Sometime this spring, when the weather gets warm, the members of Loves Creek Hispanic Baptist Mission will travel on foot to their new church on the outskirts of Siler City. They will gather downtown–these immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, Honduras and Colombia–at Tienda Gabriel, a former lunch-counter drugstore that now sells Latin CDs, dried peppers, tamarind concentrate, and corn husks for tamales. From there, they’ll begin a miniature journey northward.
They’ll walk along the spine of this industrial town, past a storefront where a bilingual notary offers translation assistance. They’ll pass a shop called Joyería y Librería Lupita, which sells wedding-cake decorations alongside Spanish Bibles and Christian-music cassettes. They’ll shake tambourines and strum guitars as they leave the commercial business district and march past the Charles Craft textile mill, half of whose work force comes from Latin America. Arriving at a neighborhood of modest frame houses occupied by immigrant families like their own, they’ll knock on doors and urge their neighbors to join the procession. Together, they’ll lift their voices in alabanza, praise.Finally, the village streetscape will give way to Piedmont countryside, with rolling hills reminiscent of the pueblos the church members left behind. They’ll cross a railroad track, turn down a gravel driveway, and finish their trip at a brand-new vinyl-sided building with creamy walls and bright windows. As they take their seats, the sanctuary will fill with synthesizer and conga music. And the new Americans will rise to clap and sing, knowing that after escaping war, hurricanes and political repression, they have reached a destination where they can finally stop fleeing.
“We walked into this country with nothing,” says Ruth Tapia, the pastor’s wife. “We walked across the desert. We walked across the river. And now we’re finally walking home.”
If the new Hispanic migration to the Triangle has an epicenter, it would have to be Siler City. The largest town in Chatham County, it’s where the real-life Aunt Bee, Frances Bavier, retired in 1972 because it so much resembled her fictional Mayberry: a blue-collar village where tractors still commandeer the streets, where the AM radio station has an on-air swap meet, where mornings begin early at the poultry plants and textile mills that keep the local economy humming.
Until 10 years ago, when Aunt Bee died, Siler City was a study in chiaroscuro: black and white, with no colors in between. But then things started happening in faraway places–new legislation in Washington, anti-immigrant backlash in California, natural disasters in Latin America–that filled the town’s palette with shades of brown. An estimated 4,000 Hispanics have moved into Siler City over the past decade, almost doubling its population. By contrast, during the 1990 census, the federal government counted only 147 Hispanics among the town’s 4,808 residents.
The new residents have brought values that mirror those of their new community: They are agrarian, hard-working, religious, family-oriented. And they have fueled the town’s biggest economic boom since the railroad came through in the 1880s, helping the local poultry industry flourish while feeding spin-off businesses like mobile-home dealerships. For most, the job opportunities Siler City offers are astounding compared with the scarce, subsistence-wage work available in the immigrants’ home countries.
But at the same time, they have faced social isolation, living in a community that’s unaccustomed to outsiders and wary of people who don’t speak English as their first language. With this isolation has come the challenge of building a home, re-creating the institutions left behind–and doing it against the backdrop of conservative North Carolina.
On U.S. 64, amid strip malls and fast-food restaurants, sits Loves Creek Baptist Church, a 175-year-old white congregation that shares its simple brick building with a Hispanic mission of the same name. Here, during the Saturday night Spanish-language service, children roll under the pews, run up and down the aisles, spin around in tiny Nike sandals. They draw, sleep, make paper airplanes out of bulletins. Babies bounce on the laps of parents, cousins, friends.
Latin American music fills the sanctuary. Men in khakis and women in dresses rise to their feet, clapping to rhythms borrowed from salsa, tropical music and the black-inspired cumbia. They bow their heads to slow hymns modeled after the romantic ballads called boleros. For an hour and a half, the music barely stops. During the bienvenida, the welcome, everyone moves around the sanctuary, shaking hands with as many others as possible, while guitarists and drummers play a lively greeting song. The music continues during the ofrenda, as first the children, then the adults, parade down the aisle to put $5 and $10 bills into mustard-colored collection plates. A conga player keeps the rhythm, looking skyward.
All this is a prelude to the main event: a 45-minute sermon by the Rev. Israel Tapia. “We have hope,” he preaches, eyes widening, arms reaching out as if to hand his message to the parishioners. “God is with us. The morning star, the brilliant star, is shining. He has given us a vision. He’s going to reveal great things to us.”
The sermon ends with an altar call–an invitation to anyone who needs special prayer. As Tapia welcomes his flock forward, one of the musicians picks up a guitar and starts playing softly over the pastor’s words. Those who come forward are touched on the shoulders and prayed over. The ones who stay behind rest their heads on the pews in front of them, as the guitar’s reverberations make their way to the back of the church. The vibrations enter through the forehead, then work their way down to the teeth, the chest, the arms. Finally, they reach the toes, filling the whole body: spirit made flesh.
