Hispanic Congregation Revives Historic Baptist Church in South Carolina

National Journal recently visited Greenville and Spartanburg to explore the changes happening in upstate South Carolina. In the coming weeks, Next America will publish a series of stories about the people who are shaping this conversation.

ARCADIA, S.C."“When pastor Joey Burnett told parishioners that he wanted to share First Baptist Church of Arcadia with a Hispanic congregation, he was surprised by their reaction.

"Everyone seemed open to the idea, and this is a very traditional church," he said, adding that only two people left the church because of the decision.

In the past decade, Arcadia has moved from being a mostly white, middle-class town to a lower-income Hispanic community. The Baptist church first opened here in 1904 to serve the families who worked at the nearby cotton mills. The congregation grew to more than 300 members before the mills went bankrupt in 2001. Now most of the brick mill buildings sit abandoned and crumbling, and the church has seen its membership decline.

At the same time, Hispanic immigrants have moved into the area, drawn to Arcadia's affordable homes and its proximity to a cluster of factories that popped up near Interstate 85. Nearly half of the community is now Hispanic, and Arcadia Elementary school has the largest percentage of Hispanic students in the state—68 percent, according to the Education Department. The neighborhood across from the church is nicknamed "Little Mexico."

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.

Laurent moved to South Carolina with the understanding that his wife, son, and two daughters would quickly follow. But only his daughters came, because they were American citizens. The U.S. Consulate in San Jose denied visas to his wife and son, even though U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had approved a visa for him and his dependents. Consulate officials never gave Laurent's wife, Vanessa, a reason for the denial.

The office of then-Sen. Jim DeMint got involved, sending letters to the State Department to find out why consular officials in Costa Rica denied the visa. First, they said it was because the church Renacer doesn't exist, and that it was just a visa scheme. When that was cleared up, the consulate denied Vanessa's application a second time. They said the family didn't have property in Costa Rica, a sign that they might not return home when the visa expired. Laurent pointed out that the requirement doesn't apply to religious visas.

The third time Vanessa returned to the consulate, her visa was denied again. This time, it was because she had overstayed a tourist visa more than 10 years ago. The maximum penalty for overstaying a tourist visa is a 10-year-ban from returning to the United States, and 10 years had already passed. "I have tried to do everything right, and I've ended up facing a wall of bureaucratic red tape and ridiculous policies. They just arbitrarily separate families," says Laurent, who often suffers bouts of depression.

Laurent's attorney advised him against traveling to Costa Rica even to visit his wife, as it would be seen as a sign that he wasn't serious about staying in the United States. So their relationship has survived via Skype and sleepless nights. Laurent has packed his suitcase countless times, unable to bear another day apart. Then his wife reminds him why he's in South Carolina. "This is my calling," Laurent says. "God wants me to minister to this community. Why do I have to choose between God and my family?"

A few months ago, Laurent got a green card, and he and his two daughters traveled to Costa Rica for the first time in five years. He hopes his permanent resident status will make it easier to bring the rest of his family over. His wife's next appointment at the consulate is for Aug. 7.

Laurent wonders if his battles with the immigration system reflect an institutional discrimination toward immigrants from Latin America. "I don't think it's so hard for someone from England or France to come here," he said.

At a recent Wednesday-night service in the A-frame church sanctuary, Laurent tells his parishioners to pray for the president and members of Congress, so they will fight for justice, not injustice. God loves everyone equally, he tells them, whether "white, black, yellow, or purple." "That's why we were invited to be part of this church," he says. "To show that there is no difference between us."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misidentified the member of Congress who sent letters to the State Department on behalf of Guillermo Laurent. It was Sen. Jim DeMint.