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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Finding Fulfillment

By John W. Kennedy
April 24, 2011

Joe Rodriguez surveyed the scenery as he sat in a granite Jacuzzi next to his large swimming pool, taking stock of his life one evening in 2005. By standards of the world, the then 35-year-old entrepreneur would be deemed a success. Despite a traumatic childhood, he owned a luxurious home and four McDonald’s franchises.

Yet as he relaxed alone in the comfortable surroundings, Rodriguez felt overwhelmed with messy details of his existence, the parts of life other people didn’t see. He began to cry, and sensed God speaking to his burdened heart.

“I had a successful business, money, a big home, nice cars, a big pool, but what good were they when I felt empty inside?” Rodriguez says. “I realized that having all these things didn’t make me happy. I needed a relationship with God. I asked God into my heart that day.”

Path of pain
Rodriguez had thrown himself into being a high achiever at an early age as a way to escape exploitation. A male relative clandestinely abused Rodriguez physically and sexually from the ages of 5 to 16.

Because of the concealed maltreatment, Rodriguez never believed God cared for him as a child.

And, as is common with children who are abused, a perpetually angry Rodriguez began his own pattern of reckless moral behavior. He started drinking alcohol at age 11. Later, he began using illegal drugs. He also became addicted to sex, selling himself as a gigolo.

“I didn’t respect myself or my body,” Rodriguez recalls.

At 16, Joe embarked on a steady dating relationship with a girl named Ana. Throughout their seven-year courtship, Joe cheated on Ana, a pattern that continued after the couple married in 1993.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez started to rise in the corporate realm. The Brooklyn-born New York native started working for McDonald’s at age 11. His carpet salesman father, Frank, originally from Puerto Rico, started working as a weekend cook at McDonald’s and eventually worked his way up to supervisor. In 1989, Frank bought a McDonald’s franchise in the South Bronx from money pooled by the entire family, including Joe’s tips as a hotel bellman.

Rodriguez enrolled in college to study medicine in hopes of becoming a laboratory technologist. But he soon figured there must be an easier way to enrich himself. Then he enrolled in Hamburger University, McDonald’s training institute for managers in Oak Brook, Ill. After a 1,000-hour internship, he emerged with a degree in “hamburgerology.”

Yet for all the material wealth he began accumulating, Rodriguez’s marriage deteriorated further. His own mother counseled Ana to leave the union because of Joe’s infidelities. His mother even offered to pay for Ana’s divorce lawyer.

“I hated what he was doing to me, but I didn’t hear God telling me to go,” Ana recalls. She started attending Cornerstone Assembly of God in Oxford, Conn., with Joe’s mom in 1998, soon after accepting Jesus as her Savior.

In addition to coping with Joe’s adultery, Ana — who as a child had been sexually abused by a male relative — felt overwhelmed with the ongoing medical and addiction problems among her own relatives.

“Joe and Ana’s marriage was in trouble,” Cornerstone Pastor Randy Ackland recalls. “It got to the point where he couldn’t cope with the pain that had been inflicted upon him and the pain he caused his wife.”

Ana and Ackland’s wife, Connie, began fasting one day a week for Joe’s salvation. Months later, Joe finally had that revelation from God by the swimming pool.

“He’s learned about grace and forgiveness at a far deeper level than the average person,” Ackland says.

“We may not understand why things happen to us,” Joe says. “But God is there to hold our hand throughout, if we let Him.”

With salvation, and marriage counseling, Joe’s carousing came to an end. As his faith grew, Joe’s relationship with Ana improved.

“The Lord healed our marriage,” Ana says.

“I wish I could erase my past that wasn’t pleasing to God,” Joe says. “But Ana had faith that God would change me, and He did.”

A growing family
For 13½ years, Joseph and Ana tried to have a baby. Ana underwent in vitro fertilization. Three times she conceived; three times she had miscarriages.

“One of the reasons we couldn’t have children was I had been messing around,” Joe says in retrospect.

