Originally published as a two-part series in Indy Week.
Part 1: Soul and Skin
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 tranquility, 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 mid-afternoon, 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 Sánchez, who was working a downtown grocery. The relationship revved up quickly; it wasn’t long before they moved in together with Sánchez’s father and started raising children. Franco gave up boozing and chasing women; he became a family man.
Sánchez’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 Sánchez 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 Loves 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 Sumérgeme, 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.
Part 2: Hurricanes
BYRON BARRERA IS DISTRACTED. His mind, usually focused and clear, seems to drift in and out of conversation. There’s no smile on his face; the Winnie-the-Pooh paraphernalia and teddy-bear statuettes in his trailer seem to mock his mood. “Estoy preocupado,” he says. I’m worried.
For almost a year, the pastor’s disciple at Loves Creek Hispanic Baptist Mission has been dating a shy, round-faced girl named Wendy Benitez. She came into his life two years ago, when she attended an evangelism class he was teaching. In Latin American culture, relationships between teenage girls and young adult men are commonplace, but Barrera wasn’t thinking along those lines when he first met Benitez.
“As my student, I knew I liked her, but I never thought there was anything as specific as love like a couple,” he says. But in the spring of 1998, Benitez went back to El Salvador for two months to visit her family, and after Barrera dropped her off at the airport, he started missing her terribly. “I called her by telephone and I told her I felt so far away,” he recalls. She confessed the feelings were mutual. That summer, they agonized over whether God wanted their relationship to be. Because of the age difference, Barrera says, “at first I thought her love was nothing more than an illusion.” Benitez could act so much like a grown-up, with a strong spiritual core and a sense of responsibility for her two younger sisters. But she was still only 16. Barrera wondered if a girl her age could really know her heart, or if his would eventually be broken.
“As the days passed,” he says, “I came to understand that her mind is more mature than the years would indicate. For example, she understands I can’t dedicate all my time to her that she would want, because of the ministry I have. At first, it took some work to get her to understand. Always she was demanding, because I didn’t give her much time. But later, she understood I have to balance everything. Even though I don’t want to say she’s totally mature, I know she has demonstrated that she’s willing to change.”
On this summer evening, though, everything is threatening to fall apart. Benitez’s mother has announced that she’s taking her three daughters back to El Salvador to live with their relatives, then returning to the United States by herself. American culture is too permissive, she has told the girls, and she wants them to grow up in a more traditional environment. “They were so different in El Salvador,” she would later explain. “I thought if I took them over there, they would have better influences.”
Benitez doesn’t want to go. Her life is in Siler City. Her high school, where she has made friends and is learning English, is here. Her church, where she was born again in 1996, is here. Her boyfriend is here.
Benitez and her sisters grew up with their grandmother—whom she considers her real mother—in a rural village on the outskirts of the Salvadoran city of La Unión. “There were mountains, a river, many cows, many mango trees,” she recalls. “A lot of poverty, yes, but my house had water and light. I went to school there for seven years, and after school we played soccer, baseball, things like that.” Her natural mother, who said she didn’t want to bring her children to the United States until they had their immigration papers, visited every year or two and sent money.
Then, in 1995, Benitez was told to pack her bags; her mother was bringing her to Siler City. Benitez was 13. “I was very sad,” she says. “I didn’t want to come, because I liked it there. This is another town, another state, very different.”
From the time they arrived in North Carolina, Benitez and her sisters have had a troubled relationship with their mother. At least three times last spring, Benitez’s mother, or sometimes another relative, called the police to report one or more of the girls missing. The mother always insisted her daughters had run away from home, but police reports hint otherwise. “Daisy Womble with Social Services called and stated that the Benitez children were with their father,” says one report, filed in March after the girls left home without packing any clothes. “She also stated that one of them had bruises and stated the mother locked them out of the house.” Benitez’s mother would later say the bruises came from a bicycle accident, but add, “I did give them physical discipline many times.”
Tonight, the Benitez sisters are again packing their bags.
Barrera is beside himself.
The plane leaves in two days.
Wendy Benitez is not alone in worrying she’ll be sent back to Latin America. In August, a panic spreads after Rick Givens, chair of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners, writes a letter inviting the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to come in and rid the area of undocumented Latinos. It’s a sharp reminder to the Hispanic community that their home here is tenuous.
“We have limited resources,” Givens writes. “As year runs upon year, more and more of our resources are being siphoned from other pressing needs so that we can provide assistance to immigrants who have little or no possessions. Many of these new needy, we believe, are undocumented or have fraudulent paperwork. We need your help in getting these folk properly documented or routed back to their homes.”
