Rebuilding One Life at a Time
By John W. Kennedy
Apr. 28, 2013
"When the ladies tell me I don’t understand, I tell them they don’t know my story,” Miriam Rodriguez says. “I’ve been addicted, I’ve been battered, I’ve been homeless, I’ve had to raise my kids on my own. I also tell them every time I tried to get clean I couldn’t do it. But Jesus Christ came into my life and transformed me from the inside out.”
For the past five years, Rodriguez has led The Nehemiah Wall (TNW) in Bethlehem, Pa., a Christian transitional home she established for female ex-offenders, as well as for women with life-controlling issues.
At TNW, women in a structured environment are helped with an array of skills through self-discipline, academic learning, and vocational training needed to function in society. At the holistic nonprofit ministry, women study the Bible and do individual devotions every day. They attend church on Sunday.
“Many women have been incarcerated, battered and abused, betrayed, abandoned, and left with no hope,” says Rodriguez. “Our goal is to help women mainstream back into society where they can function as stable Christians.”
TNW assists women in securing employment, enrolling in college, or finding a place to live. Many women have no family support. Some don’t have clothes or identification documents.
Rodriguez doesn’t have any problem relating to women trying to recover from harrowing experiences. She herself has been homeless; a two-time victim of domestic violence; an alcoholic; a marijuana, crack and heroin addict; and a single mother to four children.
She operated a similar ministry called New Life Homes for three years in the 1990s. She closed the ministry before enrolling at Valley Forge Christian College (Assemblies of God) in Phoenixville, Pa. After graduating in 2002, Rodriguez spent several years visiting various women’s correctional institutions and kept seeing the need for another transitional house.
“I went through so much with the first house, I didn’t know if I was up to it again,” Rodriguez says. “But the Lord spoke to me about opening another home, and here I am today.”
The Nehemiah Wall has capacity for nine women, plus a room for a house monitor. Rodriguez supports herself as a full-time industrial chaplain for Cardone Industries, a Philadelphia car-parts remanufacturing company, and diligently works at fundraising to keep TNW afloat.
Churches and private donors support the ministry. Grants have paid for appliances, beds, computers and a van. There are no paid employees, only volunteer helpers.
TNW conducts church services inside prisons for female inmates. Upon release, some are eager to live in the transitional home and work out a plan approved by their parole or probation officer.
“They can live here for six months to a year,” Rodriguez says. “But we do not push them out if they do not feel ready to go.”
Those who apply know it’s no vacation. The first month no contact is allowed with the outside. Smoking is prohibited. Twice a week the women must attend evening faith-based addiction recovery meetings.
TNW hasn’t tried to reinvent the recovery wheel. The ministry taps into other community agencies for everything from counseling to résumé-writing classes.
Years of Rebellion
Rodriguez grew up in Newark, N.J., the daughter of hardworking Puerto Rican parents. As a child she attended Catholic schools. But at 13, she started smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol without her parents’ knowledge.
“I connected with people, places and things that were not good for me,” Rodriguez recalls. “I was a very rebellious child.”
At 15 — after being expelled from school for drug use — Rodriguez gazed in a shop window and prepared to enter the business. But the Muslim proprietors said they had to close for 15 minutes in order to pray. Rodriguez’s curiosity over the comment led her to a mosque. Soon she converted to Islam.
At 16, she married a Muslim man. Her newfound religion didn’t improve her drug dependency. She began using and even trafficking cocaine. After she gave birth to three sons, Rodriguez says her abusive husband abandoned her. With no spousal financial support, the drug-addicted Rodriguez raised her boys in survival mode, stealing food and clothes for her sons and ultimately becoming a kleptomaniac.
When she met the father of her fourth and final child, a daughter, Rodriguez was living on the street and selling drugs. Police arrested her numerous times for possession of drugs and intent to deliver, but she always received probation or paid a fine and never had to serve time.
“Even through my addiction, I could not stop being a mom,” Rodriguez says. “My kids were with me everywhere I went.”
