August 29, 2007 News & Features » Cover Story



Antonio Orona considers attempts to tighten up the nation's immigration policy a topic of concern beyond the arena of politics. 

He sees the movement as evidence of the Antichrist. 

"Racism is a spirit.  It is a demon spirit," he says, standing outside the glass door of his church opening onto the vast parking lot of Southside Plaza. 

Orona is pastor of Tabernaculo del Espiritu Santo, a Pentecostal church, and one of the many new Hispanic churches that have been sprouting up in the Richmond region. 

To Orona, his church pews are a final point of salvation for many.  He knows people who have died trying to cross into this country. It's not just a journey rooted in job opportunities and economics, he says, but a spiritual one. 

On a recent Saturday night, members of Orona's church are in the midst of a four-day revival with a preacher visiting from Puerto Rico. Inside, the air is hot. The whole church is an enormous open room, like a high-school gymnasium. Against the back wall, a series of glass cases forms a horseshoe-shaped gift shop where Bibles, bumper stickers and tambourines are on sale. At the front of the room is a raised stage with a backdrop that's painted with a tropical waterfall. Four men in green shirts are playing guitars and an accordion. 

"Look what happened to the twin towers," Orona says.  "We live under the threat of terrorism daily, and why is that? Because the nation, they won't pray anymore. We have people of the same sex getting married. The spirit of the Antichrist is very close to manifesting itself. This is the beginning of a downfall. We saw the way the Romans and the Greeks and the Egyptians fell. The U. S.  is going to do the same thing because sin is destroying the nation. "

A clutch of adolescent girls offers birthday wishes to Orona over the microphone. Later that night, those same girls are overcome by the spirit of Jesus and moved to scream and shake and toss their heads with the intensity and abandon of childbirth. They throw themselves on the ground and stomp their high-heeled feet. A deacon calmly paces behind the crowd with a stack of embroidered white cloths ready to hand to women nearby — in case one of the girls falls to the ground and exposes herself, she can be quickly covered. 

This is what Pentecostals call Baptism in the Spirit of Christ. The girls aren't alone. Most of the congregation joins them in front of the stage, overcome by the spirit. As they file back to their seats, their eyes are rimmed red from crying. 

But before any of that happens, Orona introduces the preacher visiting from Puerto Rico as "72 years old and still burning the devil."   The preacher takes the stand and speaks to the assembly. At the back of the room, he says, he sees three angels, messengers from God.  The angels have news for the congregation, and it's his job to transmit it to them.  The preacher calls out the names dictated to him by the angels, while members in the audience rise and approach the stage. 

One woman stands at the front while the preacher narrates what he sees: The angels have approached the woman with a scalpel and syringe and remove a terrible bloody cyst. Had they not, the woman would have developed cancer in the following year.  He has bad news for one man. If the church does not concentrate and pray very hard, he will have an accident at work Oct.  22. 

He calls another man to the front. He sees the date Sept.  20, 2011, a Friday. It's a day that will bring very good news.  News that's good for the family and the congregation.  That is the day the man will receive his U. S.  citizenship. 

FOR MANY IN HIS FLOCK, U.S. citizenship is the holy grail. Orona struggles to comprehend the lack of compassion, and the vitriol, of those who insist on closing the borders.

"Something that is illegal is not right — but my God, you have to be human," he says.  "You've got to understand that this is an immigrant country.  Even the people who work in the immigration department have forefathers who were immigrants. "

Pentecostalism is widespread in Puerto Rico, and the traditions of healings, miracles and prophecies represent a dramatic belief in the power of the Holy Spirit to intervene in daily life. It is not, as he says, "Open your hymn book to page 195, go to the kitchen and eat broccoli. "

It's not just Pentecostal churches that have taken root here.  Catholic and evangelical churches have also seen their pews fill with Hispanic parishioners in growing numbers nationwide.  Almost a third of all Catholics in the United States are Latinos — a number that's climbing, according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center, a non-partisan think tank based in Washington, D. C. 

Orona is a U. S.  citizen born in Puerto Rico, but he's an immigrant to the South.  After getting a doctorate in theology at Columbia University in New York City and publishing books of Scripture translated into Spanish from the original koine Greek, Orona says, he and his wife followed directions from the Lord to come to Richmond.  They went door to door to gather a congregation and now have one, 250 members strong, almost all Hispanic. 

When Hispanics join church communities, they bring unique perspectives on life to prayer and Scripture, says Fernando Cascante-G¢mez, a Christian education professor at Union Theological Seminary. 