The response from Loves Creek Hispanic Baptist Mission is quiet but swift. Behind the scenes, Pastor Israel Tapia meets with a group of community and industry leaders, including the commissioners’ chair himself. “I told Rick Givens, ‘You hurt us. You damaged us.'” he reports. Tapia also meets with Nolo Martinez, director of Hispanic and Latino Affairs for Gov. Jim Hunt.
From the pulpit, the pastor tries to debunk Givens’ rhetoric while pledging his support to any undocumented members in the sanctuary. “We don’t come to take away jobs,” he says. “We come here to make Siler City the No. 1 town it is becoming, and I want to tell you the church is here to protect you and fight for you.”
To further reassure his flock, Tapia distributes a newsletter from the Hispanic Liaison, a nonprofit group based in Siler City. “I have talked with various influential people, and no one thinks the INS will come to our county,” Liaison director Ilana Dubester writes in the newsletter.
Indeed, some of the hermanos—the brothers and sisters of the congregation—go on with their lives without fear, whether or not they are documented. “I’ve always thought one day La Migra [the INS] would come, it would round up people, and all that,” says one member. “But I haven’t been too alarmed, because even though I am not legal in this country, I know I have certain rights. If La Migra comes and finds me here, or if for some reason they grab me in the street or wherever, or even at home, I have the right to talk in front of a lawyer. As long as I don’t run away, I have those rights.”
Not everyone takes the news so calmly. After Givens’ letter becomes public, Dubester and Martinez appear on the local AM radio station. Although they assure listeners there’s no need for panic, people call in and ask if it’s OK to shop for groceries and send their kids to school. Shortly thereafter, Israel and Ruth Tapia take their three sons to the Chatham County Fair in Pittsboro. They see no other Hispanic faces.
“Some people were afraid even to get out of their homes, because they didn’t know if there was going to be a raid at the supermarket, a raid at work,” says Dubester. “Would they be put in jail, and their children abandoned? If you’re from Latin America, you’re used to seeing children on the street, just like abandoned dogs and cats. So there was a panic: Are they coming? What’s going to happen? People were talking about leaving Siler City—just up and go, goodbye.”
Panics like this one are a fact of life here. Bill McFadden, an immigration specialist at the Family Resource Center in Siler City, ranks the fallout from Givens’ letter just “a 3 or 4 on the Rumor Richter Scale.” As in any place with a large undocumented population, hearsay about impending roundups abounds. “Every four, five, six months, a rumor gets out that immigration is coming to a specific area,” McFadden says. “Last spring, a rumor hit Siler City like a ton of bricks, that immigration was going to come here on a Friday night and clean out the town. I interviewed the owner of one of the Spanish stores. He said business was way down. The Laundromats were empty. We were missing star players from the soccer games. The streets of Siler City were decimated. It was about 7 on the Rumor Richter Scale.”
But this is the first rumor that has credibility, coming as it does from newspaper articles about Givens’ letter. Besides worrying immigrants, it inadvertently sends a signal to some white and black residents that it’s OK to discriminate in small ways. “I don’t think the intent was to encourage people to be racist,” Dubester says. “But I think that was the effect.” When the pastor’s wife, Ruth Tapia, an American citizen, goes to get a new driver’s license soon after the letter, the Department of Motor Vehicles clerk looks at her Texas birth certificate and declares it a fake. “They told her, ‘We don’t believe you, and we won’t give you the license, and we are good to you because we don’t put you in jail,'” her husband says.
As Wendy Benitez’s mother gets ready to send her daughters back to El Salvador, the oldest girl’s situation becomes an all-consuming topic behind the scenes at Loves Creek. A half-dozen mission leaders, including Byron Barrera, meet regularly to discuss the situation, both as a group and in twos and threes. They grapple with how far they can go in protecting one of their own against her mother.
In the end, they decide unanimously that they need to do whatever they can to support the girl. Just as they helped save her soul three years ago, now it’s time to save her skin. “We don’t think it’s fair for her to go back to a place where she doesn’t want to go,” explains Wilfredo Hernandez, the worship minister. “We feel like she’s one of us. We have to help her.”
They come up with a plan.
“You find out what day you’re leaving,” Ruth Tapia tells Benitez. “You call me, and I’ll go get you that night. Don’t be rebellious. Don’t say, ‘I’m not going, I’m not leaving.’ You just act like nothing is going on. Pack a bag. Start acting like you’re going to see your cousins over there.”
Benitez agrees to the scheme. A week before the planned departure, she calls the Tapia home and tells the pastor and his wife when the plane is taking off. The night before the flight, Ruth Tapia pulls her car up to the curb, and Benitez comes flying out the door, suitcase in hand. Together, they drive to the house of a woman who does not belong to Loves Creek—a home where Benitez’s mother would never think to look.
