Originally published in The Independent.
IT’S A WARM FRIDAY AFTERNOON, and I’m driving down Silk Hope Road through Alamance and Chatham counties. It’s a familiar route that I used to take several times a week, when I was reporting on the life of Siler City’s Loves Creek Hispanic Baptist Mission. For eight months in 1999 I threw myself into the life of this immigrant church, watching its members pray together, celebrate together, and help one another through illness, unemployment and family crisis. Now, returning, I’m struck once again by the summertime beauty of this road: Queen Anne’s lace and trumpet vine; day lily gardens and tractor sheds; junipers heavy with ripening berries; trees that overhang the road, like a dark green archway welcoming me back. Here, even the Quonset-hut chicken farms seem bucolic. Then I drive past a charred house and am jolted back to the reason for my trip. Three days earlier, Victor Manuel Sánchez, a church leader who had immigrated from El Salvador in the 1980s, was awakened at midnight when a lightweight extension cord overheated and set his living-room sofa on fire. Sánchez grabbed his 2-year-old daughter Agustina, broke a window, and dived to safety, assuming the others would follow. But they didn’t, and the fire was too vicious to allow him to return. According to news reports, Sánchez ran to a neighbor and said, “My family’s in there, and I think they’re all dead. I think they’re all dead.” Sadly, he was right: Smoke had claimed the lives of his wife Felipa, three of their children, and Sánchez’s brother and sister-in-law.
Friday afternoon, the sanctuary of Loves Creek Baptist Church—the mission’s sponsoring congregation—is fuller than I have ever seen it: brown, black and white faces united in disbelief. Six gunmetal-gray caskets, some on wheels, cluster in front of the pulpit, and the ushers struggle to find seats for everyone, herding the latecomers into the glass-plated cry room in back of the sanctuary. TV cameras and print reporters are everywhere, responding to death in a way they rarely respond to immigrant life here. For the depth of the tragedy, though, the service rarely gives in to grief. A profound faith guides the Sánchezes’ church community, a faith that survives even the most inexplicable disasters: hurricanes in Nicaragua, earthquakes in El Salvador, civil war in Guatemala, deadly fire in Silk Hope. In the theology of Loves Creek, heaven is assured for those who have accepted Christ into their hearts. Felipa Sánchez, an ardent evangelist, is in no danger of missing out on eternal life.
“For all of us it’s a tragedy, but in heaven they’re having a fiesta,” says José Franco, a young former Catholic who married Victor Sánchez’s sister and quit drinking after coming to Loves Creek. He picks up his electric guitar and announces, “This is a favorite of Felipa’s. She’s listening in heaven.” And with a voice so layered that it contains both melody and harmony, he sings a hymn that has brought comfort to believers week after week:
There’s a fountain in me
That is gushing,
That is flowing,
Jesus inside of me.
The Rev. Israel Tapia takes the pulpit to eulogize Felipa, a quiet woman who would nonetheless deliver Bible readings at Saturday night services, or pray over the collection plate, or go into the community trying to win converts. “Brother Victor was inseparable from her,” Tapia orates. “Brother Victor was nothing without her. How can we respond to the tragedy? The Bible says that sometimes bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people.”
At the end of his sermon, Tapia leads the congregation in the anarchistic prayer that defines Loves Creek: each person praying aloud, with different words, from his or her own heart. Most of the room buzzes softly, but from the front-left quadrant of the sanctuary—where Victor and his relatives huddle—prayer erupts so feverishly that a stranger, with eyes closed, could imagine it to be a street riot but for the occasional cries of “¡Gracias!” and “¡Hallelujah!” The cacophony continues for a full five minutes, finally dissolving into long, tearful hugs that start with Victor at their epicenter and radiate out to parishioners in every direction.
Later I ask Tapia, whose own sons had grown up with Felipa’s now-deceased boys, 13-year-old Emmanuel and 10-year-old Ramón, how he keeps the faith in moments like these. Tapia talks about seeing Victor Sánchez in the aftermath of the fire, a disaster that could have burned out his very soul, but somehow he managed to function after losing so many loved ones. To Tapia, there’s no explanation besides divine intervention: The Holy Spirit lent Sánchez the strength to carry on. The minister admits, though, that he didn’t know how he would make it through the sermon; he had spent most of the previous three days crying.
I can’t but believe that something else helped support Sánchez through the first horrible days after the fire: the tightly woven social fabric of Siler City’s immigrant community, which seemed to serve as a safety net, or a stretcher, to carry him through his grief. In my eight months reporting on Loves Creek, I found a congregation bound so closely to one another that I didn’t pull away for a full year after the series was published. I kept returning—for services, for Christmas pageants, for weddings (including that of Veronica Sánchez, Victor’s daughter, who lives with her husband in another county). It’s a lesson we can learn from our new immigrant neighbors. You just have to show up at church, and listen.