"For instance, when a person, in some cases a Hispanic, struggles day to day to find jobs, someone who waits on the corner to find work, and they say the Lord's Prayer, 'Give us this day our daily bread' — when he says that, he really means it," Cascante-G¢mez says.  "For many, the Lord's Prayer is a recitation.  For the most part, today, tomorrow and next week's bread is secured. "

The Bible is a book of stories about the needy and oppressed, he says, and fear of deportation and the daily struggle for survival in a foreign land make the Gospel more immediate to Hispanic congregants. While the government looks for ways to turn back illegal immigrants, many churches are finding ways to minister to them. 

Orona supported the recent U. S.  Senate bill that would have overhauled the country's national immigration policy. When the congregation got word that the bill was shelved, he says, many of his parishioners were in tears. And fear has crept even closer as state and local governments take matters into their own hands. 

The Prince William County Board of Supervisors voted in July to deny social services to illegal immigrants, and instructs police to check the citizenship status of anyone in police custody who they suspect is undocumented. The county started deportation proceedings for 22 inmates, some of whom were incarcerated for misdemeanors.  Last week, Delegate Jeffrey M.  Frederick, R-Prince William, announced his intention to introduce similar legislation statewide. 

Chesterfield County already sends updates on all its inmates for federal immigration authorities to cross-check for illegals, and just last week released a report recommending a zoning ordinance that would allow building officials to more easily weed out overcrowded houses, it its efforts to combat illegal immigration. 

A few miles away at St.  Augustine Catholic Church, the message has more to do with shepherds, not demons. The Rev.  Michael Schmied adopted a stray dog on a New Year's Day awhile back and now they are so close that the dog sprawls at his feet on the dais while Schmied leads Sunday Mass. Mac is a border collie, and collies are herding dogs, a natural companion for a shepherd. 

There are those who say church is no place for a dog.  Schmied gently reminds his parishioners that the porcelain sheep nestled on their mantels in December commemorate Jesus' birth in the manger.  Where there are sheep, Schmied reasons, there is a sheep dog. Other congregants have different concerns. In many South American countries, dogs run wild or are kept for protection, Schmied says, so for the first few Sundays, lots of Hispanic children were afraid of Mac. 

In the past decade, the church has changed significantly. It used to be mostly white, middle-class parishioners, but the Hispanic population at the church has grown so large that the airy sanctuary now hosts two English Masses and two Spanish Masses every Sunday. 

Mac is at his post behind the communion table for the Feast of the Assumption on a recent Wednesday evening. At St.  Augustine, the feast is one of a handful of bilingual services the church holds throughout the year. Having bilingual services is one way the church has systematically tried to incorporate the Hispanic community into its fold. 

The vaulted ceilings and exposed brick walls make the sanctuary feel grand and cozy at once.  Schmied swings an incense ball that sends puffs of smoke over roughly 100 worshippers. The group looks sparse on this summer evening, but is evenly divided between Hispanics and non-Hispanics praying in two languages. 

"Lamb of God,  you take away the sins of the world; danos la paz, danos la paz, danos la paz," they pray.  Passages of Scripture that are read aloud in one language are translated in the prayer guide.  The choir, joined by an organ, guitars and tambourines, sings slow and somber songs in English and quicker, more upbeat Spanish songs. 

"At first, the choir didn't want to sing in Spanish,"  Schmied says.  "Now they love it because it's another challenge.  They used to sing in Latin, anyway. "

In 1987, the U. S.  branch of the Catholic Church made it official church policy to attempt to integrate congregations.  Basically,  Schmied says, they asked, "Please do not use separate but equal churches, because they're not equal and tend to stay separate. "

During the Feast of the Assumption, Catholics celebrate the Virgin Mary's ascension to heaven, but this congregation is commemorating another ascension. The Rev.  Ricardo Seidel died eight years ago this August. He had spearheaded the effort to find a home for local Hispanic worshippers who had no church of their own. 

Starting in the early '90s, Seidel had been leading Spanish-language Mass for the Centro Cat¢lico Guadalupe, a small group that met in a rented room at a nearby church on Sundays. Seidel and Schmied eventually integrated the two congregations at St.  Augustine July 29, 1999.  Seidel led the first Spanish Mass, then fell ill that week and died soon after. 

Now all the church bulletins are printed in both languages, and most of the staff is bilingual.  Fidel Rubio came to St.  Augustine with Seidel, and after the congregations merged, he quit his management job at a local bank and took a pay cut to work at the church as a pastoral associate. 

To encourage Spanish speakers to use English, the church teaches all the Sunday school classes in English, and Rubio organizes weekly language classes for adults. Other issues are thornier.  Recently, the mother of a church member died in El Salvador. The man wanted to go to the funeral, but his visa wouldn't allow it. 

Last month, another member of the church died.  The man had three children, all born in this country, but his citizenship papers were still being processed when he died. His wife waits in limbo, faced with the decision of staying here illegally or returning home without her children. The church wrote a letter to immigration officials relaying how important the family is to the community. 