Just after 1 a.m., Benitez’s mother calls 911 and reports her oldest daughter missing. City police officers and county sheriff’s deputies descend on Barrera’s trailer at 2:15. “The first officer told me he was looking for Wendy, and I said, ‘Wendy isn’t here,'” he would later recall. “Without asking any more, he pushed the door and he came in. After him came another. Those two opened the back door, and two more came in that way. Altogether there were four in here. They went in my bedroom, the bathroom, the closet, my father’s room. They went into the other bedroom, where [our tenant] sleeps, and she was naked. They went in and she barely had time to cover herself with a quilt.”
They don’t find Benitez there, of course. Nor do the police find her at the house of another church family they visit. She is safe.
Two nights later, there’s a palpable sense of relief. As far as anyone knows, Benitez’s mother is 1,700 miles away in El Salvador with her two younger daughters. But no one knows for sure. At the Saturday worship service, Pastor Tapia invites anyone who needs special intercession to come down to the altar. Anyone who’s sick, who’s hurting, is welcome.
Barrera is the first one there. He curls his tiny body into a prayerful ball as the pastor thanks God for the “promise of eternal life.” Quiet keyboard music weaves through the minister’s words, as if the notes are trying to attach themselves to the pain of the past week and carry it away.
The end of the world
The intensity doesn’t let up all summer. The two local crises are followed by a much larger disaster, this one halfway around the world.
In August, an earthquake hits Turkey, and by the Saturday night service, the death toll has climbed to 11,000. Seeing a greater meaning in this disaster, Tapia takes his preaching in a new direction. For several weeks, he stops talking about the gozo, the joy, that comes from the assurance of eternal life. Instead, he talks about something that has long been one of his father’s passions: omnipresent signs that the world is coming to an end.
“The times are changing,” Tapia preaches. He is wearing a blue tie with red stripes, which ends about 6 inches too high against his white shirt. These are los últimos días, the final days, and no one can predict exactly when the end will hit. “Understand this,” he says, quoting Matthew 24:43-44. “If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and not let his house be broken into. So you must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
In the final days, the pastor says, all sorts of unusual things will happen. The world will be overrun with natural disasters, and mankind will start doing unnatural things. Again, he quotes Matthew: “Nation will rise against nation. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places.” Look around, Tapia says: Earthquakes in Turkey. Drug trafficking in Colombia. The Oklahoma City bombing. Starvation in Africa. Incurable diseases. People walking around with “plastic hearts.” Soon, a homosexual couple will be allowed to sue a minister who refuses to marry them.
But “we have hope,” the pastor adds. “Christ is going to wash us clean of all sin.” This is the time to wake up, he says, to get ready, to preach the Gospel. We can’t save every non-Christian on the planet, but we can save as many as possible. And we can save ourselves. This is the time to repent, because “Cristo viene, Cristo viene.” Christ is coming.
The millennial message continues for weeks. In early September, a visiting evangelist named Eusebio Alfaro comes to Loves Creek, preaching for four days with a charismatic fervor. He’s a small man with combed-back hair and a pencil-thin mustache, and as he shouts the Word, his face turns red and his voice echoes through the sanctuary.
“Pay attention, please,” Alfaro tells the hermanos, who are already rapt. His green shirt is open at the top. His sleeves are rolled up. His tie is loosened. “The destiny of the world is complete destruction,” he warns. “All the signs of the destruction are happening right now.”
His voice starts softly, like that of a science teacher explaining the principles of astronomy. “Someone wrote an article in a NASA magazine telling us an asteroid left its orbit, and he said the asteroid will pass close to the Earth. But he also says the Earth has a system called gravity. When the asteroid hits the Earth’s gravity, it will explode into a thousand pieces. Thousands of pieces. It’s going to fall to Earth, because everything that enters the gravitational system tends to fall, never to go up.”
Suddenly, jarringly, the evangelist’s voice turns into a roar—an urgent, primal call. “When I hear those things and see those things coming,” he shouts, “I pray to God that at least I can go to North Carolina and ask the people there to repent. Because when is the time going to come that people are going to see the signals God is sending? Repent, because by the glory of God, there’s always an opportunity.” He stretches the last syllable of the last word—oportunidad—into four syllables. Oportunidaaaaaaaaad.
During the weeks of millennial preaching, the expressions on the hermano‘s faces change. Byron Barrera clenches his eyes shut when he prays. Jose Franco wipes away tears as he plays the guitar.
The reactions don’t come because the litany of disasters is scary and unfamiliar. Rather, they are all too familiar. Since late 1998 alone, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and most recently Venezuela have been walloped by deadly floods and mudslides; Hurricane Mitch tore through Honduras, taking thousands of lives and sweeping away entire pueblos; and an earthquake in Colombia killed 1,000 and left many more without homes. In one Colombian city called Armenia, two-thirds of the buildings collapsed, displacing 180,000 people.
