Immigrant assistance to be N.C. Baptist outreach
CARY, N.C. (BP) -- North Carolina Baptists are stepping up their ministry to immigrants.
A new Baptist Immigrant Services (BIS) ministry being gradually launched by the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSCNC) will set up a yet-unspecified number of immigration ministry centers across the state. The first center is being established in Lincolnton.
As those ministry centers develop in the coming months, they will be able to provide information and a biblical/theological understanding of immigration to help equip churches to meet and minister to their immigrant neighbors. Ministering to immigrants could include hosting immigrant families, providing hospitality and basic fellowship to them, or generally helping the newcomers become integrated in local communities.
The convention has named two leaders for the ministry: Longtime staffer Amaury Santos and contract worker Larry Phillips. Both Santos and Phillips earlier served with the convention as Hispanic church planters and each has held several other ministry assignments.
Phillips served as a Southern Baptist missionary to Peru before relocating to North Carolina to serve with the state convention, often using his fluent Spanish. He is a South Carolina native who served 12 years as a pastor in North Carolina.
Both Santos and Phillips hold multiple degrees, including doctorates from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.
A new challenge in missions
As in other states, immigrants have poured into North Carolina in recent decades, and Baptists have responded to these newcomers in many ways, from planting ethnic language churches and conducting evangelistic outreach, to teaching English, and providing food and clothing, to name just a few.
Five years ago the state convention launched its "Impacting Lostness through Disciple-making" initiative. Evangelizing individuals in North Carolina from among every language, ethnic and cultural group is one of the foundational tenets of the strategy.
As part of the effort, eight strategy coordinators now seek to rally Baptists across North Carolina to reach the lost for Christ, including immigrants and refugees. The BSCNC has sought to identify individuals from every people group residing in the state, paying special attention to those identified by the International Mission Board (IMB) as unreached and unengaged.
According to the IMB, an unreached people group is a people group in which less than 2 percent of the population are evangelical Christians. A people group is considered unengaged when there is no church planting strategy consistent with evangelical faith and practice currently being implemented.
'A divine opportunity'
Messengers at the 2015 BSCNC annual meeting adopted a resolution that described the arrival of immigrants as "a divine opportunity" and called on churches to "pursue opportunities to tangibly meet the needs of immigrants within their community as a demonstration of the love of Christ and in order to build relationships so as to more effectively be able to proclaim the hope of the gospel."
The resolution noted that North Carolina Baptists may not all agree on specific public policy responses, but noted that "we are united in our call to extend love and compassion to those who are vulnerable and to reach all people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ."
Also, the resolution called on churches to reach all people "regardless of country of origin, language, and that we oppose any form of bigotry, mistreatment, or exploitation of any person made in the image of God."
The Southern Baptist Convention also has passed several resolutions on immigrants and refugees, calling Southern Baptist churches to respond more to the nation's influx of immigrants.
The adoption of North Carolina resolution prompted BSCNC staff, in consultation with the convention's board of directors, to set up the new ministry to serve immigrants. North Carolina is either the first or one of a very few state conventions across the nation to establish a ministry like this with ministry centers and representatives who have received U.S. Department of Justice accreditation. In fact, most church work helping resettle immigrants has been done by Roman Catholics.
When a four-member Baptist team that included Santos and Phillips visited the Mexican border at Nogales, Mexico, in June, a Catholic worker was startled to hear Baptists were looking to help immigrants.
"This isn't you," he told them.
"It's not where we've been, but it's where we want to be," Phillips responded.
'Welcome the stranger'
The new BIS centers will offer immigrants legal help with negotiating the often confusing and complex laws controlling U.S. immigration. Also, the centers will help churches better "welcome the stranger" and "treat them as one of their own (native-born)."
Phillips and Santos have been partnering with the Raleigh-based Council on Immigrant Relations (CIR), a nonprofit organization established in 2006 to help churches and civic organizations build relationships with international communities.
CIR director John Faison, who attends Crossroads Community Church in Raleigh, has been providing guidance to the convention in setting up the new centers to aid immigrants. Faison said the goal of the ministry is "to effectively show God's heart for the vulnerable. The ministry is not so much to immigrants as it is a ministry for the churches to participate with God's heart for the vulnerable."
Because immigration is controlled by the federal government, those who are not lawyers but want to provide legal counsel to immigrants must be accredited by the Department of Justice through its Office of Legal Access Programs. The process entails extensive training, mastery of a complex set of laws and passing an examination. The government has made this option available to nonprofit organizations and churches because of the high numbers of immigrants involved.
Phillips is now an accredited representative with the Department of Justice. He is working with CIR in Raleigh and in the El Centro Latino (The Latin Center), an immigration center in Hickory recognized by the Department of Justice. Santos is working to obtain his accreditation status.
At the Baptist convention's first immigration ministry center in Lincolnton, the accredited representative will be Bobby Farmer, ministry coordinator at Hull's Grove Baptist Church in nearby Vale.
Farmer is completing the final steps to receive his Department of Justice accreditation. A building has been acquired on Main Street in Lincolnton for the ministry, which will be operated in cooperation with the South Fork Baptist Association, the Council on Immigrant Relations and the Baptist state convention. A separate, nonprofit group will provide start-up funding to help with the building costs.
Phillips said the expectation is that immigration ministry centers will be gradually set up across North Carolina. Convention workers subsequently will help other associations and churches acquire the training and accreditation needed to open similar ministries. The start-up process will soon be underway in a second city, Phillips said.
Santos added, "We will not be activists taking political positions on immigration, but we will help immigrants who are here get sound legal counsel as they file forms or meet with immigration officials.
"People say they want immigration done legally, and that's what we'll be trying to do -- help people do things according to the law."
Faison said the ministry centers will provide a needed service that will help immigrants navigate the complexities of the legal system.
"We'll be providing immigrants with a basic understanding of the law so they can know both their rights and their responsibilities as they have a legal presence in the country," Faison said, adding that immigration judges are eager for immigrants to have this kind of support as cases come before the courts.
"I'm sometimes asked why people wanting to live in America don't just sign up and become citizens," Faison said. "The answer is ... there's a whole process required for citizenship and the vast majority of the world's people do not qualify. Even doing things right is complicated and can take a long time to complete."
Workers with the new Baptist Immigrant Services will lead a breakout session during the BSCNC annual meeting in Greensboro in November.
Hispanics are North Carolina's largest ethnic group by far. They come from more than 20 nations and number more than 1 million. According to U.S. census data, the estimated Hispanic/Latino population makes up 9.5 percent of North Carolina's total population. Those estimates are even higher in some areas of the state.
While the traditional notion is that all Hispanics are Catholic, at least in background, a 2018 LifeWay Research study found that Hispanics now make up between 12 and 14 percent of all U.S. evangelical Christians. That suggests that Hispanics are probably more open to engage with Baptists about matters of faith than some would assume.
Hispanic Baptist churches with BSCNC involvement now number nearly 200, more than double the number just 20 years ago. William Ortega, the convention's Hispanic church planting consultant, is training and coaching dozens of church planters to expand the work. Fruitland Baptist Bible College in Hendersonville, meanwhile, offers a full Spanish-language study track and the BSCNC has several ministries focused on Hispanics.