FIRST-PERSON: Hearing their stories

Tags: immigrants

HEATH SPRINGS, S.C. (BP) -- I was standing on the sidewalk in front of our church one afternoon when a gentleman walked by I didn't know.

As a pastor in a small town, I want to know everybody. Since we rarely have a large migration of people moving into town, that's not hard to do.

I approached him and introduced myself as the pastor of the local Baptist church. His face immediately communicated an openness and warmth.

As soon as he spoke I realized that Hugh McSweeney was not local. He had a British accent, which in a small South Carolina town is nothing less than exotic. My curiosity was immediately piqued.

As I continued to probe I learned he was from the Central American country of Belize. He had been living in our town for two years but somehow our paths had never crossed.

I invited him to church and he came the next Sunday. After some months, Hugh expressed a desire to become a member of the church.

I met with him over a series of weeks to discuss the Gospel, church membership and baptism. Hugh affirmed that Christ was his Savior, but because he had grown up in an Anglican church, he had not been baptized by immersion.

He readily agreed to be baptized. Up to that point, no person of color had ever been baptized at Heath Springs Baptist Church, much less an immigrant.

The church rejoiced to receive Hugh into our membership, and he was baptized during a Sunday morning worship service. He sings in the choir every Sunday and is one of the most faithful members of the church. Beyond being a good church member, he is a dear friend.

Over the years, as I have continued to get to know Hugh McSweeney, I have been reminded that everyone has a story. Every immigrant has a story, and as followers of Christ we should have an intense desire to know their story.

Sometimes you may have a celebrity living in your midst and not know it. Hugh McSweeney was not just another Belizean immigrant who moved to South Carolina. In Belize he had served as the finance secretary in the Belizean government.

When I see Hugh on Sunday mornings, I am reminded of the amazing relationship and story of his life I almost missed.

Scripture is clear that Jesus was attracted to people with all types of backgrounds. He spent time conversing and eating with tax collectors and sinners as well as religious leaders and Roman soldiers. James, in his New Testament epistle, reminds us that God is no respecter of persons. In the same way, let us be eager to hear the stories of people who don't look or sound like us. The book of Revelation reminds us that around the throne there will be people from every nation, tribe, people and language singing praises to our God. In preparation for that eternal celebration, may the church on earth reflect the reality of heaven.

Frankie Melton is senior pastor of Heath Springs Baptist Church in Heath Springs, S.C., and assistant professor of Christian studies at North Greenville University in Tigerville, S.C.
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