(The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference in a January 2013 service in Atlanta. He is on a 40-day fast for immigration reform (AP Photo/David Goldman))

Evangelical pastor continues 40-day immigration fast as House set to leave

House Speaker John Boehner plans to close for business Friday, the same day the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez hits his 40th day of a fast for immigration reform.

Other activists who staged a 21½ day  fast on the National Mall ended it last Tuesday, their bodies having taken all that a physician said they could for their cause.

But Rodriguez, chairman of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference,  keeps on toward 40 days and nights without solid food, following biblical gospel teachings of a similar fast by Jesus Christ.

Drinking sparkling water – sparkling so the carbonation gives him a feeling of fullness –  and occasionally sipping some broth, he has winnowed his frame by about 15-20 pounds since beginning the fast Nov. 4.

He has fought fevers, an upper respiratory infection, an extremely low white blood cell count and severe bronchitis, all while trying to maintain a hectic travel schedule, much to his wife’s chagrin, he said.

With all the pain and no relenting by Boehner, why bother?

“We . . . have this crazy idea that God actually listens to our prayers, that God has been in the midst of this exercise,” Rodriguez told NBC Latino in a phone interview.

As a pastor, Rodriguez heads a Sacramento, Calif.-based church of 1,300. But as chairman of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, he oversees 40,118 evangelical congregations across the country  – a population that makes a good starting point for the GOP Latino outreach.

Those conservative creds have meant open doors among some Republicans. He met Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas for a half hour, he said. He also met with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, both Virginia Republicans. He hasn’t shied from those taking tough stands on immigration, such as Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. and Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Texas.

“We are trying to have a conversation with those who have opposed” an immigration vote, he said, “and we are trying to frame the narrative of the urgency of now.”

Boehner has said he is committed to immigration reform and that it needs to be addressed, but he hasn’t agreed with the “now” part of  Rodriguez’s narrative. He has repeatedly said the House wants to move step-by-step through the drafting of immigration legislation and has let those steps take all year. He recently added an immigration policy expert to his staff that has led some to believe that he may be ready to move on immigration next year.

“I am convinced Speaker Boehner wants to pass immigration reform,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez calls himself an independent Christian. He stands for what he calls The Lamb’s Agenda, the title of his book in which he describes Christianity as a combination of social justice and spiritual righteousness, of obedience to God and service to others. With those beliefs, he has waded into other issues fraught with politics, such as gay marriage and the debate over the health care law mandate that employers provide coverage for emergency contraceptives.

As the days without food and no legislative action mount, he remains steadfast in his belief his fast is a worthy undertaking. He is sure pressure is building because of the thousands he said are  responding to his fast. He is getting calls and emails from people who previously were not committed to the issue, but now are saying, “I get it. I get it and I’ll be joining your fast,” he said.

His strongest motivation to keep going despite the illnesses and the tiredness: the people in his church who come to him and say, “My wife was picked up this morning,” he said.

“There are 11 million people here right now that require intervention,” Rodriguez said. “We looked the other way when they came in. We used them on our farms. We used them in our hotels and we used them in our restaurants and then we have the audacity, when the economy sinks, to deport them.”

The deportations keep going, regardless of policies out of the White House that defer deportations of young immigrants in the country illegally or that made criminals the priority in deportations. “I am a pastor, I experience this every single week,” he said.

He had harsh words for GOP leaders if, as some have speculated, their plan is to wait until March for an immigration vote, when most state’s primary filing deadlines will have passed, so Republicans will know who they face in 2014 elections and whether a vote for immigration reform will hurt their re-election chances.

“It’s morally reprehensible to play politics with 11 million people. It is lacking courage,” Rodriguez said.

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