Loves Creek is one of at least nine Spanish-speaking congregations in Siler City. It’s not the most prominent: That distinction belongs to St. Julia’s Catholic Church, which holds both English and Spanish Masses. But it’s part of a growing number of Hispanic Protestant churches, not just in the United States but throughout Latin America, where millions are abandoning Catholicism. Besides the Baptists, Siler City has Hispanic Methodists, Presbyterians, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists, along with several strains of Pentecostals.
The Baptist congregation came together about 10 years ago, when a handful of the first immigrants began gathering for Sunday school. As Siler City’s Hispanic population grew, so did church attendance, until the members decided to become a mission of the white-run church where they met. As a mission, the congregation gets both advice and financial support from its host, along with official use of Loves Creek’s facilities until the new church is ready.
The mission was officially organized in 1995. That same year, the parishioners set out to find their first ordained minister. They found him preaching to migrant workers in the tobacco fields of Eastern North Carolina.
Israel Tapia is a 38-year-old Mexican immigrant whose sheer physical presence dwarfs everything that comes near his body. Keyboards and guitars turn into children’s instruments at his fingertips. Neckties reach the middle of his torso. In a Hispanic congregation, where both men and women tend to be small, he is a giant, like the shepherd must appear when the sheep look up.
The Spanish word for shepherd is pastor, and Loves Creek’s pastor tends his flock 24-7. He takes parishioners to the doctor and lets them sleep at his house when they’re homeless or in trouble; he helps them get their driver’s licenses and immigration documents. He’s not a public figure in Siler City, not the type who attends every Board of Commissioners meeting, but when it comes to his members, there’s little he won’t do.
“When my youngest child was born,” recalls Jose Franco, one of the mission’s guitarists, “as soon as I called him, he got up in the middle of the night and went to the hospital, in case I needed anything. Thank God everything turned out well. When I got to the hospital, the pastor was already there. He went to the room where my wife was, and he made himself available for whatever she might need.”
The pastor–everyone but his wife calls him “the pastor”–sees this daily shepherding as his central calling. “We’re not just talking about religious blah blah blah,” he says. “We have to show love.”
That dedication to practical pastoring stems from Tapia’s childhood, growing up as a preacher’s kid in the remote Mexican mountains. His father was the product of a generational chain of alcoholism, illness and early death: Tapia’s grandfather died at 48; an uncle perished in a drunk-driving accident while celebrating his 18th birthday. But Tapia’s father, a migrant worker who left home at 13 to work the onion fields across the U.S. border, eventually found a different route.
“He used to live in a junk automobile,” the pastor says. “Every weekend he would get drunk, spend his money on music and women.” One day, when Tapia’s father was 20, “he was walking on the streets of Monterrey, hungry and sick. He went to a Catholic church and asked for food. The priest didn’t have anything. He kept walking, and at midnight he saw a Bible verse on a church that touched his heart. It said, ‘Let the wicked man forsake his way … and let him return unto the Lord … for He will abundantly pardon.’ On his knees, he cried out for forgiveness. From then on, my father was a new man.
“When the Lord saved him,” Tapia says, “he wanted to serve so much.” His father entered the seminary, and while there, “he saw a picture of a preacher in a wheelbarrow being carried in the mountains, a Tarahumara Indian in Chihuahua. He’d travel long distances on that wheelbarrow because he didn’t have feet. Later on, the churches bought a donkey so he could travel on donkey. My father, he was so moved that a man without feet could do so much that he told the Lord, ‘You called me.’ Eventually he uprooted his family, which by then included 5-month-old Israel, and took them to those same mountains.
When Tapia talks about his father, his bright eyes turn red and teary, and his voice cracks. “It’s so emotional for me,” he says. “I saw so much suffering of the Indian people: hunger, sickness. The Indian people–and we lived among them–lived in cabins. Dirt floors. The kitchen was in the corner with a chimney where we cooked. My father’s house was a hospital, a shelter, a recovery place.
“I remember Catalina, an Indian who was brought by her parents. She was 12 years old, dying of malnutrition. They carried her like a little baby, just bones and skin.” Catalina lived with the Tapia family for two years, making a slow recovery. “My father had to travel to the city from the mountains–it took about six hours to go over there in a truck on the hill roads–so she could get medication and medical treatment. Her brain developed. It was exciting when she started moving from one side of the house to the other on her knees. It was a miracle.”
Growing up, Tapia had a stutter so severe that other children made fun of him. Paralyzed when he tried to speak, he did the background work for team projects in school and let his classmates give the presentations. Still, at 14, he felt a call to the ministry while listening to a Baptist preacher urge youngsters to fill the country’s empty pulpits. “There was a crisis of a lack of pastoral care,” he remembers. “The Lord said the harvest is plenty and the laborers are few.” But with the speech impediment, “I thought, ‘There’s no use for me.’ I said to the Lord, ‘How can you use me when I’m not even able to speak? But if you can use me,’ I told the Lord, ‘I’m here.’”