Rodriguez tried multiple secular addiction recovery groups, but her sobriety never lasted long.
“I kept trying to get clean, but everywhere I went it seemed like the devil was waiting for me,” she recalls.
A friend evangelized Rodriguez, prompting her to send her children to church. However, Rodriguez had no interest in attending — even though the pastor kept engaging her in conversations about Jesus.
Then Raymond, one of her 12-year-old twin sons, had an accident and went into a coma. A doctor told Rodriguez her son wouldn’t live. But the pastor prayed over the boy and declared Raymond wouldn’t die because the Lord wanted to show Rodriguez her first miracle. Rodriguez believed the preacher, and a week later Raymond awoke. Rodriguez thanked God, but still had no desire to go to church.
Through all her travails, homelessness happened only briefly. Most of the time Rodriguez held a good job as a “functional addict.” But once when Rodriguez smoked crack all night she couldn’t make it to work. Rodriguez then vowed never to use again.
In 1989, a Christian woman she met in a recovery group invited her to a revival meeting at New Life Church, a Hispanic Assembly of God in Allentown, Pa. Rodriguez sat in the back. During the altar call, the evangelist said someone in the church had scoliosis and a physician had recommended surgery. But, the evangelist announced, the Lord wanted to heal the person instead.
A weeping Rodriguez, who had not told others about her physical need, went forward for a prayer of healing. She felt a hot sensation go down her back, then accepted Christ as her Lord and Savior. Her radical transformation included forsaking a two-decades-long addiction to drugs.
It didn’t take long for Rodriguez to get serious about her new Pentecostal faith. She immediately felt called into ministry. Turning her life around made an impact on her children, all of whom went on to earn bachelor’s degrees. Son Ibrahim is a VFCC graduate and a schoolteacher in Crofton, Md. Daughter Erica Alcover-Licea graduated from VFCC and is music pastor at Calvary Assembly of God in Monroe, N.Y.
Alcover-Licea and her husband, Mark Anthony Licea, are faithful supporters of The Nehemiah Wall and volunteer at a similar home in New York.
“I’ve seen the power of God in changing one woman at a time in my mom’s life,” Alcover-Licea says. “Christ can change any woman God brings into contact with my mom if that woman surrenders to Christ and gains the support system she needs to go against the cultural norms of how she has learned to cope with life.”
Alcover-Licea, 28, remembers that once her mother became a Christian she stopped cursing and being angry constantly. Alcover-Licea has fond childhood memories of her mother attending VFCC.
“The staff and faculty served as a hospital for us,” Alcover-Licea says. “We had gone through a lot as a family and as individuals. Gradually I saw my mother stop giving in to self-condemnation and gain self-worth.”
Keeping The Nehemiah Wall going is a constant financial struggle. There have been times when Rodriguez has wanted to give up, particularly when the home had to close for four months as a result of fire damage caused by one of the residents dropping a cigarette that ignited roof shingles on the facility.
Rodriguez, 56, visits the home every Wednesday as well as on weekends. In addition to giving her the opportunity to spend time with the women, it renews her zeal for her calling.
Alex Velazquez Jr., pastor of Oasis City Church, an Assemblies of God congregation in Philadelphia, says since he met Rodriguez 17 years ago, she has consistently been focused on helping women around her who are hurting.
“She has never lost the passion for helping ladies coming out of prison or who are addicted,” Velazquez says. “Her passion is out of gratitude for what God has done in her life.”
Velazquez, who accepted Jesus as Savior while in prison, says he admires Rodriguez’s tenacity: that she refuses to give up on God no matter how dire the circumstances.
“When God saves people like us from out of the mess we put ourselves in, we believe God can save anybody,” Velazquez says.
Rodriguez’s daughter also says her mother’s life helps her maintain gratitude in Christ.
“I really have nothing to complain about,” Alcover-Licea says. “I am who I am today because my mom made the choice to stop giving in to the pressures of life, and still makes that choice every day.”
JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.
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