For many of the Loves Creek hermanos, the only way to make sense of this carnage is to believe it presages something better.
“For the American that lives in comfort and the material world, maybe this preaching is a shock,” explains Pastor Tapia. “But for the people who come from that background, it is almost normal. You talk about the many towns that disappeared in Honduras because the water destroyed and killed thousands of people. That’s real. We don’t have the recovery potential that the United States has. It may be 100 years before Honduras recovers. So when the people were listening [to the evangelist], that was a time of reflection. We know what he’s talking about.”
Amidst the terrifying images, there are still glimpses of gozo. The afternoon after Alfaro’s asteroid sermon, the visiting evangelist again preaches, this time at an outdoor revival on an old basketball court behind the church. Before he takes the microphone, though, there’s music to make. The pastor plays the synthesizer. Wilfredo Hernandez, the worship minister, pounds the congas while his daughter and cousin play drums and bass. Jose Franco plays guitar. And Byron Barrera leads more than 50 hermanos in a medley of praise songs, which ends with the Spanish version of a familiar American gospel hymn:
He’s got the whole world in his hands,
he’s got the whole world in his hands…
He’s got Guatemala…
He’s got El Salvador…
He’s got Mexico…
He’s got Siler City in his hands.
Three days after the outdoor revival, after weeks of preachment about natural disasters and the Second Coming, forecasters predict a deadly hurricane making its way toward central North Carolina. It’s another sign of the end times—but before focusing on the spiritual lessons, there’s skin to save.
The last time a major storm hit Siler City, Hurricane Fran came barreling through town in 1996, taking down trees, destroying houses, and knocking out power and telephone service for days. The small frame house where Jose Franco now lives was twisted on its foundation. His brother-in-law got hit even worse: A large tree fell in Victor Sánchez’s yard, crushing part of his trailer. Schools closed for more than a week as the entire Triangle area struggled with its worst natural disaster since Hurricane Hazel in 1954.
By 7 o’clock the night of Hurricane Floyd, calls begin coming into the Tapia household. A half-hour later, the pastor gets in his car, drives down to the church, and unlocks the doors for anyone who wants shelter.
Fifty people show up, both hermanos from Loves Creek and their Pentecostal and Methodist neighbors. For more than five hours, they fill their church home with piano music, conga rhythms and voices joined in song. Jose Franco and his family come with a veritable picnic: bread, avocados, beans, water and canned food, along with milk for their baby. “We came here, truthfully, in order to be a bit safer,” he says. “We are here not because the walls are made of brick or because the building is strong, but because we know that if we ask God, He who controls everything, to change the path of the hurricane, He will shift its course.”
With the Pentecostals present, there’s more shouting than usual, a fever pitch that continues as the news drifts in that Floyd has turned its course. Finally, at 2 a.m., the music winds down, and the hermanos spread out around the building, bedding down in Sunday school classrooms, the day-care center and the fellowship hall, one family to a room.
Everyone goes home in the morning to survey the damage. This time, there is none.
At church the next Saturday, Tapia revisits the night of the hurricane. His sermon is reminiscent of Pat Robertson’s claim that his prayers, and those of staff, diverted Hurricane Gloria from the Virginia coast in 1985. “We sang and we prayed and we cried,” the pastor says. “People said, ‘Who are the crazy folks? Don’t they know Siler City is going to be destroyed, North Carolina is going to be destroyed?’ But because of the power of praise, we didn’t have fear. We trusted in the Lord, and the Lord said, ‘I will listen to my people.’ He said to the hurricane, ‘Go away from here.’ The scientists said, ‘Something happened! What happened? What happened?'” But no matter how hard mankind tries, the pastor says, only God knows the course of a storm.
As he preaches tonight, Tapia’s apocalyptic fever breaks, and joy returns to his message. For the hermanos, he says, life is a succession of storms that can only be weathered by the combination of skin-saving community and soul-saving faith.
“How many people have premonitions of hurricanes in their own lives?” the pastor asks, in words that would be familiar to his white brethren. “There are always signals, just like many people know that summer is coming because of the signals. Hermanos, we have all lived through these storms. I might be feeling at this moment a force coming over me with the strength of a hurricane. I might feel there’s no solution, there’s no remedy. If you feel this way, let me tell you that God offers a strong and safe ground for your life. If you trust in the Lord, you’ll be part of something that won’t move or disappear.
“Hermanos, in these times of emergency, how many of you go out and buy bottled water, in case the drinking water gets contaminated? How many of you get food or emergency supplies? Spiritually, hermanos, let us go to God’s supermarket, so we can be provided with all we need. If you lack gozo, arrange to get lots of cans of gozo. If you’re lacking faith, get some packages of faith.