From the moment Tapia felt the call, he knew it involved more than standing on a pulpit and preaching. From his father, he had learned that ministry involved both soul and skin: serving the needs of the flesh, but always with the motivation of the spirit. This became clearer in seminary, where he studied the ideas of Karl Barth, a Swiss theologian who was active in the anti-Nazi resistance. “His point of view is a revolt for young people,” the pastor says. “He challenges ministers to leave the spiritual realm, to come down the ivory tower and meet with the people. To some Christians, to be in politics is a sin. But we say, ‘Wait a minute. We are agents of transformation. We have to change society. We have to go to the root. We have to challenge the state of things.”‘
This philosophy–championing the poor and distrusting power–has put Tapia at odds with many of his colleagues, who have bought into the worldview of North America’s right-wing evangelicals. “The gringo missionaries brainwashed our pastors to submit to authorities,” he says. “Jerry Falwell lives only for his own interests, his own imperialism. Pat Robertson, when he was a candidate for president, wanted to close the borders. They don’t understand our suffering. We don’t want business with them.” Tapia does take a conservative line on issues like homosexuality and abortion, however, ascribing these views to his “Catholic influence from back generations.”
Not long after he finished seminary, Tapia applied, and was accepted, for a pulpit in Lockney, Texas, a Panhandle town of 2,200. He was no polished minister. “I remember opening the door and seeing him from the back and I said, ‘Oh, is that him? Is that the new preacher?’” says the former Ruth Blanco, a member of the Lockney congregation. “He was wearing a brown suit that fit him up to his ankles, like high waters, and his hair was all messed up. I said, ‘Is that the preacher they sent to come in?’
“Then he got up there, and he was so excited for the Lord. I remember all of us, the members were just looking at each other, and we had big ol’ smiles on our faces. And then he said, ‘Let’s sing,’ so he got up there on the piano and started playing and we got all happy, everybody got so happy, and then he would turn around and look at us with his big ol’ white teeth. Afterwards he preached about the family, and we were so happy, and he would say, ‘Well, I’m not married but if I were married, this is the way I would do it.’ I was thinking, ‘Wow, whoever marries him is going to be a lucky girl.’ ”
Not long afterward, Tapia and Blanco went on their first date, to feed the ducks at a local pond. Tapia, burnt before, told her up-front that he wanted a girlfriend who would commit to loving only him. She wanted the same in a boyfriend. They got married in June 1990, a year and a half after she first saw him preach. He was 28, she 30.
By the time they wed, the pastor was already hearing about the first wave of Latin American immigrants to North Carolina, particularly the agricultural counties east of the Triangle. “There were thousands of them, and no preachers,” he says. “They were so discriminated against, living in cultural shock, afraid of being caught by Immigration.” Tapia had already decided he wanted to minister to migrants, who reminded him of his father as a young man. After two years of prayer, the couple came east to accept a half-time pastorate in Wilson, 50 miles east of Raleigh.
Creating a home in North Carolina was hard, especially for Ruth. “I was used to the white folks’ accepting me, not looking at me with a big question mark: ‘Do you speak English?’” (She speaks fluently.) “When I came here I was all by myself. I had just gotten pregnant, and I stayed home. When I’d go to the grocery store, having these Anglo people look at me like, ‘Who are you?’, that made me feel real sad.”
But the Tapias persevered, branching out to start churches in other towns with large farmworker populations: Rocky Mount, Washington, Clinton, Greenville and Dunn. Tapia would minister in tobacco fields, and sometimes had to work a second job at a Mexican products warehouse. His parishioners’ suffering was familiar to him. “For me, it was something I knew how to deal with, coming from the mountains, the sierra, so I had a heart for it,” he says. “People living in very unhealthy conditions, promiscuous conditions, in trailers, with a lot of beer cans. There was some slave-owners’ behavior, paying them $1 an hour and taking the rest, lying that it was to pay taxes. So again I had to apply the Barth theology, speaking out to the farmers, the owners, telling them what the crew leaders were doing. It was a very risky thing, because they had pistols. They were violent men.” In Wilson, the pastor says the crew leaders closed their fields to him–but a van picked up the farmworkers at a nearby gas station and whisked them off to church.
Then came the call from Siler City, which needed a minister for its new Baptist mission. Tapia arrived to find two congregations–one white, one Hispanic–sharing the same building and trying to make sense of one another.
