Hispanic Congregation Revives Historic Baptist Church in South Carolina

Peter Cohn
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Peter Cohn
July 28, 2014, 9:16 a.m.

Na­tion­al Journ­al re­cently vis­ited Green­ville and Spartan­burg to ex­plore the changes hap­pen­ing in up­state South Car­o­lina. In the com­ing weeks, Next Amer­ica will pub­lish a series of stor­ies about the people who are shap­ing this con­ver­sa­tion.

AR­CA­DIA, S.C.—When pas­tor Joey Bur­nett told pa­rish­ion­ers that he wanted to share First Baptist Church of Ar­ca­dia with a His­pan­ic con­greg­a­tion, he was sur­prised by their re­ac­tion.

“Every­one seemed open to the idea, and this is a very tra­di­tion­al church,” he said, adding that only two people left the church be­cause of the de­cision.

In the past dec­ade, Ar­ca­dia has moved from be­ing a mostly white, middle-class town to a lower-in­come His­pan­ic com­munity. The Baptist church first opened here in 1904 to serve the fam­il­ies who worked at the nearby cot­ton mills. The con­greg­a­tion grew to more than 300 mem­bers be­fore the mills went bank­rupt in 2001. Now most of the brick mill build­ings sit aban­doned and crum­bling, and the church has seen its mem­ber­ship de­cline.

At the same time, His­pan­ic im­mig­rants have moved in­to the area, drawn to Ar­ca­dia’s af­ford­able homes and its prox­im­ity to a cluster of factor­ies that popped up near In­ter­state 85. Nearly half of the com­munity is now His­pan­ic, and Ar­ca­dia Ele­ment­ary school has the largest per­cent­age of His­pan­ic stu­dents in the state—68 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment. The neigh­bor­hood across from the church is nick­named “Little Mex­ico.”

Bur­nett and his wife, Shan­non, had been try­ing to min­is­ter to the His­pan­ic com­munity for years without much suc­cess. They star­ted the Good News Club, a weekly after-school pro­gram where chil­dren learn about the Gos­pel. The chil­dren speak Eng­lish well, but the Bur­netts struggle to com­mu­nic­ate with their Span­ish-speak­ing par­ents. “They are dif­fer­ent worlds and we are try­ing to bridge the gap,” Shan­non Bur­nett says.

When Bur­nett learned that a His­pan­ic Baptist church was look­ing for a new home, he saw two op­por­tun­it­ies. Most im­port­antly, the Span­ish ser­vices would ful­fill his goal to spread the Gos­pel to Ar­ca­dia’s Span­ish-speak­ing im­mig­rants. And the $3,000 rent would help off­set the fin­an­cial bur­den of their shrink­ing mem­ber­ship.

The His­pan­ic church, Ig­lesia Bautista Ren­acer (“Re­birth Baptist Church”), was out­grow­ing the space where it held its ser­vices near Spartan­burg. With 140 adults and their fam­il­ies, it had grown in­to the largest His­pan­ic Baptist church in South Car­o­lina. The pas­tor, Guillermo Laurent, wanted to move to a loc­a­tion where the con­greg­a­tion could reach more Lati­nos.

So in March 2012, First Baptist Church of Ar­ca­dia opened its sanc­tu­ary to Ren­acer with a bi­lin­gual ser­vice in­tro­du­cing both con­greg­a­tions. A month later, Ren­acer hos­ted the first an­nu­al Spartan­burg His­pan­ic Fest­iv­al, at­tract­ing nearly 2,000 people to the his­tor­ic church.

Phoebe Dav­is says she en­joys shar­ing the sanc­tu­ary where she has wor­shipped since the 1970s. The 79-year-old or­gan­ist has seen the com­munity change, and be­lieves it’s im­port­ant for the church to change too. “We hope [Ren­acer] can reach their com­munity, where­as we can’t be­cause a lot of them don’t speak Eng­lish,” she said.

To ac­com­mod­ate their new guests, Bur­nett moved his Sunday ser­vice to 9 a.m. so Ren­acer can have the sanc­tu­ary at 11 a.m. That makes more sense, he says, be­cause the His­pan­ic con­greg­a­tion is lar­ger and grow­ing. “I think one day this church will be­long to them,” he said.

Laurent wishes more Baptist lead­ers would em­brace the im­mig­rant com­munity the way Bur­nett does. Un­for­tu­nately, he says, that men­tal­ity is un­com­mon. Most people still view his con­greg­a­tion of con­struc­tion work­ers, roof­ers, and land­scapers as second-class cit­izens, he says. “It’s like a caste sys­tem,” says Laurent, who moved to Spartan­burg in 2009 from Costa Rica. “People are po­lite, but you get this feel­ing that they think you are be­neath them.”