“If there’s any person who has hurricanes of fear and doubt, be assured that we all lose our way,” the pastor says. “For all of you who have raised your hand, come forward to the altar, because there’s nothing wrong with coming together in front of God and recognizing it.” Nine people—Jose Franco, Dorindo Interiano and seven others—make their way up the aisle and kneel in front of the pastor, to be touched and healed, to get words of encouragement to weather the next storm. Pastor Tapia, too, falls on his knees and prays.
Throughout the summer and fall, Saturdays are given over to construction of a more permanent shelter. At the mission’s future home, drywall goes up; window trim goes in; a volunteer contractor from east of Raleigh comes to finish the ceiling.
One October morning, members of the host church join the Hispanics for a 35-person work marathon. The Rev. Roy Helms, pastor of the white congregation, paints the doors with a beige primer coat. Wendy Benitez shovels dirt into a wheelbarrow to make mud, which Byron Barrera spreads along the foundation. Spanish gospel music plays from a green GMC pickup truck. At lunch, Israel Tapia says, “I can’t wait to play here.” Grinning like a teenage boy, he breaks into air guitar: “Él es el rey, Él es el rey, Él es el rey de mi vida.” He is the king of my life.
On these Saturdays, the camaraderie between the white and Hispanic Loves Creek members is tangible. Even though they eat their lunches on separate sides of the construction site, conversing in their own languages, each group expresses goodwill toward the other. “I call them servants because they have a servant heart,” Tapia says of the Anglos. “It’s not a mother church, a protective church, but a church that wants this congregation to become independent, self-supporting. Sometimes we have suppers, international suppers with the Anglos, that show we are all committed to building bridges.”
Those bridges have occasionally been shaky. After the incident with Wendy Benitez, the host church’s missions committee denied Byron Barrera a youth-minister license he had been hoping for. “There is no question about Byron’s commitment or qualifications,” explains Helms. “Byron has done absolutely nothing wrong.” Still, he says, Barrera’s “incidental” participation in rescuing his teenaged girlfriend raised questions among church members. For his part, Barrera has taken the news with a combination of hurt and defiance: “There are people who have a bad opinion of me. But I don’t care about having a piece of paper. What I care about is to be right with God.”
Then there’s the issue of two congregations’ sharing a small space. “There has been some impatience on the part of our people, wanting to see the mission meet somewhere else,” Helms says.
Just as immigrants and old-timers are learning how to share the church building, they are also learning how to cohabit Siler City. One-on-one, the hermanos agree, the town’s longstanding residents have been accommodating. “I’ve always had a good relationship with the Americans I’ve talked to,” says 24-year-old Abel Chavez, a Salvadoran immigrant who plays guitar for the mission. “Last year, I had a car accident, and my face was full of blood. An American woman—she was about 30—stopped to help me. She cleaned my face and asked me, ‘Are you OK? Are you sure you’re OK?’ She didn’t treat me any differently because I was Latino.”
But around town, not everything is hunky-dory. Back in the spring, The Chatham News reprinted an editorial from an Eastern North Carolina newspaper with the headline, “English Preferred.” “In the politically (in)correct frenzy toward multiculturalism,” it said, “every effort, especially on the part of the government, has been exerted toward immigrants and others to [sic] foreign background to continue use of their native language… In the latter 19th and early 20th centuries, being able to speak, read and write English was a matter of pride and a badge of honor proudly worn by new citizens.”
With some classrooms at Siler City Elementary School now 100-percent Hispanic, public education has become the town’s biggest racial flash point, and the editorial clearly tapped into the resentments of some town residents. At Rainbow Graphics downtown, owner Jay Gatlin laminated the article and put in on a display table in his shop. “I have granddaughters in school, and they tell me the teacher wants to teach the Hispanics, but they have to take time to make sure they read in English,” Gatlin says. “That’s wasting the time of the other students in the class.” Gatlin adds that he was “flabbergasted” when he attended an awards ceremony at a local school and watched the teachers making presentations in both languages.
The racial resentments came to a head in September, at a standing-room-only School Board meeting where 35 people debated a small exodus of non-Hispanics from the system. “You cannot teach with the language barrier that you’ve got,” said Kay Staley, whose adopted granddaughter had recently transferred to a charter school. Staley told the board that the girl had started the school year in Siler City Elementary, but was one of only two white kids in her classroom. “These two little girls were devastated and scared to death because no one spoke their language,” she said.
Pastor Tapia didn’t attend the meeting, but he later told The News & Observer that the barriers cut both ways. “It’s a problem when the Spanish kids don’t understand English and the school teachers don’t speak Spanish,” he says. “I feel there’s a sentiment of fear within the Spanish community. I feel the children aren’t welcome.”