Joe had resisted Ana’s repeated pleas to adopt a child. The Acklands, who have two adopted daughters from China, also suggested to Joe that adoption might be God’s plan. In 2006, Joe finally relented, even though Ana had undergone a fourth and final in vitro fertilization.

In an open adoption, a birth mother selected Joe and Ana as the couple she wanted to raise her child, born on Feb. 27, 2007. The couple received the 1-day-old baby, who, unknown to them, had been named Grace. Grace turned out to be the same name they had selected.

“I don’t believe in coincidence,” Joe says. “It was ordained by God that this was our child.”

A week later, the couple’s fertility doctor called with news. Ana was pregnant again — with twins. Because of her past medical history, her age of 39, and the fact that this involved a multiple birth, the doctor considered this a high-risk pregnancy. Yet Ana had no problems.

Spiritual blessings began to accompany material benefits.

“We were both on the same page with the Lord,” Ana says. “That made a difference.”

On Nov. 2, Ana gave birth to twins, Joseph and Isabella, sparking Joe to call 2007 “the year of overflow.” It’s also when he became a deacon and treasurer at Cornerstone Assembly of God.

In 2009, Ana became pregnant again — although she didn’t realize it for four months. With her past difficulties at conceiving, she didn’t even consider the possibility of having a baby at age 41 without the assistance of fertility treatments.

This pregnancy proved to be a test of faith as well.

Ana had lost 30 pounds on a weight-loss program, but she wondered why she still had a protruding belly and pain in her stomach. A visit to a doctor and subsequent MRI revealed a golf ball-sized cyst on her left side, a grapefruit-sized cyst on her right, and a 14-week developing baby in between.

Joe and Ana prayed for healing and protection of the baby.

At a checkup two weeks later, the cysts had disappeared. On Sept. 4, Ana gave birth to a healthy Sofia.

Giving back
A dozen years of barrenness seemed like the distant past. Joe and Ana now had four children in diapers.

Ana stays home with the children and already is teaching them Spanish, arts and crafts, music and reading. At night, she handles the bookkeeping and payroll for the four Connecticut McDonald’s restaurants, which together employ 200 workers. The franchises are located in New Haven, West Haven, Derby and Ansonia.

The West Haven McDonald’s is hardly a typical fast-food eatery. In 2008, Rodriguez rebuilt the first franchise he owned into an upscale restaurant with Italian mosaic tiles, a double-sided fireplace and granite-backed waterfall. There is an Internet lounge with free Wi-Fi and video games in booths for youth. Pictures of his children and the children of his employees line the walls.

Rodriguez gives a great deal back to the communities where the restaurants are located. For example, every Jan. 6, as Latinos celebrate the three Wise Men bringing gifts to the Baby Jesus (El Dia de los Tres Reyes), Rodriguez pays for around 3,500 toys to be distributed to children.

“We worked the American dream, and we’ve been blessed with so much,” Rodriguez says. “We don’t forget our roots and the imperative to give back to the needy.”

Rodriguez has been recognized for his work efforts. He has been named New Haven Businessperson of the Year and his restaurant honored as Yale Business of the Year. He also has won top awards that McDonald’s gives to its franchisees.

In 2008, Joe and Ana Rodriguez won the Ronald McDonald Award, honored as the best operators in a six-state region with a total of 590 stores. At a banquet attended by 1,200 people, Joe told the story of Grace.

“I couldn’t have done this without God in my life and putting Him first,” Joe says. “Through Christ’s death and the shedding of His blood, we can be forgiven of all our sins.”

But Rodriguez had an opportunity last November to do something that he says meant more to him than all the business awards he has accrued: He preached for the first time at Cornerstone. It marked the first time he shared about being abused.

“God has done a wonderful work in Joe’s life,” Ackland says. “Joe always threw himself 100 percent into his work and his investments. Now he does that with his marriage, his children and with God.”

“A lot of people today are quick to dispose of their marriage,” Ana says. “But it is possible to stay faithful to someone who has been unfaithful. If I didn’t I would have lost the blessings of four children.”

“I have a great wife who stood by me,” Joe says. “As God changed us, we were blessed with a beautiful family.”

JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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