In Alabama, a church sees its Latino brethren vanish

Since the state passed its tough immigration law, many are moving elsewhere. At one Southern Baptist church, white members struggle to reconcile their support for the measure with compassion for their fellow Christians.

Since the passage of Alabama's tough immigration law, more Latinos are leaving the state. And at one Southern Baptist church, many white members are struggling to reconcile their support for the measure with their compassion for fellow Christians.

The New Latino South

The Latino population in the South has grown dramatically over the last decade. This is one in a series of occasional stories chronicling the lives of Latinos in a changing region.

More in the series:

Guatemalan man with a U.S. family is threatened with deportation

Fewer hands in the fields

Legal taxis ferry illegal immigrants to work in Georgia

A hard life for one Latina teenager

December 30, 2011

Reporting from Tallassee, Ala. — The small group, six Mexican men and a woman from Guatemala, sang No. 619 in the hymnal with a force that belied their number:

"Alabad a Jehova! Naciones todas, pueblos todos …"

Praise God! All nations, all people ...

A display quote in an earlier online version of this article incorrectly attributed the quote regarding "so-called aliens" to Kathi Schmitt. JoAnn Johnston made that statement.

They had come this Sunday morning to pray, as they always do, at Riverside Heights Baptist Church, out beyond Rosehill Cemetery, where the graves of Civil War dead are marked with tattered Confederate flags.

Victoria Pajaro banged out a piano accompaniment in the vigorous style that Southern Baptist missionary women had taught her years ago in Colombia. After a Bible reading, a pastor named William Robles, speaking in Spanish, abruptly mentioned the state's new immigration law, which requires that police check the residency status of suspected illegal immigrants.

We cannot assume that the whites who supported the law are bigots, he told the congregation. Only God knows the content of their hearts.

In an hour, the sanctuary would fill with the church's white members, nearly all of them conservatives and most supporters of Republican Gov. Robert J. Bentley, the Southern Baptist deacon who championed the law as the nation's toughest after signing it in September.

For more than a decade, however, the white Southern Baptists in this small country church have opened their doors, wallets and hearts to a group of Latino strangers who appeared among them suddenly one Sunday, desperate for a place to pray.

They hired a bilingual pastor, launched a countywide "Hispanic mission," and let their children play side by side with the newcomers' kids on field trips and in summer camps. They knew or suspected that many of them were here illegally.

Now, since the law's passage, the Latinos are moving away. And in the pine pews of Riverside Heights Baptist Church, many white members are struggling to reconcile strongly held convictions about a lawful society with their compassion for their new brothers and sisters in Christ.

Pastor Randy Billingsley is among those who support the Latino mission as staunchly they do the law that is thinning its ranks.

To Billingsley, a retired Air Force master sergeant, illegal immigration poses a national security threat. At the same time, he said, "They're humans. We want to minister to them regardless of what legal status they have."

An immigrant worker bows his head in prayer during the Latino Ministry at Riverside Heights Baptist Church in Tallassee, Alabama. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

An immigrant worker bows his head in prayer during a Latino Ministry service at Riverside Heights Baptist Church in Tallassee, Ala. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

The rhythms of Sunday morning are different than they were a decade ago, with Sanchezes and Lopezes among the Bentons and Ransoms and Rigsbys, and a schedule shaped by a desire for fellowship and the hard reality of the language barrier.

The Spanish-language service is at 9:30 a.m. in an old meeting room. English-language church is at 11 a.m. in the main sanctuary. Only the children are thrown together for Sunday school: the Latino kids, in day care or enrolled in public schools, are usually fluent in English, or close to it.

Alejandro Pajaro, Victoria's bilingual husband, has preached to the English side on special occasions. Billingsley has preached at the Spanish service, with Alejandro translating.

Both whites and Latinos are baptized in the same industrial-sized tub, built into the wall above the altar behind a low plexiglass partition. Sometimes, the newly baptized emerge from the water to the sight of white and brown people in the pews below, clapping and shouting, uproariously, as one.

The church has hosted classes in English as a second language for the Latinos and Spanish classes for the whites, but the lessons haven't really stuck. So the members try to make do.

Once a month, JoAnn Johnston's Sunday school class invites the two groups to a big country breakfast. She bakes the homemade biscuits. Tommy Graham, an avid hunter, brings venison sausage, and James Benton cooks it. Gloria Lowery makes the coffee and grits.

They sit down together in a new, gymnasium-like metal building — constructed in part to handle the new Latino flock — and they smile, and nod, and eat. But they don't really speak.

"We can't understand each other," Kathi Schmitt said. "So we just smile."

Riverside Heights Baptist was founded in 1954 for the white shop-floor workers who settled on the north end of this former cotton mill town, where city gives way to country. In 1963, the church adopted a declaration of purpose based on Christ's instructions in the Gospel of Matthew:

"Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."

But for most of its history, the church served the neighborhood, not nations, with a membership hovering around 100. Most churchgoers were related, or friends as close as kin. Kathi and Steven Schmitt were considered exotic when they moved to Tallassee in the 1970s from Birmingham, about two hours north.

That changed the day Kathi heard the voices bleeding through the pines behind her house. They were crackling with radio static, and singing in Spanish — a rarity in Elmore County in the early 2000s.

Kathi and Steven, a church deacon, followed the sound to the neighbors' house, where they met the new tenants: two recently arrived Latina women who spoke halting English.