"One letter is not enough," Rubio says.  "For that reason, we need to talk more to the community about how they need to be citizens. " In the meantime, he says, "We have to be the voice of the people who don't have a voice. "

The 1 p. m.  Sunday Mass in Spanish is standing room only.  When the service finishes at 2 p.m., a group from Prince William County called Mexicanos Sin Fronteras (Mexicans Without Borders) addresses the congregation. 

Ricardo Juarez, the group's spokesman, asks for the congregation's support and offers theirs if Chesterfield passes similar immigration measures.  He says public hearings at government meetings in Prince William no longer feel safe. 

"We know that the church is an institution that opens its doors to the suffering of immigrants and now is a space where they feel protection," says Juarez, a 40-year-old construction worker who declines to comment on his immigration status.  "We don't trust no more the police.  There is a lot of fear. "

While many Latin American countries have large Catholic populations, the same enthusiasm for evangelical churches in this country has spread in Latin America, and immigrants are increasingly joining non-Catholic congregations. 

"Participation is critical in the Hispanic church," says Union Theological Seminary's Cascante-G¢mez, adding that many perceive evangelical churches as offering a more direct relationship with God. 

The Rev.  Julio Avula, who heads El Refugio, a tiny Baptist congregation in Henrico County, concurs.  "The evangelical church encourages people to read the Bible, but the Catholic Church, they read the Bible to the people," Avula says through a translator during lunch at Mexico Restaurant in the West End. 

Avula came to this country from Uruguay four years ago and got a job and a visa through a Baptist convention he came to attend.  His head is shaved, and he wears a sporty beige shirt. Between fielding calls on his cell phone, he orders lunch with rice instead of beans on the side without much interest; Mexican is not his favorite cuisine.  In his native Uruguay, he ate steaks and pasta.  The food there bears the influence of the Italian and French settlers who passed through. 

His congregation has just moved into a new home in an extra building at Goodwill Baptist Church in Henrico, a church with a congregation that is nearly all white and American-born. It's a common strategy for small startup churches to partner with larger, existing ones.  The smaller buildings are convenient incubators for new churches like El Refugio. 

"We're always happy to have another ministry and people being taught and hopefully being saved," says Shirley Martin, a member at Goodwill.  But the congregations mostly stay separate, she says: "Because of the language barrier, I don't think it would work.  I think they would enjoy having their own service. "

On a recent Sunday, El Refugio is meeting in the youth hall at Goodwill. A digital projector illuminates the name of the church on a screen behind Avula, who plays guitar and sings softly to the two dozen people who fill the small room.  There are children's toys and posters left from the teenagers who typically congregate here.  During Avula's sermon, he asks the congregation who the country's first president was. 

Tabaré Vazquez, right?

No, Avula chides, Tabaré is the current president of Uruguay. The first president of this country was George Washington, and he said that you cannot govern a country if the Bible is not its strength. 

Avula later asks one of the congregants to read aloud. The man does, but with some difficulty.  He is Guatemalan and Spanish is his second language — most Guatemalans grow up speaking a Mayan dialect — further removing him even from Spanish-language outreach projects. 

Bob Grose, a member of Goodwill Baptist, El Refugio's host church, has been active in helping El Refugio settle in. He's helped El Refugio become a stop for the Bon Secours Care-A-Van, a free mobile clinic that comes to the church once a week. He's been helping to set up English classes, but getting people to attend is tricky. 

"They are threatened, there's no other way to put it.  They are scared of the police," Grose says.  "They won't even go to a fire station if they have free shots. "

Avula says one of his parishioners was arrested and deported after running a red light. "I saw him dressed as a prisoner, like he was a criminal, and that hurt," he says. The man was in this country working and saving money to build a house for his family.  "To me that is not just. "

Unlike the Catholic Church with its ordered hierarchy, Baptist churches are independent and spread out into conventions. El Refugio is part of the Southern Baptist Convention, a more conservative branch of the denomination. There's room for variation — Avula says he thinks it would be all right for a woman to become a pastor, something many members of his conference might disagree with.  Unlike the Catholic Church, which supports opening the U. S.  borders to illegal immigrants, Baptists differ on the issue. 

Jason Carlisle lived in Uruguay for nine years and continues to work for the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention here in Richmond. "Hispanic evangelicals do not understand why white conservatives who want their support on abortion and family values aren't willing to support them on helping their families," he says. 

Praying and preaching together, however, may eventually change that. 

"The church doesn't need to be involved in politics because the goals are different," Avula says.  "But the church has to be conscious about when things are going against justice.  The church can tell the government that they're doing something wrong because the church should be the conscience, the moral model for a society. 

"And this time, the country's laws are pretty much against justice. " S

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