“At first, so many of the mission folks and our folks couldn’t communicate because of the language barrier,” says the Rev. Roy Helms, pastor of the sponsoring church. For a handful, too, there were more basic issues of skin color and cultural differences. “In any congregation, there are going to be some who are prejudiced, but that’s a small minority,” says Helms. “Our folks are thrilled to see people saved and become brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Getting people saved was precisely what Tapia set out to do.
Wilfredo Hernandez, a 36-year-old refugee from El Salvador’s civil war, is lugging around a video camera, pointing it at a succession of church members sitting on park benches. A Buddha-like man with a perpetual smile, he’s calling out a litany of Latin American place names as he pans from one face to another. “Un saludo para Chirilagua,” a greeting for Chirilagua, he says, facing a parishioner from that Salvadoran town. “Un saludo para Veracruz. Un saludo para Tránsito. Un saludo para Aguascalientes.”
It’s 7:30 on a cloudless Sunday morning in June, and Jordan Lake is still and clear. Today, four people will affirm their faith through total- immersion baptism, including Hernandez’s mother, sister and mother-in-law. They have come to the lake, namesake of the river where Christ himself was baptized, at the request of Hernandez’s mother, who wanted an experience more authentic than what she could find in the waters of the church baptistery. Says Tapia, “Here, in nature, is where God is.”
“We’re ready, hermanos,” the pastor announces. In Spanish, hermanos (the h is silent) means brothers and sisters. Hermano, and the feminine hermana, are used as titles for everyone in the mission. Hermano Wilfredo. Hermana Ruth. Hermano Jose Franco.
“There’s only one door to salvation. What is it?” the pastor asks.
“Jesus Christ,” the entire congregation responds.
“And the door to heaven, hermanos, is salvation. The baptism is not sacrament. The baptism is simply a symbol of obedience.”
The theology at Loves Creek is a joyful one, which is not true of all Hispanic evangelical churches. “Some preachers, the fundamentalists, they use every Sunday to preach hell and damnation,” Tapia says. “I don’t have to threaten people who have already been saved. They are ready to serve God by love, not by fear.”
Tapia removes his shoes and socks and wades into the warm waters of the Jordan. Wearing a white shirt, tie and khakis, he walks in up to his waist, followed by Hernandez, the mission’s worship minister, and the four baptism candidates. The congregation stands on the edge of the shore, watching silently.
The pastor turns to Hernandez’s mother-in-law, Maria Asención Gómez. She is an older woman with a slight build and fine brown hair, wearing a white blouse and a long purple-and-green skirt. “Baptize us in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” the pastor says, and then he asks the woman, “Have you accepted Christ as your personal savior?” When she says yes, she holds her nose as her son-in-law and her minister gently lower her straight down into the water.
There’s a split second of silence. Then a lone male voice on the shore calls out a single word:
A guitar starts playing, and everyone starts clapping, and the sounds of Spanish gospel fill the morning:
You have set me free,
You have set me free.
Broken are the chains that were tying my heart.
The voice that calls out “Libre,” prompting everyone to sing along, belongs to the smallest man in the congregation. Byron Barrera stands 5-feet-2 and weighs 115 pounds. He has high cheekbones and stick-out ears, a carefully trimmed chevron of a mustache, and a smile that says bienvenidos, welcome.
He’s at that point in a man’s life when the trappings of boyhood have not fully dropped away. For most of last year, Barrera’s bedroom was a veritable monument to Winnie-the-Pooh. He used to lead worship in a Pooh necktie; there is still a “Peep, peep, Pooh’s asleep” sticker on his bathroom mirror. Trolls, the little dolls with high fluorescent hair, line his bathtub. Model cars fill his living-room coffee table.
But at 25, after only five years in the United States, Barrera already owns his own home, a sparkly clean doublewide in a suburban-looking mobile-home park. He maintains a packed calendar: evangelism meetings Sunday, leadership training Monday, youth group Tuesday, and so on through the week. He’s forever managing other people’s crises, attending to a stream of people who come to his trailer for help and companionship.
He is the pastor’s disciple. “I have reproduced myself in him,” Tapia says. “With pride I say that. If I leave this church I know it is going to continue.” Indeed, Barrera seems capable of running the entire mission with little assistance. At Saturday night services, he often leads the songs of alabanza and introduces Tapia for the pastoral prayer. Barrera leads the youth group and the mission’s evangelism efforts. Every so often he preaches, in a calm pedagogic style that contrasts with Tapia’s charismatic intensity.
Like many immigrants, Barrera didn’t plan to come to the United States: He was content living in a two-room cinder-block house with his father and sister in Amatitlán, a resort town 30 minutes by bus from Guatemala’s capital. He was a security guard at a hospital for the blind and deaf, a position he relished. “I was a little vain,” he says. “I liked being recognized by the people, and for them to think I had an important job.”
