The lives of urban youth are often filled with violence and suffering. A group of 50 teens heard of the hardships of Rosario Rodriguez who has suffered two violent attacks on her life.
At the age of 14, a strange man tried to rape Rodriguez. Years later, a wannabe gang member shot her in the chest. Now at 36, the petite Mexican can Salsa dance with the best of them, but the healing didn't begin until she learned to forgive those who hurt her. Despite her struggle, Rodriguez gave an often upbeat and spry talk in October that witnessed to forgiveness to those gathered at SS. Columba-Brigid Church in Buffalo for the urban youth rally known as Da Bounce.
Rodriguez was born in Bakersfield, Calif., but raised in Grand Rapids, Mich., claiming she never got used to Michigan winters. "Fleece-lined tights are my best friend," she said. She grew up in a Catholic home that had a special devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, who shares the same Mexican heritage. As a child, her mother calmed her nightmares by telling her the Blessed Mother would be there when she needed her.
"My parents always taught us, when anything was going wrong, or even if we heard sirens, to say a Hail Mary," Rodriguez said. That may have not been the best advice for a child who attended preschool next to a hospital. Her teacher had to tell her to focus on schoolwork and not pray all the time.
At age 14, a freshman in high school and a member of the swim team, Rodriguez was excited about life, when a man attacked her. Although she was not physically hurt bad, her life was spun around into a dark place.
"I was waiting for the school bus when this man came from behind and attacked me and tried to rape me," she recalled. "I started screaming Hail Mary at the top of my lungs even though he had his hand around my mouth. All of a sudden he looked up above my head and his face suddenly became terrified and he jumped up and ran away. I stood up and turned around, and saw nothing. I believe that man saw something. I don't know if it was my guardian angel or if it was St. Michael the Archangel or Our Lady of Guadalupe. Maybe it was all three. But, I think he saw something that scared him away."
Police said the man had been attacking girls all over the city at different high schools. Rodriguez was the only victim that wasn't raped and killed. That didn't ease her emotional pain.
"Something broke inside me. I suddenly felt worthless. I suddenly felt like I was disposable, and that I could be used," she said.
The anger she had towards that man built up and consumed her. She became bitter as she refused to forgive him.
"I was mean and I was horrible to my family. I couldn't sleep well because I was having nightmares. I didn't eat well," she recalled.
Her parish youth group told her to go to adoration, where she prayed for the saints to heal her, hoping it would come like a lightning bolt. That didn't happen. She had a hard time trusting men. She learned that, although God has the power to move mountains, sometimes He moves them one pebble at a time. Every Mass, prayer and adoration would lead to a pebble being moved.
Seeing a counselor helped with her healing. Her pastor suggested she forgive her attacker and pray for him. Rodriguez struggled with this, but eventually realized it would be the only way to put the attack behind her. She makes a point of saying, "Forgiveness does not excuse his behavior."
Years later, working in Los Angeles with Act One, an organization that trains and prepares Christian professionals for the entertainment industry, she was mugged by a young woman as part of a gang initiation. While walking down the streets of L.A., just a block from her office, a woman grabbed her purse and demanded money.
"I told her, 'I'm a missionary. I have no money. Please don't shoot me.' She yanked down on my purse and she pulled the trigger," Rodriguez recalled.
The bullet went into her chest lodging itself in her clavicle, missing her aorta by one centimeter. Fragments collapsed her lungs and tore her esophagus. The doctors couldn't understand how she was still alive when the ambulance arrived at Cedars-Sinai Hospital. The doctors told Rodriguez's parents, "God smiled on your daughter today."
Rodriguez's sister later asked if she could forgive the woman who shot her. She said she could.
"When you don't forgive someone, there's so much anger that it takes a lot of energy to work. It's exhausting," she said. "I realized I didn't have the energy for that. Also, I knew what it was like not to forgive, and I didn't want to live my life like that ever again, so I knew I needed to forgive her."
Rodriguez ended her speech by speaking on the benefits of the sacrament of reconciliation. As a child, she was afraid of going to confession, thinking she would get yelled at. She has since found that an honest confession has been life changing.
"This isn't a sacrament of fear, it's a sacrament of love," she said. "I encourage you guys, run to the sacrament as often as you can, get down on your knees and share with God everything."
Other guests spoke about their unique vocation stories. Deacon Daniel Ogbeifun, who will be ordained a priest in June, explained his journey started by asking, "God, do you want me to be a priest?" His family and friends encouraged him to enter the seminary, but still he asked that same question.
Before entering the seminary, he worked at an airport in his native Nigeria. One day an Irish priest missed his flight. Deacon Ogbeifun, seeing him in trouble, walked up to him and offered to help. He was able to get the priest a ticket for no cost. Deacon Ogbeifun refused an offer of a cash reward.
"I said, 'Father, what I need from you is just prayer. Pray for me so that where you are today as a priest, I will be there.' He looked at me. He kind of shed tears. He patted me on the back and called me. He said, 'God is calling you,'" Deacon Ogbeifun recalled. "God puts people in different places to take you to the level He wants you to be."
Sister Cecilia Odoemena, a Sister of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, also comes from a religious family in Nigeria. She has a brother, now a priest, who would "celebrate Mass" for his friends as a child.
Where her brother knew he had a vocation to the religious life, Sister Cecilia had doubts of her own.
"I used to tell myself, whenever I saw a young boy, I'd say, 'Maybe this will be my husband in the future. When I grow I will marry a handsome husband.' That has been my thought. But, it was the people in my life - family, friends - that made me realize I had a vocation. I didn't realize it at all," she said.
After high school she developed a desire to pray more and attend Mass. She often needed a quiet place to talk to God. "That's when I realized that maybe I am being called," she said.
Nikkei Goodwin and Stephanie Arroyo also talked about their vocations to the secular Carmelites and youth ministry, respectively.
Da Bounce draws a crowd that comes mostly from downtown and West Side parishes. Along with the guest speakers and reconciliation, a dance is held.
"I like hearing everybody's stories," said Kaylee Wilcox, 14, from St. Lawrence Parish. "I liked hearing how people were called, not just at church, you hear about getting called to the priesthood. Today we heard about being called to marriage, being called to the convent. (We) get to hang out with people who share the same thing."
"Their message was very touching and it was very relatable in some ways," said Adrianna Horton, 17, from St. Martin de Porres Parish.