Minister uses his life experiences to help at-risk youth in Pilsen

By Ely Segura | Católico
Wednesday, May 5, 2021

André Rodríguez works with youth and young adults at St. Paul Parish in Pilsen. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

After serving 10 years in prison, André Rodríguez, 43, decided that his reintegration into society would largely consist of preventing young people from making wrong decisions about the course of their lives.

That idea became a reality in January 2019, when he became director of Shine youth ministry at St. Paul Church in Pilsen.

Before coming to St. Paul’s, Rodríguez worked in the mentoring program of the New Life Centers organization in Little Village, listening to and mentoring young people who had dropped out of school, who were in gangs or who were in legal proceedings.

In order to reach more young people, he asked to be assigned to Pilsen, the neighborhood where he had grown up and where he knew more people.

Rodríguez came to St. Paul Church after a friend introduced him to the pastor, Father Michael Enright. Rodríguez was looking for somewhere he could invite young people to gather in a space of trust, where, between pizzas, basketball games and movies, simple conversations could help them transcend their daily lives.

Enright was so inspired by Rodríguez and his mission to help at-risk youth that he hired him. That was when Shine was born.

The ministry welcomes young people between the ages of 14 and 23 every Wednesday from 6:30 to 9 p.m.

“The usual thing is to start with sports games. Some do not play, but are still motivated by food or by the invitation of a friend,”  Rodríguez said. “We order pizza, burgers, tacos, and pray before we eat. For many of these young people, that is an unusual moment, since they had not done that before. Sometimes, it is the only or first experience that they have of God and the church.”

It is held around a table, like the first Christian community, where the young people talk about their lives and about what happened to them during the week.

“The first thing you have to do is gain their trust so that they, the young people, can talk to you and listen to you,” Rodríguez said. “It’s getting to know them, so we can establish a chat. We usually talk about the goals they have for life and the problems that hinder them.”

The relationships he establishes with young people are being built, in addition, from the support he gives with simple tasks such as helping them obtain a state ID or driver’s license, providing them a ride to court or other appointments or helping them with resumes and preparing for job interviews.

“When they know me and they know that I have had an experience similar to theirs, then they can identify and they can open up. I know that many come from homes where things are not right. I feel confident asking them where their parents are. Some come from very poor families, others have started using drugs,” he said. “But they are all different, some trust you very quickly, others take much longer to share these things.”

While he knows he is making a difference, Rodríguez wishes he could do more.

“Sometimes I feel sad because for every young person I help, there are three or four who have not understood that they destroy themselves. They don’t know what awaits them if they continue like this,” he said. “I want them to know that their past does not determine their future. I have also been in prison and I know that you can do things well.”


  • youth ministry
  • parishes

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