Alexander Rodriguez has always wanted to help people, he just wasn’t always sure of how he was going to do it. Now, the senior theology major finds himself on the precipice of his future, serving in Hawaii as part of his theology internship. But instead of leading a traditional congregation on Oahu as planned, he has spent the last months helping a local church serve the needs of refugees from the Maui fires.

Rodriguez is used to life not following a plan. After attending a leadership program at Yale for nursing students before starting his freshman year of college, he felt God leading him to help people heal spiritually, not just physically. And he felt led to an Adventist college.

He researched his options with a medical route in mind, but when he visited Union, Rodriguez felt an instant sense of belonging and purpose. “That Friday night service solidified it for me,” he recalled. “I came from a public high school, and to see spirituality on a campus was new for me. I go to church and have Adventist friends, but seeing how the school and community has a focus on Jesus—I felt called to be here.”

His focus changed to theology. “God has led me to pastor a church, and I want to let people know that God is always faithful to us,” he said. “My goal is to share Jesus with everyone everywhere, and God has called me here to learn how to do that.”

But college wasn’t an easy fit. As the first person in his family to go to college, he struggled with the weight of expectation and reality. “I loaded up on as many credits as I could take and three jobs that first year, and I burned out,” he said. “I felt the pressure to succeed and the privilege of setting an example. I needed to figure out how to manage my finances, my work, my social life, and my class load, and do that while being an example to my family.”

Set up for Success

Recently, he also found himself being an example to residents of Lahaina, Hawaii, who had to flee from the devastating wildfire that leveled their town in early August.

Alexander had traveled to Oahu six weeks earlier to help with summer camp before moving into his pastoral internship, a requirement for all senior theology students. The internship opportunity pairs each student with a mentor pastor for the first semester of their senior year. This gives them the chance to experience the large and small responsibilities of pastoring, from writing and delivering sermons to performing baby dedications and running board meetings.

But the Maui fires changed everyone’s plans. Instead of learning how to minister in the traditional sense of the word, Rodriguez found himself at the Kahului Seventh-day Adventist Church, where 40 fire survivors had taken refuge. In response to the devastation, Alexander found church members living their faith. “They showed up and they responded,” he said. “The response was so real and so tangible, and as a Christian and an Adventist, I was so proud to see the church open its doors and send out a message saying, ‘You can stay here’ to people who had just lost everything.” 

Along with providing shelter, food, and support for survivors, the church and conference staff worked to help find them transitional housing and ongoing support once their immediate needs were met. “It was an example of living out the gospel of Jesus,” he said, “and it was an honor and privilege to be in that space and hear their stories.”

Serving the Lahaina community made an impact on Rodriguez. “It really solidified that Jesus is the best way to reach people by providing for their immediate needs,” he explained. “This experience will always be in the back of my mind. I’ll make sure my church has a disaster response plan so that we can be prepared to respond to any disasters. Because how many times does a church have 40 people from the community in their building that they can represent Jesus to by providing for their needs?”

The transition into college took some adjusting for Rodriguez, but he found the transition from student to minister a rewarding fit. This, he says, is thanks to the education he’s received and is still receiving.

“It’s why I love Union,” he said. “They see you as a human rather than a number. Everyone here really wants to connect with you. The teachers really see you for who you are. It’s a special place, and it’s a privilege for those who get to experience it. Here in Hawaii, the aloha spirit is how they describe how they love on each other. I recognize that spirit. I know it from Union and how everything is set up for our success.”

Lauren Bongard is a Union College graduate and freelance writer in Bozeman, Montana.