Pastor Victor Rodriguez’s church has a boxing ring in the basement and holds regular gang tattoo-removal sessions.
He understood that a thriving church needs to do more than hold worship services. “Everyone wants to save the world,” he’d say. “But no one wants to do the dishes.”
“Pastor Vic,” who spent 20 years as a pastor at La Villita Community Church at 23rd and Millard, died Monday at 52 of complications from internal bleeding at Mount Sinai Hospital, said his son, also named Victor.
His church organized English classes, job counseling, college-survival conferences, literacy fairs and fundraisers to combat domestic violence. He created a sense of community with chili cook-offs, salsa and line-dancing lessons, talent shows, carnivals and laser-tag tournaments.
The Chicago Golden Gloves organization praised him for giving a permanent home to the Chicago Youth Boxing Club, saying he “opened his arms and doors to La Villita Community Church.”
The pastor explained his thinking, once telling the Chicago Sun-Times he aimed to create a haven that “saves lives.”
Church board member Sylvia Del Raso remembers how he’d say, “You have these kids here training, they’re not on the streets.”
“He was like a father to me,” said George Perez, 17, who goes to Farragut Career Academy, was a 2018 Golden Gloves Junior Open Division champion and is ranked fourth in the country by USA Boxing for his age and weight class. “He told me to stay in school.”
The pastor “kept the peace,” organizing summertime softball and basketball tournaments, said Perez, who hopes one day to compete in the Olympics. “He prayed before the games. Before a fight, we always pray.”
Pastor Rodriguez forged friendships among leaders in Hispanic South Lawndale and pastors and ministers in African-American North Lawndale, said Sgt. Alfonso Lara, an Ogden District community policing officer.
“He was a spiritual leader, a mentor, not just to youth,” Lara said. “Whether it was hosting an event or a prayer vigil, he was there. He wanted to make a difference.”
“Pastor Vic turned gang members into peace ambassadors,” said U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Illinois. “The programs he started at his church broke barriers between Latinos, African-Americans and white youth. His church became a place of hope that changed lives.”
“He was a first-responder when things were hot,” said Del Raso. And he grieved over young lives lost to gang violence. “He kept a count,” she said. “Last year alone, he did around 13 funerals.”
The World Boxing Council, based in Mexico City, said: “Victor identified serious problems of violence in his community. He decided to do something about it and flung those doors wide open by creating the Chicago Youth Boxing Club.”
“He loved hanging out with the kids,” said Fernando Macias, a coach with the Chicago club. “He thought the kids were like superstars. But the kids thought the pastor was a celebrity.”
Born in Nuevo Ideal in the Mexican state of Durango, young Victor moved to Chicago with his immigrant parents when he was around 9, Del Raso said. He went to Whitney grade school and Farragut.
“My dad was very proud to be Mexican and very proud to be from Little Village,” his son said. “Since he was 9, he never lived in another neighborhood.”
Getting used to the city was hard at first. In Mexico, “He thought they were rich because they lived on a farm,” Del Raso said. “They needed milk, they went to the cows. You wanted eggs, you went to the chickens.”
His father left when he was about 15, his son said. His mother Juanita worked as a housekeeper and at a meat-packing company, striving to keep her children busy. Victor became active in a church youth group, running a food pantry and radio station. He graduated from Christian Life College in Mount Prospect, his family said.
He met Magdalena, his wife of 27 years, when she walked in to a nearby church. “When he saw her,” their son said, “he turned to his best friend and said, ‘That’s my wife.’ ”
He loved the White Sox. And he was a fan of Sean Connery’s “What are you prepared to do?” speech in “The Untouchables,” in which the actor’s cop character asks how far Eliot Ness is willing to go to battle evil and Al Capone. When his church contemplated a new initiative, Del Raso said, the pastor would ask members, “What are you prepared to do?”
In addition to his wife and son Victor, he is survived by his son Isaiah, mother Juanita Rodriguez, brother Juan Carlos Demecq and sisters Roxana Gonzalez and Suzana Arambula.
A viewing is being held from 2 to 7 p.m. Friday at La Villita church, 2300 S. Millard, with a service there to follow from 7 to 9 p.m. A celebration of his life is planned during church services at 10 a.m. Sunday.
Victor Rodriguez said he will always remember his father saying this: “Love God. Love people. Nothing else matters.”