Burnett and his wife, Shannon, had been trying to minister to the Hispanic community for years without much success. They started the Good News Club, a weekly after-school program where children learn about the Gospel. The children speak English well, but the Burnetts struggle to communicate with their Spanish-speaking parents. "They are different worlds and we are trying to bridge the gap," Shannon Burnett says.
When Burnett learned that a Hispanic Baptist church was looking for a new home, he saw two opportunities. Most importantly, the Spanish services would fulfill his goal to spread the Gospel to Arcadia's Spanish-speaking immigrants. And the $3,000 rent would help offset the financial burden of their shrinking membership.
The Hispanic church, Iglesia Bautista Renacer ("Rebirth Baptist Church"), was outgrowing the space where it held its services near Spartanburg. With 140 adults and their families, it had grown into the largest Hispanic Baptist church in South Carolina. The pastor, Guillermo Laurent, wanted to move to a location where the congregation could reach more Latinos.
So in March 2012, First Baptist Church of Arcadia opened its sanctuary to Renacer with a bilingual service introducing both congregations. A month later, Renacer hosted the first annual Spartanburg Hispanic Festival, attracting nearly 2,000 people to the historic church.
Phoebe Davis says she enjoys sharing the sanctuary where she has worshipped since the 1970s. The 79-year-old organist has seen the community change, and believes it's important for the church to change too. "We hope [Renacer] can reach their community, whereas we can't because a lot of them don't speak English," she said.
To accommodate their new guests, Burnett moved his Sunday service to 9 a.m. so Renacer can have the sanctuary at 11 a.m. That makes more sense, he says, because the Hispanic congregation is larger and growing. "I think one day this church will belong to them," he said.
Laurent wishes more Baptist leaders would embrace the immigrant community the way Burnett does. Unfortunately, he says, that mentality is uncommon. Most people still view his congregation of construction workers, roofers, and landscapers as second-class citizens, he says. "It's like a caste system," says Laurent, who moved to Spartanburg in 2009 from Costa Rica. "People are polite, but you get this feeling that they think you are beneath them."
He recalls the time a pastor from another church sent him a letter, telling him not to discuss immigration reform with his parishioners. Another pastor told him that Spartanburg's Hispanic churches were just preparing immigrants to return home.
It drives Laurent crazy when people say undocumented immigrants should get "in line" to enter the country legally. That system is broken, he says, pointing to his own situation. The 46-year-old pastor has been separated from his wife and son for five years. He came to Spartanburg in 2009 on a religious-worker visa to take the job as pastor of Renacer, which needed a new minister. Before then, he had been preaching for 10 years at a church in Costa Rica and studied at a seminary school in North Carolina, where his two daughters were born.