But Barrera’s mother, who was separated from his father and lived in Southern California, had other plans for her son. She offered to pay his way to the States, and Barrera knew that if he didn’t come, he might find himself drafted to fight in his country’s 40-year-long civil war. The worst of the war’s carnage was over, he says, “but however much they said that now there was peace or tranquillity, the soldiers kept leaving to fight in the thickest forests, the places farthest from society.”
So in 1994, Barrera joined his mother in California, where he found work as a dishwasher, then as a busboy, at a restaurant called Coco’s. (He still has the T-shirt.) He loved the beauty of the West Coast. But his uncle, who already lived in Siler City, called him and promised there were more work opportunities here. Four months after arriving in the United States, Barrera came to North Carolina.
Within a week of his arrival, he was working at the Townsend chicken factory, one of the main sources of employment for Siler City’s new immigrants. From early morning until midafternoon, he would remove and cut wings, then debone the birds until there was nothing left but carcass. By American standards, it was repetitive, mind-numbing, potentially crippling work. But Barrera, eager to save money, had no complaints. “The work isn’t so hard because there’s a rotation system,” he says. “Each person works for a half-hour, then changes jobs, then changes again, in a circle. In this way, all the employees are content.”
After two years, he became a packer at Townsend. Then, last February, he was promoted to quality control. Rather than working the line, his new job entailed checking the temperature of the meat and the trucks, testing the accuracy of the scales and making sure the work areas were clean. His new responsibilities brought with them a pay raise, to $8.10 an hour.
Barrera’s first year and a half in Siler City was liberating. No longer under the watch of his conservative father, he could do whatever he wanted without fear of being scolded. Saturday nights, he and a cousin would go out to dances in Sanford or Greensboro. They’d guzzle light beers and dance until 1 in the morning. Sometimes Barrera would drive back drunk and speeding, and the police would stop him. “Even though my uncle would tell us we shouldn’t be doing this,” he says, “it’s not the same to mind your uncle as it is to mind your father.”
Meanwhile, a friend from work was lobbying Barrera to attend church with him. He kept promising to go, but it took a year before he actually set foot in Loves Creek. There, the hermanos treated him like a brother; the music exhilarated him; and the pastor took him under his wing. “I felt like there was a person helping me,” he says, “so I could learn how to direct myself and change my life.”
But even after he started attending, he kept resisting. “One of the arguments I made, or excuses, was that every Saturday night I went to the dance, and if I got involved with God, it couldn’t be like that,” he says. “Yet when the next Saturday night arrived, I didn’t want to do anything but go to church.”
One Friday night, recalls the pastor, “we were in the fellowship hall, and we were having a Bible study. Afterwards, I said, ‘If somebody wants to accept Jesus Christ, you can do it right now.’ And Byron said, ‘I want it.’”
Evangelical churches give members an opportunity to move up quickly in the leadership, something that appeals to many potential members. “If somebody converts, they can be a leader in a day,” says Hector Avalos, an associate professor of religious studies at Iowa State University.
Barrera soared. He accepted Christ July 5, 1996. Aug. 17, he was baptized. Aug. 20, he was named a counter of the weekly offerings. Nov. 13, he was named youth president. Dec. 31, he was named mission secretary. That same week, he convinced someone to accept Christ, and he won three more converts by winter’s end. “I was observing my own development,” he says. “I felt so happy to see that what was I was doing had borne fruit.”
So quickly has that development come that the hermanos can only attribute it to divine gift. Three years after his salvation, Barrera can quote the Scriptures chapter-and-verse and argue the finer points of Christian theology. “Jesus Christ changes lives,” Tapia says. When Barrera first came here, “he said, ‘I want to get as much money as I can to go and have a business in Guatemala.’ Well now, he says, ‘These people need me.’”
Barrera now hopes to attend a seminary in the United States and spend his life ministering to others. “My dream is to continue with God’s work, to keep helping the young people. That is my thought: to work as a trainer, or to be the one who starts new projects, and to reach people who don’t know the Lord. That’s what I would like. I feel like I’m working very hard here. I’m not just sitting around. I’m not here for nothing.”
On a rainy Sunday morning, Byron Barrera is leaning over an overhead projector in his trailer, wearing a plaid shirt and faded jeans. Eight casually dressed hermanos, including the pastor and Jose Franco the guitarist, sit in a semicircle as their teacher drills them on the talking points of eternal life.
“What do we want to say about heaven?” Barrera asks.
“Heaven is a gift,” someone replies.
“That’s right,” Barrera says. “We can’t win our place in heaven. We can’t earn it. We can’t buy it.”
Today the hermanos are boning up on the basic tenets of their faith, so they can go out and recruit new members. In doing so, they’re riding a tremendous wave, in both the United States and Latin America. Twenty-five years ago, 90 percent of American Hispanics identified as Catholics; now that figure has dropped to 70 percent.