He re­calls the time a pas­tor from an­oth­er church sent him a let­ter, telling him not to dis­cuss im­mig­ra­tion re­form with his pa­rish­ion­ers. An­oth­er pas­tor told him that Spartan­burg’s His­pan­ic churches were just pre­par­ing im­mig­rants to re­turn home.

It drives Laurent crazy when people say un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants should get “in line” to enter the coun­try leg­ally. That sys­tem is broken, he says, point­ing to his own situ­ation. The 46-year-old pas­tor has been sep­ar­ated from his wife and son for five years. He came to Spartan­burg in 2009 on a re­li­gious-work­er visa to take the job as pas­tor of Ren­acer, which needed a new min­is­ter. Be­fore then, he had been preach­ing for 10 years at a church in Costa Rica and stud­ied at a sem­in­ary school in North Car­o­lina, where his two daugh­ters were born.

Laurent moved to South Car­o­lina with the un­der­stand­ing that his wife, son, and two daugh­ters would quickly fol­low. But only his daugh­ters came, be­cause they were Amer­ic­an cit­izens. The U.S. Con­su­late in San Jose denied visas to his wife and son, even though U.S. Cit­izen­ship and Im­mig­ra­tion Ser­vices had ap­proved a visa for him and his de­pend­ents. Con­su­late of­fi­cials nev­er gave Laurent’s wife, Vanessa, a reas­on for the deni­al.

The of­fice of then-Sen. Jim De­Mint got in­volved, send­ing let­ters to the State De­part­ment to find out why con­su­lar of­fi­cials in Costa Rica denied the visa. First, they said it was be­cause the church Ren­acer doesn’t ex­ist, and that it was just a visa scheme. When that was cleared up, the con­su­late denied Vanessa’s ap­plic­a­tion a second time. They said the fam­ily didn’t have prop­erty in Costa Rica, a sign that they might not re­turn home when the visa ex­pired. Laurent poin­ted out that the re­quire­ment doesn’t ap­ply to re­li­gious visas.

The third time Vanessa re­turned to the con­su­late, her visa was denied again. This time, it was be­cause she had over­stayed a tour­ist visa more than 10 years ago. The max­im­um pen­alty for over­stay­ing a tour­ist visa is a 10-year-ban from re­turn­ing to the United States, and 10 years had already passed. “I have tried to do everything right, and I’ve ended up fa­cing a wall of bur­eau­crat­ic red tape and ri­dicu­lous policies. They just ar­bit­rar­ily sep­ar­ate fam­il­ies,” says Laurent, who of­ten suf­fers bouts of de­pres­sion.

Laurent’s at­tor­ney ad­vised him against trav­el­ing to Costa Rica even to vis­it his wife, as it would be seen as a sign that he wasn’t ser­i­ous about stay­ing in the United States. So their re­la­tion­ship has sur­vived via Skype and sleep­less nights. Laurent has packed his suit­case count­less times, un­able to bear an­oth­er day apart. Then his wife re­minds him why he’s in South Car­o­lina. “This is my call­ing,” Laurent says. “God wants me to min­is­ter to this com­munity. Why do I have to choose between God and my fam­ily?”

A few months ago, Laurent got a green card, and he and his two daugh­ters traveled to Costa Rica for the first time in five years. He hopes his per­man­ent res­id­ent status will make it easi­er to bring the rest of his fam­ily over. His wife’s next ap­point­ment at the con­su­late is for Aug. 7.

Laurent won­ders if his battles with the im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem re­flect an in­sti­tu­tion­al dis­crim­in­a­tion to­ward im­mig­rants from Lat­in Amer­ica. “I don’t think it’s so hard for someone from Eng­land or France to come here,” he said.

At a re­cent Wed­nes­day-night ser­vice in the A-frame church sanc­tu­ary, Laurent tells his pa­rish­ion­ers to pray for the pres­id­ent and mem­bers of Con­gress, so they will fight for justice, not in­justice. God loves every­one equally, he tells them, wheth­er “white, black, yel­low, or purple.” “That’s why we were in­vited to be part of this church,” he says. “To show that there is no dif­fer­ence between us.”

COR­REC­TION: A pre­vi­ous ver­sion of this art­icle misid­en­ti­fied the mem­ber of Con­gress who sent let­ters to the State De­part­ment on be­half of Guillermo Laurent. It was Sen. Jim De­Mint.

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