The 18-year-old Norwalk girl met Howard, who is in his 50s or 60s, while members of The Foundation Church were engaging with people in an area of Philadelphia nicknamed “Needle Park.” The nickname comes from the amount of people abusing heroin there.
“I get emotional when I talk about it,” Rodruiguez said as her eyes welled with tears.
The Norwalk High School student collected herself before she shared about her experience with Howard, whose wife had died when he was in prison.
“He was clean for three days — off heroin — which was a big deal,” Rodruiguez said. “He had a lot of resentment. He was able to sort out some things. He was able to keep his heart open.”
The June 25 through July 1 mission trip to the West Kensington portion of Philadelphia was Rodruiguez’s second such experience. The teenager had been to New York City in June 2015 with The Foundation Church. She said she wasn’t prepared to talk to people in New York, but now she felt “bold.”
In Philadelphia, Rodruiguez expected to have an impact on others — not the other way around.
“I think he (Howard) made a big change in my heart because I got to see how God can work with people,” Rodruiguez said. “I hope whenever he loses his hope he knows where he can go.”
Pastor Jeff Watson said on the church’s mission trips “it’s amazing to see how often people pour out their hearts to us.”
Fourteen people from the Norwalk area — ranging in ages from 17 through 56 — went on the mission trip.
The Foundation Church partnered with the Center for Short Term Missions and its host church, Bethel Temple, located in West Kensington. The group spent their days cleaning up the neighborhood, putting on a day camp, distributing care packages, praying with and for people and handing out lunches to the homeless.
Watson talked briefly about the nearby area known as “the Badlands.”
“It’s the ghetto part of Philly,” the pastor said. “There’s a lot of crime and drug addiction there.”
Church members witnessed people openly shooting up heroin or making drug transactions within feet of where they ministered with people. Local church officials had warned them to be aware of their surroundings at all times.
Mya Ray, 17, who was on her first mission trip, said it was an eye-opening experience to witness people being so controlled by drug abuse.
She recalled speaking to a “fidgety girl” wearing clothes she likely wore all week. Upon being asked if she needed prayers, she told church members to pray for her life overall.
“She looked so sad. She looked so frail,” said Ray, who wants to be a medical missionary.
Just after praying with and for the girl, Ray saw her make a drug deal.
“Literally right after,” she said. “It was crazy.”
Veteran Bryan Brown went on the trip with his two daughters, Brittney Lesch and Shelbi Brown.
The 56-year-old man recalled seeing many people who had little hope or were in despair.
“As a 30-year retired veteran, I’ve been in some rough places. It took me back a bit,” the 56-year-old man said.
Brown encountered a young man who planned to commit suicide. As a first sergeant in the Army, Brown said he knows the first-hand impact of suicide with the loss of several soldiers who served under him. The older man shared with the young man the military philosophy of never leaving your wing-man.
“He said to me, ‘I like that idea,’” Brown said.