The reasons are both spiritual and worldly. In the United States, some Hispanics see Catholic worship as void of real-life meaning: The priests are mostly white and the rituals lack a strong connection to Latin American culture. In places like Mexico, moreover, Catholicism is the de facto state religion, and some hermanos associate it with government repression and corruption. One Loves Creek member believes Latin American Catholics will perish in a “lake of fire” for practicing an “idolatrous” religion.
Taking advantage of this discontent, American Protestant missionaries have recruited in Latin America for decades, encouraging a worship style that embraces Latin American exuberance. Anthropologist David Stoll, author of the book Is Latin America Turning Protestant?, uses the term “disaster evangelism” to describe the churches’ modus operandi. “Drawn to wars and natural catastrophes, evangelists hand out food, set up medical clinics, help rebuild communities, and train leaders to start churches,” he writes. Stoll traces disaster evangelism back to a deadly earthquake in Guatemala in 1976 that “shook the confidence of survivors in their old ways. Helping them pick their way out of the rubble was the now familiar legion of evangelists.”
Loves Creek practices a disaster evangelism of its own, though the crises it responds to are usually personal. One weekend, a destitute mother came to Loves Creek, explaining that her husband had left her. The next Monday morning, Pastor Tapia drove to the nonprofit Family Resource Center and collared an employee there. “There’s a lady, she has four kids, and her little one is sick,” he told her. “I wanted to know if you had any food coupons.” Once the food was secured, he hunted down an Americorps volunteer and gave her the woman’s phone number, so the volunteer could schedule an appointment with a bilingual nurse.
The Loves Creek hermanos see experiences like these not just as chances to help their neighbors, but also as opportunities to spread the Gospel and increase their membership. Tapia acknowledges that growth is the major goal of the Baptist denomination’s evangelism efforts. “Numbers are what they want to see,” he says. But for the Loves Creek mission, he says, building relationships with potential converts is more important than force-feeding them theology.
“We want to make friends, not proselytize,” Tapia says. “It doesn’t matter if they go back to the Catholic Church or the Church of God. For us, it’s a success if we awaken in them a desire to have a relationship with Jesus Christ. Even if you don’t have everything economically, you can still be happy. The Gospel is a joy no one can take away from you.”
On this Sunday morning, in the doublewide trailer, the pastor and Barrera role-play as the other hermanos listen. The two pretend to meet by chance at a shopping center. Barrera is carrying a questionnaire that looks like an election ballot.
Barrera: “Good morning. I was hoping you could help us with five brief questions. It won’t take much time. Would you like to help? What local church do you attend?”
Tapia: “Sacred Heart of Jesus on Main Street.”
Barrera: “The Catholic church?”
Barrera: “How often do you attend church?”
Tapia: “Three or four times a year. Holy Week, Christmas, when someone dies in my family.”
Barrera: “If I may ask a question: Do you have an understanding that if you die today, you will go to heaven?”
Tapia: “Only God knows who goes to heaven.”
Barrera: “With this we complete the questionnaire. But if you have five minutes, I’d like to tell you how I gained the security that I’m going to heaven.” Continuing the fictitious exchange, Barrera explains that heaven is a gift for those who accept Christ. Tapia makes a profession of faith and receives a free Bible.
Reality often proves less cut-and-dried. This week, though, the hermanos think they have a shot at winning a couple of souls. A few days earlier, while washing their clothes in town, Byron Barrera’s aunt and uncle, Amabilia and Dorindo Interiano, met a woman whose 8-month-old child was sick and crying. The couple gave the woman and her baby a lift home from the launderette, and Amabilia asked permission to pray over the child. The youngster fell into a deep sleep, and later woke up healthy. At a subsequent service, Pastor Tapia preached, “God has opened a door for us. Now we can go and tell them that Jesus, who saved your child, gave up his blood for us.”
So after the role-playing, Tapia gets into a car with two of the other evangelism students, Dorindo Interiano and Jose Franco, and the three of them drive north out of town until they find themselves at a trailer on a flat rural road where the sky, now clearing, is almost western in its proportions. A stoop-shouldered young man with a bandanna holding back his long hair answers the door. His name is Noe. He’s the uncle of the sick child. He’s the only one home.
The four of them stand in the front yard, under a giant willow oak. The pastor starts chatting Noe up. “Can I talk to you for a minute? It won’t take long. … Do you like soccer? What’s your team? … I’m the pastor at Loves Creek, and my work is to teach the word of God. We’re a family. The doors to the church are open anytime.” The conversation turns to employment, and Noe mentions he has a temporary job but no driver’s license. The pastor says he can help the young man get his license.
When Noe explains he’s Catholic, the pastor doesn’t flinch. “Qué bueno,” he says. How good. Then: “Can I ask you a question, with all due respect? Do you have security that when you die, you will go to heaven?”