Wendy Benitez’s mother decides she doesn’t feel welcome either. After her daughter’s escape, she leaves Loves Creek for another church. “I thought pastors and members of a church were supposed to give you comfort, direction, helping you when you have a problem,” she says. “No one ever came to my house and asked how I’m doing.”
About 20 others leave at the same time, some of them in support of the mother. Pastor Tapia calls the exodus “a strike” to the mission, but he stands by the leaders’ decision to help Benitez. “When you have convictions, you have to pay the price. I have a principle: This is God’s work; it’s not my life. My conviction is that I have to do it the right way, or not do it at all.”
This is not the first time Loves Creek Hispanic Baptist Mission has experienced a mass retreat. When Tapia first arrived, there was a Babel of worship styles: Baptist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian. Over the past five years, there have been various fissures, as different groups set off to start or join more compatible churches. “It has been painful every time it has happened,” the pastor says.
But every time someone leaves, someone else arrives.
In October 1998, Latin America’s worst storm in two centuries blew through Honduras, killing more than 9,000 people and destroying the infrastructure of a nation. Hurricane Mitch washed away whole neighborhoods, even whole villages, with its 200-mph winds. One million people were left homeless. Banana plantations and coffee farms were ruined, creating an unemployment crisis that recalled America’s Great Depression. Contaminated water and untreated sewage attacked a malnourished population, helping to spread cholera, malaria and dengue fever. Skin rashes and diarrhea ran epidemic.
In the storm’s wake, in a poverty-racked Honduran village, a gangly young man with swept-back hair and woolly-worm eyebrows left his wife and 20-month-old son to find a living.
Selbin Perdomo’s life was hard even before Mitch blew through it. At the small clothing factory where he worked, he brought home $5 a day, not enough to support his family in anything but subsistence conditions. But after Mitch, he lost even those wages. The bridges to the industrial city where he worked were destroyed, cutting off access from his village of Santa Rita, Yoro. Others in his family were left without jobs when the banana plantations were washed away. The family’s only income came from his sister, who sent her small savings from a factory job abroad.
For Perdomo, there was only one way to support his family: join his sister in America. And there was only one place he knew where jobs would be available to a Hispanic like himself with limited skills: the town where his sister processed chickens for an hourly wage higher than she could make in an entire day in Honduras.
So in August, Perdomo, a 23-year-old who had never before traveled outside Honduras, left his home to come to Siler City.
Perdomo knew his life would change when he left Santa Rita, but he didn’t know how quickly. Early one morning, en route, the vehicle he was in caught fire. Someone else was driving, and Perdomo was asleep. By the time he woke up, there was smoke everywhere. It was a cold, cloudy day in the Mexican countryside, with no water in sight to put out the flames. But as they ran from the burning wreckage, one of the passengers spotted a house with a little well. With five buckets of water, they extinguished the blaze.
It was only after the scare that Perdomo realized how close he had come to losing his life. “It was a miracle we were saved,” he says. “That was when I got to thinking the Lord had saved me from death.”
Perdomo, who was not a Christian when he left Honduras, entered the United States with a new set of priorities. In retrospect, he believes God sent him on this trip in order to have that near-death experience. “If I had stayed in Honduras, I wouldn’t have accepted the Lord,” he says. “The Lord had to make me take this trip, so I would understand it is my responsibility to serve Him.”
In Siler City, Perdomo settled into an apartment overlooking a construction site where a church was being built. One day, he and his sister went down to see it. The drywall had only started going up, and the floors were still unfinished cement. There were no inside doors, no window trim, no landscaping. But it was a Hispanic church, and the sight of it renewed Perdomo’s commitment to serve God. His sister told him that one of her co-workers in the chicken plant was a leader of the church, and she promised to introduce the two young men.
Not long after that, Perdomo met Byron Barrera. They hit it off immediately, these two young men thousands of miles from their homes. Barrera invited Perdomo to a youth-group meeting the next Tuesday, and suddenly the Honduran immigrant didn’t feel quite so lonely. “I shared my experiences with the hermanos there,” he recalls. “They gave me a warm welcome, and I felt a joy inside me.” Soon, he was participating in every event he could: the youth and adult services, the business meetings, the Saturday morning workdays at the construction site.
Perdomo became Barrera’s disciple, just as Barrera is the pastor’s disciple. Now, every Monday, Barrera reminds Perdomo about the youth-group meeting the next day, and tells him not to make other plans. They travel together to the weekend worship services. Perdomo attends Barrera’s evangelism class. “He has even asked me about doctrine, and I’ve been explaining some things,” Barrera says. “I also make it clear to him that we cannot reach a very high level right now. Like a newborn, he has to start slowly, to take on the studies he can understand.”
