The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus


Faith for the dangerous minded

Nu-life Center offers a second chance

The beat is loud, the pants are baggy and the rapping provokes hand waving and head bobbing among the crowd of teenagers. The quick lyrics are punctured by shouts of “Hallelujah” and “Praise the Lord,” and there is no hint of four-letter words.

This is an anti-crime rally and Christ is the answer. The Sept. 15 rally in Pleasant Oaks was held outdoors at the Pleasant Oaks Recreation Center and planned in part by Irma ‘Cookie’ Rodriguez.

Rodriguez stands in the midst of the rappers waiting to go on stage, at home in the hip-hop atmosphere. Her tiny frame forces young men in long basketball jerseys and backward baseball caps to bend down to ask a question or receive a hug.

In this dichotomy of street life and Christian faith, Rodriguez has found her path in life. The founder of Nu-Life D-Boy Outreach Center in Garland, she has spent her life ministering to her “kids,” a collection of gang members and juvenile delinquents.

“If they find a purpose, even if it’s temporary, then you’ve made a difference in their lives,” said Jill DeTemple, an assistant professor of religious studies at SMU. “People are finding a space here, even if it’s just getting out of juvie for a night.”

The center first opened as Street Church Academy in 1983 in an empty Presbyterian church in East Dallas. The ministry later moved to Lawnview Avenue and was eventually renamed the D-Boy Community Center after her son Danny.

Financial struggles in 1996 led Rodriguez to apply for a state counseling license. The license allowed her to bill Medicaid and insurance for teen counseling services. Trouble arose in 2000 when Rodriguez was sentenced to two years in federal prison and three years probation for fraudulently billing $1.9 million in Medicaid payments.

Rodriguez served her sentence and returned to Dallas. The center reopened in 2006 under its current name, Nu-Life D-Boy Outreach Center. It is now located on Beltline Road. in Garland.

“Those kids in the streets; they like break dancing, they like rap and they like graffiti. So we had to use all three things,” Rodriguez said in an interview.

Students from around Dallas gather each Friday night for Street Church, a combination of basketball, pizza and biblical teaching. Former gang members and Christian rappers regularly attend and help present messages of faith. Students are brought in from the Texas Youth Commission’s half-way house and Youth Village, a local reformatory for boys.

Street Church arose out of Rodriguez’s trips to West Dallas, where she says some of the worst violence was occurring in the 1980s. Her son Danny would break dance in the streets, she said, gathering a crowd and giving her an opportunity to form relationships with the teenagers. The street conversations turned into weekly Bible studies at her home in Garland. Eventually they led to the formation of the academy in East Dallas.

Rodriguez found her work in the projects of West Dallas reminiscent of her own adolescence in New York City. Born in Puerto Rico, Rodriguez was raised by her grandmother. They moved to Brooklyn in 1953, and at 14 she was using drugs and had dropped out of school. Addiction, prostitution and life on the streets quickly earned her the nickname “Crazy Cookie.”

“I used to hate mornings, because for a drug addict it’s the worst part of the day. You like nights because you can commit all of your crimes,” she said. “The life of a person out there, a gang member, a drug addict, is not a life. It’s the most miserable, lonely life.”

A victim of rape, Rodriguez was making plans to finish off her assaulter once he was discharged from the hospital. Instead, the man was visited by Christians who brought him the Gospel and he converted. He begged the same urban missionaries to find Cookie and share the message with the woman he had raped.

They found Rodriguez and she, too, came to call herself a Christian. Life after conversion brought her marriage, children and a desire to minister to those in whom she saw her former self. The opportunity to write an autobiography for the International Prison Ministry brought Rodriguez and her family to Dallas in 1982.

Street Church arose out of her passion for ending gang violence, but its purpose gathered new strength on Oct. 6, 1990.

It was around 2 a.m. that morning when Danny “D-Boy” Rodriguez was killed in a drive-by shooting that remains a mystery. A self-proclaimed urban missionary, Danny partnered with his parents in ministry at Street Church. He also gained fame as a pioneer of Christian rap, leading the way for the genre to gain recognition and acceptance.

According to Rodriguez, Danny began rapping as a way to fit in at a school in Garland where being Puerto Rican was difficult. He frequently won hallway rap duels and began writing his own raps.

“I said to him, ‘Danny, you don’t need to be scoring on any of this ‘yo mama’ business, you’re going to do something positive,'” Rodriguez said.

Danny started to write Christian lyrics and traveled with his mother, rapping in churches and helping to raise financial support for their Street Church ministry. He wrote a rap for the academy’s class song and became its first graduate. The academy functioned as an alternative school where students could earn their GEDs and attend worship services.

“Danny hated the bling-bling culture of rappers. I couldn’t put him in a limo,” Rodriguez said. “I got all of the gang members; the good, the bad and the ugly, to carry his body to the cemetery.”

His death devastated Rodriguez and challenged her faith. She understands the grief of the students who come each Friday night, the overwhelming majority of whom have incarcerated parents and have faced the violence of the streets.

Her understanding propels her forward. It is what caused her to plan the rally held in Pleasant Oaks in September. Rodriguez gathered community advocates and organizations together for a morning of anti-violence raps and speeches.

Xsedus, a Christian rapper who frequents Street Church, performed at the rally and spoke about his own experience with gang life. Salvation came as he was on the verge of suicide. Now he is dedicated to reaching out to others using the culture of hip-hop and rap.

“Cookie and her ministry encourages the youth to use their gifts and talents, whatever they might be,” he said. “So they feel like they have a purpose.”

Purpose is not the only thing Street Church gives its attendees. Eighteen-year-old Jesse Gibson called it a place of respect, where people ask how you are feeling and it’s safe to share one’s experiences. Tyesha Finley, a 13 year old who regularly attends, said the raps songs were her favorite part because they discussed positive things, instead of the negative themes of typical rap songs.

“She has certainly touched people, there is no question of that,” DeTemple said.

Rodriguez knows first-hand the dangers of a culture that promotes violence, gangs and drugs. It is her life and ministry’s desire to provide youth with alternatives that don’t force them to leave their nontraditional interests behind. Christian rapping, graffiti and dancing have become one way she can spread love instead of hate. Rodriguez wishes only that more people would recognize the need for such ministries.

“Everyone always talks about sending more money to Africa. Go to the ghettos of the United States. There is plenty of Africa there,” Rodriguez said. “Raise money for Africa, raise money for Latin America. Raise money for your backyard, your own backyard!”

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