“To be honest, no,” Noe responds.
“Well, I have good news,” the pastor continues. “You can have the security of heaven. Heaven is a gift. It’s free. … We are all sinners. One sin in the middle of a lot of good works can ruin everything. It’s a labyrinth without exit. How do we escape it? Jesus Christ is the solution. Because of him, there’s no hell for you.”
Noe says he’s ready to accept Christ. The pastor asks 24-year-old Franco to pray with the young man. Noe repeats after Franco: “I give you thanks at this moment, celestial Father, for giving me the security of eternal life. Thank you for pardoning my sins. I ask you at this moment to come into my heart.”
“I am happy for you, brother,” Tapia tells the young man. “My hermano, Jose Franco, for many years he was in the Catholic Church. … When you need me, here’s my address in Siler City, and here’s my telephone number. You can visit me. Welcome to our family.”
In the car home, the pastor turns around and offers his hand to Franco, who’s smiling contentedly in the back seat. “Your first soul,” he says.
Noe never shows up at church. This doesn’t surprise the pastor. “When he took that oath, he’s got to face the fact that his family is going to kick him out,” he says. But the mission isn’t going to give up on the young man. “I don’t know if Noe is going to come, this year, next year,” Tapia says. “But we’re going to hold to him. He’s going to see that we love him, not that we want something out of it.”
Pastor Tapia doesn’t believe in lost causes. When his mind starts straying in that direction, he thinks of Jose Franco, who seemed like the ultimate lost cause.
When the two men first met on an evangelism call, Franco had just moved to Siler City from a rural village in Guanajuato, Mexico, where he grew up in a family of seven children. Slender and fuzzy-haired, he was a staunch Catholic with a father who dreamed his son would someday become a priest. But Franco wasn’t exactly priestly. “I wasted my youth,” he says. “I drank a lot, I liked going to dances, things that didn’t benefit me in my life. Sometimes I hurt other people, because when one drinks wine, logically, one starts speaking bad words, curses, offending people who don’t need to hear such things.
“My papa always told me, ‘You shouldn’t drink. You shouldn’t go out with one woman, then another, then another. You should think of only one woman, and form a family, create a home.’ But I didn’t pay any attention to him. Someone would have a girlfriend, and I would go out with her. I’d tell her the things of love, and it brought many problems.”
Franco was in a band that played tropical music and the tragic Mexican ballads called corridos at local dance halls and rodeos. He drank and sometimes got into fights. Even after he came to Siler City and became active in St. Julia’s Catholic Church, he didn’t reform immediately. He directed the choir and participated in re-enactments of the Stations of The Cross. But he also went out to the dances in Sanford and Greensboro, where he’d down Buds and Coronas and chain-smoke. It was, he says, “a double life.”
When the pastor met Franco five years ago, he was a machine operator at a small pallet factory, living in a two-bedroom house where 12 to 16 people regularly slept. He shared a bedroom with five others; someone else bunked down in a closet. Still a teenager, fresh from Mexico, he didn’t know how to find someplace more comfortable.
Franco was adamant about maintaining his family’s religion. “Really, I don’t have an interest in going to your church,” he told the pastor. “I served God in my country, and I’m not leaving the Catholic Church.” The pastor gave him a cassette tape with the testimony of a priest who converted to Protestantism, and assumed he would never hear from the young man again. “I thought that was it,” he says.
Then, two years ago, Franco met a Salvadoran woman named Vilma Sanchez, who was working a downtown grocery. The relationship revved up quickly; it wasn’t long before they moved in together with Sanchez’s father and started raising children. Franco gave up boozing and chasing women; he became a family man.
Sanchez’s brother Victor was a lay leader at Loves Creek, and at his invitation, Franco attended. For someone accustomed to the solemnity of Catholic liturgy, it took some getting used to. “I was used to Masses where one sat with hands on one’s lap, no clapping, everything was totally silent,” he recalls. “I went to Loves Creek a few times, and most of the time I didn’t feel anything. I went only to see if they sang, if they applauded, whatever, and possibly even to criticize the people who were there, to watch people do things that to me were offensive to God.
“But one Saturday I felt something, something about how they praised the Lord. I noticed the humbleness of the church, the humbleness of an hermano who stopped playing the guitar so I could play it. I noticed these are not selfish people. On the contrary, they support you and try to teach you the best way possible.”
Franco attended both churches for a while, but he came to feel the Baptist service put him face-to-face with God in a way the Catholic Mass never did. “It was something real,” he says. “I realized during a worship that one can feel that joy in praising God.”
One night, the mission held a late-night vigil. Members could write their hopes on pieces of paper; others drew these papers and prayed anonymously for the authors. That night, Vilma Sanchez wrote, “Hermanos, I want you to pray, because my strongest wish is that my husband accept the Lord.” Byron Barrera drew her slip of paper and focused his prayers on the young Catholic man in their midst.