Moderation, though, isn’t Perdomo’s strong suit. He is among the most outwardly passionate of the hermanos, weeping openly and hugging easily. When he prays, he closes his eyes in a squint so intense that it seems to burn calories. He gets overwhelmed with gozo. One recent Saturday evening, he couldn’t suppress his smile; he had just spoken to his wife in Honduras, and even though she’s not a Christian, she had been to church.
It took Perdomo a while to find work, but now he makes $7 an hour in the loading area of a small factory. He has moved into the trailer next-door to Barrera’s, where he rents a room from Barrera’s cousins. Every two weeks, he sends $100 back to his family. “That seems like a large amount,” he says, “but when you spend it it’s not that much. Food is quite expensive and life is hard.”
But now, as with Barrera and Franco, earning money isn’t his only reason for being here. “I feel very comfortable with myself and I feel sure of what I do, which I didn’t in Honduras,” Perdomo says. “Now my life has a meaning. There are reasons for living. My plan is to preach the Gospel, here or in my country, however the Lord chooses. If He gives me the opportunity of establishing myself here, glory to God. If it is to go back to my country, to help my country, I’d be glad to do it.”
As the weather cools down, Byron Barrera no longer wears the worried face of someone whose sweetheart might be forced to move almost 2,000 miles away.
Since the summer, Barrera’s girlfriend Wendy Benitez has been living next door, renting a room in the trailer where Selbin Perdomo lives, attending high school and learning to be an adult. “I’m not receiving orders from my mother,” she says. “I have to make my own decisions: whether I go to school or not, if I go to church, whether to go out. This is a time of quick growth.” It’s a scary time too, she says, “because if I don’t think correctly, I might do something bad.” Whenever she gets stuck in her thinking, Benitez turns to her grandmother for advice, or to Barrera.
Barrera knows that some people outside the mission think his efforts to rescue Benitez were self-interested. But he’s not losing sleep over that. “All the hermanos of the church know the reality of the situation, how we all helped her together,” he says.
Tonight, Wednesday, he has news to report: He and Benitez have secured her mother’s blessing for the marriage. “Last Thursday, we went to talk with her. We chatted for three hours, and now things are resolved, fixed,” he says. “We arrived at an accord. We told her that Wendy wants to marry me, and I her. And she said she was in agreement, that she would give us whatever support we needed, and we could forget about the past. There was no reason to remember it: Those were her words.
“She said too that she wants to send us on a honeymoon for a week. At minimum, she wants to send us to Myrtle Beach. She wants us, when we get married, to enjoy at least one week of not working. Some people with few resources just take off the weekend to get married, and Monday they’re back at work. That’s what she didn’t want for us. Oh, we were happy. I think this will be the wedding present she’ll give us.”
Not everything is resolved, though. Benitez’s mother still hurts. She says she has forgiven her daughter and Barrera enough to bless the union, and to sign any documents the couple needs so Benitez can get married before her 18th birthday. But right now, she doesn’t plan to attend the wedding. And even though Benitez comes to visit her once or twice a week, “it’s not the same,” she says. “There are things deep in my heart that will take a long time to change.”
Wendy Benitez walks through the door of a mobile home just outside town, wearing a short blue dress with shoulder pads. Her hair is tied back with a cloth band, and a single curl falls on her forehead. Walking two steps behind her, in a dark shirt and pleated pants, is her boyfriend Byron Barrera.
She has no idea what she’s about to find: a living room full of cheering hermanos, balloons everywhere, and a banner of shiny cardboard cut-out letters spelling out “HAPPY BIRTHDAY.” It’s a bit much for Benitez, who embarrasses easily. She tries to walk back out the door, but Barrera urges her back, so their friends and relatives can celebrate her 17th birthday in style.
Birthdays are a big deal in the Hispanic community. At Loves Creek, a week of multiple birthdays can stop the worship service for a good 20 minutes, as each cumpleañero, each birthday celebrant, is called up to make a speech praising God. Then the musicians strike up, and the whole congregation comes forward to hug the cumpleañeros. The pastor prays for the celebrants, who often wipe away tears as they walk back to their pews.
Today, Benitez is hardly in the door and seated in an armchair before Barrera hands her a gift-wrapped box that barely fits on her lap. As everyone watches, Benitez opens it up, and pulls out another, smaller box. “Byron!” she says, a little abashed, as everyone laughs.
She opens that box. There’s another inside. “¡Otra caja!” she says, smiling. Another box! “Byron!”
She opens it. Another box. The crowd laughs harder.
She opens that one. Another box. More laughter, shouts.
