In the fall of 2005, I was twenty one years old and working as a part-time youth director at a small, rural Baptist church in Eastern North Carolina. About one-quarter of a mile away from the church was a dirt lot filled with dilapidated housing for migrant, Latina/o farm workers.
Eastern North Carolina has long been a destination for this type of labor as the state remains a prominent agricultural area. It’s also the location for the intersection of the major interstates I-95 and I-40. Many workers are truly migrant, moving up the east coast, beginning in Florida and following the growing seasons. Others make a home in the region on a more permanent basis due to the high demand and plentiful work throughout most of the year.
The pastor of the congregation with whom I worked spoke often about his desire to find a way to engage the farm laborers and their families. As neither he nor I knew the Spanish language beyond “Hello” and “How are you,” we never got very far in our plans.
One evening, however, while at church, a Latino man came and introduced himself as the pastor of a church in Greenville, North Carolina - a larger city about twenty miles away. He said that several of the farm workers who lived around the corner from our Baptist church were members of his church. He told us that his Spanish-speaking congregation was able to provide transportation for those families on Sunday, but it was difficult to arrange travel for them during the rest of the week. The level of poverty in which the workers lived, of course, meant that they had little access to their own vehicles.
The visiting pastor asked if we would consider opening our facility to his congregation members once a week for a Bible study and prayer meeting. He insisted that they would work around our schedule so as not to interfere with any of our regularly scheduled activities. Fortunately for them, our church rarely had activities outside of Sunday worship and Wednesday evenings.
The pastor and I were excited. It seemed like a divinely orchestrated opportunity for us to be in partnership with our sisters and brothers in Christ around the corner from our church. The language barrier proved to be insurmountable, but sharing our space was something we easily could do.
The pastor with whom I worked happily approached the governing board of the congregation and presented this opportunity. We both were shocked as most members of the board responded in an overtly harsh way. “It’ll interfere with our own events,” someone said. “Who’s going to make sure the space is arranged properly for us after they use it?” others asked.
As the pastor offered easy and sensible solutions, the frustration of the board continued to grow until one deacon raised his voice and said, “Look. My problem isn’t with the schedule or the space. It’s that they’re Mexicans. God meant for the whites to worship with the whites, the black with the blacks, and the Mexicans with the Mexicans. Case closed.”
My jaw dropped to the table. The pastor hung his head. I blurted out something about racism with the intensity of an idealistic 21 year old. Tensions flared until it was agreed - per our polity - that the matter would be decided with a congregational vote.
The meeting arrived a few weeks later, and the measure to allow these sisters and brothers in Christ to use our fellowship hall to read their Bibles and pray was overwhelmingly voted down by 85% of those gathered (75-15). The pastor would resign in the coming months, as the matter was so contentious that he realized he was no longer welcomed at the church. He stopped pastoring, as a matter of fact, for a long while, due to the way he and his family were treated and due to the frustration of the behavior of those seventy five congregation members. The migrant families around the corner from our little church, of course, received the message loud and clear. They weren’t welcome. “Case closed.”
I walked out of the congregational meeting that Sunday afternoon, sat in my car, wept and raged. The experience deeply challenged my optimism that communities and individuals were naturally and inevitably moving away from racist beliefs and practices. I thought that this type of racist behavior had been restrained to periods of American history before my birth. I also didn’t think the Church could be a conduit of such sentiment. I was wrong on both counts.
For a long time, I focused on the seventy five members who either vehemently opposed the opportunity to be hospitable or voted against it because they thought we should “move more slowly.” These days, though, I try to focus on the fifteen people who voted in favor of the measure. I try to remember their courage and conviction to stand up for and witness to the image of God in which our migrant neighbors were created - in which all humans are created. I especially remember the courage of Mrs. Joyce, an elderly woman and lifelong member of the church, who stood up and pleaded, “If we can’t show hospitality to other Christian folk, then what does that say about us? If we love only ourselves, what credit is that to us [Matthew 5:47]?”
Most certainly, experiences like these drive some millennials away from the Church. I felt like walking away from the Church that day, too. To experience that type of prejudice within that congregation was shocking to me, at the time. Now, unfortunately, I know it’s all too typical. Nevertheless, I managed to stay with the Church for these last twelve years, not by virtue of my own strength, but, rather, largely due to the witness of those fifteen individuals, including Mrs. Joyce.
May God bless her witness and her life, and may we continue to stand alongside of those who are alienated, other-ed, rejected, and despised.
Director, Together for Hope Louisiana
A ministry of CBF Louisiana
Resides in Lake Providence, LA