she could have thought of killing her child.”

In addition to working six days at the center, Rodriguez organizes regular prayer vigils in which Auxiliary Bishop Francisco Garmendia, New York Archdiocesan vicar of the South Bronx, celebrates Mass at a local church and leads a rosary procession to an abortion facility.

“Ishmael is a hard worker and very interested in helping the people and meeting their needs,” Bishop Garmendia told the Register. “He is a very, very good man, and we have worked together on many different projects.”

The South Bronx center opened three years ago across from Planned Parenthood's Hub Center, in an effort to offer the large number of poor black and Hispanic women in the area the information and referrals they need to keep their babies. Counselors provide free, client-administered pregnancy tests and show pro-life videos such as Silent Scream and Eclipse of Reason. If a woman tests positive, they help her to understand that the same Medicaid money she would use for an abortion can be put toward maternity care and delivery at a hospital. If a pregnant woman is being thrown out of the house by parents or abused by a boyfriend, they are referred to shelters such as Covenant House or Good Counsel Homes.

“We offer whatever help we can,” said Rodriguez. “A lot of times a woman will find she does have the resources. What she really needs is the frame of mind to decide to keep the child.”

The founder and director of the South Bronx Pregnancy Center is Christopher Slattery, who runs two other such facilities in the city under the name Expectant Mother Care.

At a recent fund-raising dinner in Manhattan, Slattery called Rodriguez one of the most effective crisis pregnancy counselors he has seen.

‘He pulled me into the church, knelt me before the tabernacle, and gave me Holy Communion for the first time in a long time. I met Jesus. I've been on the journey since.’

“He has a way of talking with a woman in crisis that can turn even the more hardened ones around,” said Slattery. “He has been absolutely indispensable; no amount of money could buy the type of commitment he has. In my 15 years in running pregnancy centers, I've never seen anybody who can handle the pressure like he can.”

Rodriguez is slow to take the credit. “You can go through hell here, with all the women coming in with their minds set on abortion, and it seems there is just no way they can be made to change their minds,” Rodriguez said in an interview on a recent afternoon, during a lull at the center. “But you realize every changed heart must be a heart that God has touched, from death to life. You are just the instrument God uses to enter her heart.”

Sometimes hearts are very hard. He told of a pregnant woman and her boyfriend who came in thinking the center was an abortion clinic. After Rodriguez convinced them to watch a video on abortion before making any decisions, the man announced that he was against abortion and would not pay for the procedure as promised.

“She started punching him in the face. She was determined to get an abortion,” recalled Rodriguez.

After calming down, both agreed to come back to talk to Rodriguez again about keeping the baby.

“I think there's hope,” he said tentatively. “At least, there's a window for God to work with.”

Rodriguez knows about conversion and opening a window to God. He was reared in a Catholic family and went to Catholic school, but by his 15th birthday he had fathered a child and paid for his girl-friend's abortion. He got into drinking, drugs, and an escalating cycle of womanizing. In all, he holds himself accountable for 15 abortions, the last one of which landed the woman in the hospital with a perforated uterus. It was then Rodriguez began to rethink his life.

“I just hit bottom. I was a total loser and saw my life going nowhere. Something had to happen because as I saw it, my life was not worth living.”

On June 27, 1989, he remembers the date distinctly, he arose from bed and “decided to look for God, if he really existed.”

Rodriguez visited a nearby rectory to find a priest to hear his confession. Three hours later, after an agonizing examination of conscience and a firm purpose of amendment, he received absolution. But the priest was not finished.

“Thank God,” Rodriguez continued, “he pulled me into the church, knelt me before the tabernacle and gave me Holy Communion for the first time in a long time. I met Jesus. I've been on the journey since.”

The priest asked him to make amends by seeking to be a father to the fatherless.

“Little did I know then what that would entail,” Rodriguez recalled. “Now I am being sort of a father for the child in the womb, standing in for the biological father who will not defend the life of his child.”

The road back has not been without bumps. He married, had three children with his wife, but later was divorced and is now applying for an annulment. Still, he attends Mass regularly and strives each day to live according to the moral teachings of the Church.

“Sometimes I wake up in the morning and say, ‘I've really got to work extra hard to be good today.’ There is no other choice for me anymore.”

Although the center is officially non-denominational, and some of the part-timers and volunteers are not Catholic, Rodriguez is not shy about bringing his faith to work.

“I'll explode if I don't talk about Jesus Christ,” he said. “Among the Hispanic and black women, this is accepted. They have faith, even if they're not practicing it. They all know deep down that God has given them this child and they will have to answer to Him for destroying the child.”

He added, “I can tell them firsthand how awful abortion is, how it destroyed my life and the lives of all the women I knew. I figure that if I was able to talk so many women into having abortions in the past, I can use the same talents in talking her into keeping this baby. The key is to get her to accept her child. She has killed the child spiritually in her heart before she gets to us. She has to be persuaded that it's not too late. She can still give life back to this child and accept this child as her own. Then we can help her.”

Brian Caulfield writes from New York.