Sunday, December 29, 2013

Eli Hernandez, Track Chaplain

First-year Tampa Bay Downs Chaplain Eli Hernandez grew up in a dangerous, gang-riddled area of Los Angeles, but his parents’ emphasis on leading a Christian life – his father was a church elder and his mother was a church secretary – kept him from yielding to the streets. At 9, he surrendered his life to serving Jesus Christ, and his passion for helping others continued to grow. Walking to school as a teenager, he saw dozens of homeless people sleeping under a nearby bridge. Concerned for their plight, he began dropping off sandwiches he prepared at home each morning. “There were a lot of distractions where I grew up, and as a teenager I kind of went sour,” he recalls. “But I always came back to my roots, and that was God.” Married for 25 years to Martha, Hernandez was ordained in 2000 by the Fruit of the Spirit Church. He was a minister at the New Living Way Church in Downey, Calif., and a senior claims adjuster for an insurance agency when he learned of the opportunity to join the Tampa Bay Downs Division of the Race Track Chaplaincy of America. Pastor Eli talks about his family, the decision to move cross-country and the community he serves at Tampa Bay Downs in this installment of the track’s “Racing In The Sunshine” blog.

 THE TOUGHEST OBSTACLE MANY OF THE BACKSTRETCH WORKERS FACE is being away from their families. They get up early in the morning, they work seven days a week and the living area is far from glamorous, but they do their jobs well and are willing to sacrifice to make life a little better for their loved ones. My hat goes off to them. They are the unsung heroes of the game, and they deserve all the recognition the media and public relations people can give them.

GROWING UP, MY BROTHER MANUEL TOOK ME TO SANTA ANITA and Hollywood Park, but all I saw was the glamorous part of the sport – the horses running, the jockeys riding and everyone jumping up and down when their horse won. I never thought about the backside of it. In fact, I never even knew there was a backside. Now that I am experiencing it firsthand, it’s amazing to me what goes on with the grooms and the hot walkers and the other employees. They are a big part of what makes the front so good.

MOVING CROSS-COUNTRY TO FLORIDA WAS A TREMENDOUS CHANGE for Martha and myself. Our daughter Jessica, her two children and our son Matthew, who is 18 and a high school senior, are still in Los Angeles, so the holidays were the toughest time. But Martha and myself and our kids believe God sent us here for a purpose. God has provided us the peace and comfort, and everyone here has accepted us with open arms, which has made it much easier for us. We feel we are developing a family here at the racetrack.

WE ALL AGREED IT WAS THE RIGHT MOVE FOR MATTHEW TO STAY at his school, but that was obviously one of the biggest decisions we have ever had to make as a family. We had never been apart from him. He’s a basketball player, and I went to all of his practices and his games and his functions. He is living now with his sister and her family. Some people said we were taking a step of faith, but it was definitely a leap of faith. But we knew in our hearts it was the right thing and we are getting through it.

MARTHA’S PASSION IS GREATER THAN MINE. She cares about people and loves people, and together we have that same goal to serve them, to help them and to reach out to those in need. If that means encouragement or if it means just sitting down and listening, we are blessed to do it. Martha is a great listener. If people ask us for advice we’ll give it, but sometimes they just want a listening ear.

THE GAMBLING ASPECT OF HORSE RACING DOESN’T BOTHER ME AT ALL. I see it as another opportunity for me to counsel someone if they are in need. Individuals are individuals, and we are all looking for a way to get ahead in life. I refuse to judge anybody or put anybody down. We are not here for that. We are here to lift up and encourage. I would just hope that if they make a big win, they give some to the chaplaincy. When my brother Manuel took me, I always bet on the gray horse. I don’t do any more betting, but I always cheer for the grays because they are so beautiful.

HERE AT THE TRACK, MY MISSION IS TO SERVE in any way I can. That might mean providing clothing or tracking down telephone numbers or just being an encouragement. The big thing is just making myself available to whatever someone’s needs are. We have non-denominational church services every Monday at 6 p.m., English classes on Mondays and Tuesdays at 2 p.m., and Bible study on Thursday at 2 p.m. I am also planning to start an Alcoholic’s Anonymous class through the Chaplain’s office if there are people willing to be committed to it.

SUBSTANCE ABUSE IS AN ISSUE WE DEAL WITH in all segments of society, not just on the racetrack. But the nature of the job, in which many employees have a lot of free time after training hours, can make things worse. I am certified and licensed as a drug and alcohol counselor, but I don’t have all the answers. But I’m looking forward to helping those people who want help and are willing to take that step to get it.

I SEE A BIG OPPORTUNITY HERE. I’ve spoken to grooms and hot walkers, jockeys, trainers and owners, and there is so much opportunity here for me to serve people. There are so many here on the track who have needs and are hurting or seeking guidance, and this environment brings everybody together regardless of what state or country or background they are from. Striving to work together in unity and harmony – what an opportunity that is for all of us. We can wake up every morning, help and encourage each other and look up at the end of the day and say “Thank you, God, for another day you have given us to work together as a team.”

IN THE SHORT TIME MARTHA AND I HAVE BEEN HERE, I believe we have proven to people they can trust us. Already, we’ve had so many open up their hearts, and we’ve been able to pray with them and point them in the right direction when they need help. We want people to know we are here for them and we care about them. My door is always open and my phone is always on. We feel comfortable here and are confident we’re in the right place.

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