BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP) -- Fearful members. Declining church attendance. Concerned pastors. Uncertain futures. Despite dramatic changes in the life of many Hispanic congregations in Alabama with the new immigration law, the news isn't all bad.
"A lot of people left," Carlos Gomez said of the Hispanic congregation he leads at First Baptist Church in Center Point. "I called them back and some of them returned. But I know of another ministry that is close to me here in town that had around 120, and now it has about 40."
|"I think that we need to unite and talk about this [law] more openly." Edwin Velez, pastor of Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana, Albertville, Ala. |
Reports of decreased attendance in Hispanic congregations are common since the law took effect last fall. Among its provisions is a requirement that police, when making routine stops, investigate the legal status of anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant. The law also imposes penalties for businesses that knowingly employ illegal immigrants.
A federal court struck down several provisions of the law, including a ban on knowingly transporting or harboring illegal immigrants.
Even some legal immigrants stopped attending church and left the state after the law took effect, Gomez said, because they were afraid of being harassed by police or having an undocumented family member arrested. Many Hispanics, even those in the country legally, stay home as much as possible because driving increases the risk of being stopped by police, he said.
To counter that fear, Gomez has begun picking up some members of the congregation in a church van and taking them to worship.
Carlos Lemus, Hispanic missionary for Autauga and Chilton Baptist associations, said there have been no major problems among the Hispanic ministries in his area. But he changed the times of some Bible studies because he said police in certain regions tend to establish checkpoints after dark for a variety of possible offenses, including the immigration status of those who pass through.
Lemus, who serves as president of the Alabama Hispanic Baptist Fellowship, told of a leader in a church being arrested on his way home from visiting a family in his congregation and of a youth ministry in Chilton County with struggling attendance.
"We were having a very good attendance of young people on Sunday afternoons to play soccer," Lemus said of the outreach to youth in which the Gospel also was presented. "But after this new law, parents are afraid to send their children to these kinds of activities" because some of them don't have legal documents. "Some of them are Americans, of course, but they are afraid that with this situation, they could be arrested."
Still Lemus and Gomez agreed that secure American borders are essential, and Lemus sees a positive effect of the law. Police apparently could not mount enough evidence to arrest two notorious drug dealers in his area on narcotics charges. However, they arrested and deported one under the immigration law and the other voluntarily left the country, he said.
"Secure borders is, I would say, the No. 1 task of the government right now," Lemus said, "and then trying to help those who are already here and perhaps living a decent life and trying to be good citizens here."
Cary Hanks, catalytic missionary with the Central Alabama Baptists Hispanic Ministry Coalition and a former Southern Baptist representative to Ecuador, said most Alabama Baptists do not understand how difficult Hispanic pastors' lives have become in light of the new law.
Frequently parents who are in the country illegally but whose children are American citizens ask their pastors to become their children's legal guardians, Hanks said. That way, if the parents are deported, the children will not fall into state custody and possibly be sent back to their home country. Pastors routinely refuse to assume guardianship though, since they cannot perform that service for all church members, he said.
The United States should not grant amnesty to illegal immigrants, Hanks said, but he added that Alabama's new law has thrown Hispanic families and churches into a crisis.
"Somebody's got to stand in the gap with these families," Hanks said of Hispanic pastors. "They've got to lead these churches. ... They understand the need to be here legally." They can't refuse to help people in need, he said; "you can't just turn your back on families because they don't have documents. These are people and God loves these people."
The Southern Baptist Convention wrestled with this issue at its annual meeting in Phoenix last June. In a resolution adopted after it was amended to clarify that the resolution was "not to be construed as support for amnesty for any undocumented immigrant," the convention called on the government to "prioritize its efforts to secure its borders and to hold businesses accountable for hiring practices as they relate to immigration status." It also called on cooperating Baptist churches to "be the presence of Christ, in both proclamation and ministry, to all persons, regardless of country of origin or immigration status."
Edwin Velez, pastor of Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana (First Hispanic Baptist Church) in Albertville, Ala., said he praises God that despite widespread fear among Hispanics, attendance at his church remains the same as it was before the law was enacted. A positive effect of the law, Velez said, is an increased number of Hispanic immigrants attempting to gain legal status in the United States.
"I know a lot of people who have made appointments to meet with immigration lawyers," he said.
One pressing need among Alabama Baptists, Velez said, is honest conversation about how to deal with the state's illegal immigration problems.
"I think that we need to unite and talk about this more openly," Velez said. Alabama Baptists of all races "need to be more united ... and see how we can help our brothers and sisters."
Ben Hale, minister of evangelism and missions at Dawson Memorial Baptist Church in Birmingham, said the new law has not affected the number of attendees in the church's Hispanic congregation. But he cited fear and uncertainty as common reactions among Hispanic believers.
"We have begun the process of thinking about how our church and how our Hispanic congregation will help and assist families if, in fact, the full law stays in effect," Hale said. "In other words, how might we consider ministering to families that are separated [if some family members are deported]?"
While the government focuses on enforcing the law, Hale said Christians should reflect God's grace to the community around them, including illegal immigrants. "We don't necessarily feel like it is our responsibility to become enforcers of immigration law," he said. "So we're just going to serve and minister to whoever comes to our church or comes to one of our ministries."
David Roach is a writer and pastor based in Shelbyville, Ky. This article first appeared in The Alabama Baptist (thealabamabaptist.org), newsjournal of the Alabama Baptist Convention.