“Well, we all prayed,” remembers Barrera. “The requests ended, we had some songs, and afterwards we had the pastor’s sermon. That was when Jose Franco converted. He had so much happiness and so much emotion that he even felt like playing the guitar and singing a special song. We were all very happy because, right there, the Lord answered the request we had prayed for. We didn’t have to wait too long to receive our answer.”
Jose Franco stands under a picnic shelter, holding his guitar and looking at a crowd of mostly white and Hispanic faces. The rain is coming down in torrents. “I am so glad to be here this afternoon that the Lord has given us,” he says in Spanish, with the pastor translating. “I’m so proud to be together, praising the Lord. I’m not able to speak your language, but I love you.”
There are 120 people gathered at Bray Park, just outside downtown Siler City, for an ecumenical worship service. Two rows of picnic tables run from front to back, and down the middle aisle sit the Love Creek hermanos. Some white folks sit in the middle too, though most line the walls of the shelter. There are four African Americans, all youth from a church outside town.
The white organizers are tickled by the turnout. “I think it’s exciting to see the diversity of our community,” one of them tells the crowd.
Singers from the white churches have taken up most of the program. One after another, they’ve popped cassettes in a tape deck and sung to pre-recorded music. But Franco provides his own accompaniment, with the guitar his sister taught him to play when he was 10. And when he opens his mouth, out comes a voice so complex that it’s bitonal. The high and low notes wrap around one another, as if he’s singing harmony with himself.
In Spanish, Franco sings Cansado del Camino, a gospel ballad written in his home country:
Weary of the road, thirsty for You,
I have crossed a desert and I’m left without strength.
I come to You.
I fought like a soldier, and sometimes I suffered,
And although I won the battle, my armor is worn out.
I come to you.
Submerge me in the river of Your spirit.
I need to refresh this desiccated heart.
I’m thirsty for You. Submerge me.
Toward the end of the afternoon, the white evangelical churches perform a skit about a man who has fallen into a ditch. On the sidelines, the Anglos laugh at the lame excuses of the passersby who refuse to aid their fellow man. But the hermanos in the middle, for the most part, remain silent. The skit is in English, and no one is translating it for the 40 Hispanics in the audience. Nor has anything else today been translated into Spanish. When the program is over, and it’s time to eat, instructions for separate chicken and hot-dog lines are given in one language only. The whites start lining up; the Hispanics don’t move until Ruth Tapia announces, “Dos filas aquí.” Two lines here.
As the afternoon breaks up, one white participant suggests to an organizer that translation might have been useful. The organizer replies, “I didn’t even think of that.”
Still, all in all, the hermanos are pleased with the sincerity of the event, and with the sincerity of townspeople in general. “Here, the Hispanic people don’t face the same rejection, they don’t see the racism, as in other places,” says Franco. “In North Carolina, I haven’t seen many Americans who wear bad faces or who treat us like less. They are, well, a simple people. I like Siler City because the people are humble.”
But even with the personal goodwill, sharing a home has not always been easy. Over the years, community leaders have shown themselves unsure of how to roll out the welcome mat, or whether to roll it out at all. In 1996, the town’s Hispanic Task Force, which had no Hispanic members, published a brochure intended to help immigrants assimilate into the community. It wasn’t received quite as the authors had intended.
“Siler City is a quiet town … that enjoys order and does not like crime and other distractions,” the pamphlet said. “It is illegal to have chickens and goats inside the city limits. … It is illegal to have junk or debris in your yard and illegal to work on your car in the street or in the driveway of your home. Police may fine you for doing this. … Loud radios or TV or general noise is illegal after 10 at night. Again, you are subject to arrest and fines if you disobey the law. … Drinking and driving is a NO, NO, NO!! … It is VERY IMPORTANT that everyone understand family situations in the country. It is absolutely illegal for a man to beat his wife or children. … Generally, you will have nothing to fear from the police. If you insist on breaking these laws, you will be arrested and face criminal proceedings.”
Some community leaders explained away the pamphlet as well-intentioned and misguided. “I believe they earnestly tried their best,” said Bill Lail, director of Siler City’s Family Resource Center. “They made a simple but innocuous misjudgment in creating their presentation.” Others saw the pamphlet in a harsher light. Down the road in Chapel Hill, Hispanic leader John Herrera called it a “racist pamphlet [that] assumes all Latinos play loud music [and] beat their wives.” From within Siler City came criticism, too. Pastor Tapia blasted the pamphlet in an interview with Channel 17 news, despite pleas from nervous white church officials to emphasize the positive.
The problems between the immigrants and the greater community have not gone away. But now, within the mission, there’s a more personal crisis that church leaders are being forced to deal with–before one of their own gets shipped back to Central America.