The Schmitts did what good Southern Baptists do. They invited them to church.

The women attended Riverside Heights the next Sunday and for months afterward. One morning, without warning, they brought friends — about 30 Mexican and Guatemalan men, mostly, in work shirts and Western wear, all laundered and shined up for Sunday.

Steven Schmitt is a retired trial lawyer, an opponent of abortion, gambling and gay rights who also sees a social justice message in Scripture. He voted for Gov. Bentley and President Obama. He says, with a chuckle, that he is probably one of the most liberal residents in this city of 4,800.

He looked at the new crowd that Sunday and saw the work of providence: "An opportunity," he said later, "that the Lord has placed before us."

The newcomers sat through about a month of English-language church services while Schmitt and a few other members scrambled for a way to serve them.

There was grumbling. Some older church members didn't appreciate "the so-called aliens," JoAnn Johnston recalled.

But they never brought it up with Schmitt. So he and the others pressed on.

Along with the Elmore Baptist Assn., a consortium of the county's Southern Baptist churches, they decided to launch a countywide mission.

Though still a relatively small slice of the total population, Elmore County's Latino count tripled from 1990 to 2000, and it would nearly triple again in the ensuing decade to 2,100 Latinos out of a population of 79,000.

For the preacher's position, they began courting Alejandro and Victoria Pajaro, both raised in a Southern Baptist church in Cartagena, Colombia. At the time, Alejandro was finishing his master's degree at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

He told his wife: We'll never live in Alabama. The prejudice is too strong there.

But the Pajaros visited, and were moved by the Alabamians' sincerity. When they took the job and arrived in Elmore County, they were greeted by more than 100 people, who brought the couple fresh okra and beans from their gardens, and gift certificates and clothing and homemade desserts.

The tradition, in this part of the world, is called a "pounding": a pound of sugar, a pound of flour, for the new preacher.

Victoria thought: When God lives in the heart, there's no problem with races.

The Pajaros began driving around in a beat-up Chevy Astro, casting for Spanish-speaking souls amid tumbledown trailer parks. Most were Roman Catholics wary of Protestantism. Some closed doors on the Pajaros. Others would let them in if they called their visit "Bible study."

The Pajaros visited the sick in the hospital and suspects in jail. Alejandro, whom the whites call "Alex," spent so much time translating in the court system that the county eventually started paying him for the service.

At Riverside Baptist, the Latino workers and their families came and went with the seasons, or with the call of the next job. They judged the white members by what they could see: Invitations to the yearly Valentine's Day banquet. Charity to families in need. And names side by side in the church directory: Francisco Baltazar right there before Richard Bennett and James and Sylvia Benton.

"They have accepted the word of God," longtime church member Osvaldo Sanchez said. "And the word of God says love your neighbors."

Pastor Randy Billingsley sits with children for a short story as part of the English service at Riverside Heights Baptist Church in Tallassee, Ala. Latino families attend a Spanish-language service in another room. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

On the first Sunday in December, when Robles spoke about the immigration law, he asked the Latino congregants to open their Bibles to the Gospel of John. Robles was filling in for Alejandro, who sat among his flock, his voice dulled by a recent stroke. Robles directed them to Chapter 4:

Jesus is in Samaria, a stranger in a foreign land, asking a woman at a well for a drink. The woman questions the stranger, then accepts him as a prophet.

Robles asked them: How many of us didn't accept the message of God when we were in our own countries?

He said: How many of our friends are leaving the United States now, returning not with empty hearts but with full ones?

At 11 a.m. in the sanctuary, the whites sang "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "How Great Thou Art." Billingsley told them that in Micah it was prophesied that the savior would come not from big Jerusalem, but from the tiny backwater of Bethlehem.

He also reminded them of what Jesus did to the loaves and fishes. "What God takes — and is little, and makes huge — is incredible," he said.

From the pulpit, Deacon Schmitt asked Edlow Johnston for the weekly Sunday school report.

"We had 57 members present, with 16 Hispanic, for a total of 73," he said.

Schmitt remembers Sundays before the passage of the law, when the "Hispanic" number was as high as 60. The law, he says, was mean-spirited, an attempt to score political points.

A few days later, Bentley announced he was working to change the law. He avoided specifics, but said it would be "fair and just," and preserve jobs "for those in Alabama legally."

Perhaps those changes will appeal to members like Tommy Graham, who sees the logic in a stricter immigration law but worries for the Latinos he has come to know.

Graham, 68, a retired fireman, has a few Latino kids running around his house most days: his wife, Iris, runs a day care.

"I'd hate for them to go back to what they came from," Graham said. "All of them are good workers, and not working jobs that white people would take."

Pastor Billingsley knows there is pain in being uprooted. If a retooled law continues to scare away his Latino flock — sending them to other states or nations — he is comforted in the knowledge that they will be equipped to spread God's word.

Soon after the governor signed the law, some Riverside Heights members gathered to discuss its implications. The sweeping legislation included provisions, later blocked by a judge, against knowingly harboring or transporting illegal immigrants.

Schmitt, the retired attorney, concluded they would have no problems — so long as they didn't ask about anyone's legal status.

Lanette Billingsley, the pastor's wife, called the policy "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Still, they decided there was no reason to take chances. They painted over the words emblazoned on the church van that read MISIÓN HISPANA.