She opens the smaller box, and pulls out yet a smaller one.
She opens the fifth box, and pulls out the last one. It’s tiny.
The room falls silent.
She can’t bring herself to open it. Her face flushes. She clenches her fist to keep her arm from trembling.
She looks at Barrera, who is sitting across the room, on the arm of a sofa. He flashes back a Winnie-the-Pooh grin. She buries her forehead in her hand for a moment before sitting up straight and opening the final box. Inside sits a diamond engagement ring.
Barrera walks across the room and gets down on his knees. He leans over, kisses her on the cheek. He places the ring on her finger and hugs her tight around the shoulders. “Feliz cumpleaños, honey,” he whispers. Happy birthday, honey.
The curbside trees lining downtown Siler City are heavy with yellow lights, but there’s no one around on this 20-degree Christmas night to appreciate them. The streets are deserted. The stores are locked. The parking lot of the chicken plant is empty, though steam continues to billow from its chimneys.
But inside Loves Creek, it’s no silent night. A joint service with an Asheboro church has swelled the congregation to almost 200, and the gozo is palpable. Jose Franco, his black hair newly buzzed, is clutching the microphone with both hands, belting out songs like a rock star. Sweat streams down the face of Wilfredo Hernandez, the worship minister, as he plays the congas. Hermanos from both congregations stand behind the pulpit, taking photographs of the filled sanctuary. And like a syncopated anthem, everyone sings, “El nombre de Jesus es poder.” The name of Jesus is power.
Just before the sermon, Byron Barrera emerges from the wings, wearing an olive choir robe with a gold-trimmed collar. “We are celebrating the birth of our King, Jesus Christ,” he announces. “We’d like to present something different.” In identical robes, 10 others follow him, including Selbin Perdomo, Israel and Ruth Tapia, and Wilfredo Hernandez. Men flanking one side of the pulpit, women flanking the other, the Christmas choir presents a medley of carols: “Joy to the World,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Angels We Have Heard on High.”
As the last in excelsis Deo dies down, there’s a split second of silence before Barrera takes the microphone for a solo. As he sings “The First Noel,” his normally confident voice turns soft and quavering:
La noticia sin igual, el ángel la dió
A los fieles pastores del campo en Belén,
Y aunque el frío invernal en la noche cundió
Las ovejas estaban cuidadas muy bien.
On either side of him, Barrera’s hermanos chime in, “Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, hoy ha nacido el Rey de Israel.”
The service ends with a series of announcements: upcoming prayer meetings, a new youth project, tomorrow’s Holy Communion. And one final announcement: Next Saturday, Jan. 1, Perdomo and Franco will be baptized.
The baptisms will be a symbolic initiation of these two young men into Christianity, but it will also be a symbolic initiation of the new year. For the hermanos of Loves Creek, 2000 promises to bring myriad large and small changes—in their individual homes, in their church home, in their hometown.
Siler City will continue to struggle with its new identity as an immigrant community. This week, a group of local officials—including Rick Givens, the county commissioner who wrote the letter inviting the INS to rid the county of undocumented Latinos—will visit Mexico to learn more about its culture and history, and about immigration issues. “I’m glad the government has decided that, hey, maybe it’s time to relate to this segment of the community,” says Loves Creek’s Rev. Helms. “Maybe the climate is changing.”
Closer to home, the Duke Endowment has funded a program to hire lay health advisers to help the new immigrants get the services they need. Working out of local churches, they’ll make sure pregnant women get prenatal care, help domestic-violence victims find shelter, and deal with a wide range of medical, legal and immigration issues. At Loves Creek, the health adviser will be Byron Barrera, who in November gave notice at the chicken plant. For Barrera, it will be a first step toward ministering fulltime.
Pastor Tapia also has big plans for ministering to his flock’s everyday needs in its new home, which will have its inaugural service this coming Saturday. “We are planning for the church to host volunteer doctors and dentists, that come and offer free appointments, free medical assistance to the people,” he says. “That is what I am planning to do at the new church building. We know how much is needed, especially for people who are afraid of going to public places. We don’t know how this is going to work, but I think it is going to work well.”
Some of the changes 2000 brings will be more personal.
Wendy Benitez plans to marry Byron Barrera.
Jose and Vilma Franco plan to have a church celebration of the quiet civil wedding they had last month.
Someone new will come to church, needing prayer or money or friendship.
Someone will leave.
There will be at least one birth—Vilma Franco’s sister-in-law is pregnant—and numerous celebrations in the new building. There will also, no doubt, be crises, hurricanes of the soul. But no matter how hard the winds blow, the hermanos at Loves Creek Hispanic Baptist Mission will keep returning to God’s supermarket, stocking up on extra packages of faith.
Cover photo by M.J. Sharp.