With a smile, quick wit Rocha preaches ‘Jesus is Lord’

Noe Rocha from St. William Parish in Round Rock presents his “Jesus is Lord” course, which he developed to help adults deepen their relationship with Christ and learn more about their faith. (Photo by Ricardo Gandara)

By Ricardo Gandara

Addressing three dozen people at St. Margaret Mary Parish in Cedar Park, Noe Rocha is talking with flailing arms. His body twists. His eyes open in amazement. He smiles.
“This is not a class; this is an encounter with Christ,” he said. People sit direct. He’s got their attention.
Rocha, 68, is selling the course, Jesus is Lord, which he developed through the Adult Faith Formation program at his home parish, St. William in Round Rock. Since 2010, more than 1,000 people have taken the popular 12-week class, which can be presented in English and Spanish.
Rocha’s effectiveness is clearly his delivery. Captivating, animated and colorful. “Right away, you know his allegiance is to Jesus,” said Renee Fokken, who went through the program and now serves an emcee at his classes. 
“His spiritual antennae goes straight to heaven and people notice that. It endears people to Noe,” she said.
He’s got a dry sense of humor. “I want you to know this isn’t about fulfilling requirements to the church,” he said. People nod and smile when he asks if anyone was forced to attend CCD classes at teens. “This is nothing like that,” he said. “You are here because you thirst for a relationship with the Lord. This is part of the development of being a Christian.” 
He specializes in the Kerygma, a Greek word meaning the initial proclamation of the Gospel message. “It’s the message a non-Christian would hear to become a Christian,” he said.
Rocha, a lay missionary, has been preaching for more than 35 years in 19 parishes across the U.S. and Mexico. His story of overcoming heroin addiction and selling drugs is engaging. He recounts it in class to illustrate that Jesus’ love is for everyone. 
“I was at the bottom of the barrel, even with liver malfunction, until I gave Jesus a chance,” he said. 
Growing up a “vato loco” (Spanish for a crazy guy) in Pharr in the Rio Grande Valley, Rocha was raised in a modest home, and his parents gave him a Catholic education. In his 20s, the drug scene ruled his life. It spun out of control. On the run from Houston drug dealers, Rocha returned home to Pharr in 1976. As fate would have it, St. Anne Parish was a block from his parents’ home. One night he walked to the church and rang the door bell. Father John O’Malley answered.
The conversation meandered before the priest recognized the desperate Rocha was searching for answers. 
“He walked around his desk and looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘I’m not going to say Jesus has all the answers. Jesus is the only answer.’ I had a mind of the streets, you know. They’re paying this guy to say that. He turned to me and said, ‘Noe, you probably think they pay me to say that.’ The hair stood up on my back,” Rocha said.
Father O’Malley invited Rocha to a prayer meeting that night. “He told me to sit by the door, and if I didn’t like it I could split. He was insistent to give Jesus a chance,’’ he said.
Rocha endured the meeting. During the Mass portion and the offering of peace, people hugged him. “After Mass, two ladies asked if they could pray for me. What? Turn down prayer? No way,” he said. That night, Nov. 11, 1976, was the beginning.”
Consequently, Rocha got clean with the help of his parents who rented a room to dry him out. The influential Father O’Malley prayed over him daily. Rocha flourished. By day, he worked for a school district as a tax appraiser. At night, he volunteered by telling his story at nearby parishes. He also tried the seminary for a year in 1980, but quickly learned that wasn’t his calling. A missionary trip to Utah changed his life. He met his future wife, Shirley. 
But feeling the need to get a job, he called Father O’Malley to pursue his love for serving people. The priest had no financial resources to hire a lay person, but he did have an opening for a custodian. Rocha jumped at the opportunity that eventually grew into much more. At night, he preached in the neighborhoods and held prayer group meetings. He married Shirley in November 1981. Eventually, the priest fired him as the janitor but hired him as a pastoral assistant for $119 weekly. 
Rocha found his calling. “Hey, if God could love a scum bag like me, I could look at anyone in the eye and attest that God loves them, too.” he said. 
He landed at St. William Parish in 2006 where he runs the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. His Jesus is Lord program, however, is where he impacts lives. 
Justin Valdez was “broken,” as he puts it. He was in and out of relationship, and drinking too much. In 2011, at 24 years old, “I didn’t have a purpose in life,” he said. Then his mother coaxed him to take Rocha’s class. He felt out of place, being the youngest person there. “But Noe said everything I was needing to hear. My life changed in ways I never thought possible. I stopped drinking. God brought an amazing woman into my life (wife Melissa),” he said.
Rocha is effective, Valdez said, because “he doesn’t sugar coat things. Being old school, he explains the faith in ways that are simple. If you don’t understand, he explains it another way. His gift? He knows how to reach people in the shadows,” he said.
Fokken calls his approach unique. “The genius of Noe is that he gets deep into Scripture but in a way a 7-year-old can understand,” she said.
To listen to Rocha talk is to assume he has more than a high school education. Not so. Always an ardent reader, he studies the Bible and is guided by the Holy Spirit.
“I just try to get people to fall in love with Jesus, and follow and obey him,” he said.