From the pulpit in the basement of Calvary Baptist Church, the Rev. Rocky Tzib peered into a small group of brown faces. He smiled reassuringly to his dwindling congregation, a gathering of 15 calling itself Emmanuel Baptist Church, and expressed how grateful he was for the meeting space.
“This is kind of a hidden place, and you could easily miss it,” said Tzib, laughing. “Careful eyes are a blessing from God.”
It’s been said that the poor are invisible, and throughout Northeast Mississippi, Hispanics are among the poorest. That’s why you might not have noticed recently that there are fewer of them around.
At least that’s what people who work in Hispanic ministry are saying. As the economy worsens and Mississippi phases in a new system for verifying Social Security numbers, attendance at area Hispanic missions is declining.
The Rev. Mark Howard, director of missions for the Lee-Itawamba Baptist Association, said he first began noticing the decrease last year. That’s when he and 10 Hispanic pastors met to talk things over.
“It was like a perfect storm of converging factors,” said Howard.
In February 2008 Mississippi became one of four states to start phasing in the “E-Verify” system as mandatory for all employers. The system utilizes a national database to verify Social Security numbers. According to Howard, by summer the system had created concern within the Hispanic community, even among legal immigrants who felt closer scrutiny.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Mississippi’s1st Congressional District has about 15,000 legal immigrants and, by some estimates, as many as two or three times as many illegal immigrants.
Late last fall the economy took a dramatic turn for the worse, and, according to Howard, that’s when things really started to accelerate. More than 3,000 people in Northeast Mississippi were laid off work. Many of the jobs held by Hispanics, especially the manufacturing and construction jobs held by many undocumented workers, began drying up.
As layoffs increased and the “E-Verify” system phased in, a noose started tightening around undocumented workers. Those who’d been laid off were less likely to be hired elsewhere.
Such was the case with Paula, a Mexican woman who lives with her husband in southern Lee County. Nine years ago the couple walked across the Mexican desert and entered the U.S. illegally. They made their way to Mississippi and found good jobs at a furniture factory. They drove to church, to work, and generally kept to themselves.
Life was good until Paula recently suffered an injury and her husband was laid off. Neither can go back to work now at the factory because it just got the “E-Verify” system.
“What’s going to happen to us immigrants?” Paula asked as her husband was out mowing a neighbor’s yard for extra money.
Several days a week Paula, her sister and her daughter-in-law make tacos in their kitchen and drive around selling them to neighbors, but she can’t make a living that way.
Paula and her husband are considering picking up and moving on. Pascual Cruz, an advocate with the Mississippi Immigration Reform Association, said the employment situation has uprooted a lot of people like Paula.
“It’s a similar situation with work visas,” said Cruz. “Employers have to request those workers to come here and not as many are making those requests, today.” Even many legal workers, Cruz said, simply didn’t return to the U.S. after visiting their home countries for Christmas.
Tzib of Emmanuel Church said he keeps in touch with people in furniture, agricultural and landscaping businesses and sees many workers going to other states.
“Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, California, these are states that have a lot of agriculture and maybe laws that are not so strict,” he said.
Emmanuel Church, which meets in Calvary’s basement, is the center of Baptist Hispanic worship in Lee County. Over the past six months attendance has dwindled from 65 down to about 15.
Sunday, before members began trickling in, Tzib glanced at his watch and spread out a few booklets. “Sometimes we get 15, sometimes maybe three or four,” he said. “We used to get so many that we’d have to put chairs out here in the aisles.”
Meetings at Baptist Hispanic gatherings in Ripley and New Albany are also declining.
The Rev. Gerald Hodges, pastor of East Booneville Baptist Church, says the once-thriving Hispanic congregation that meets at the Prentiss County Baptist Association office has dwindled to less than 10 members.
“These are a transitory people, and I think it’s a great shame but we’re losing many of them,” said Hodges.
Baptist Hispanic churches aren’t the only ones losing members. Elquin Gonzales, Hispanic minister at St. James Catholic Church in Tupelo, said attendance at Sunday afternoon Hispanic mass had decreased by one-third.
“We’ve gained a few members who lost their jobs in other places,” said Gonzales. “The economy, the job market, has got the people on the move.”
The Rev. Ray Elsberry, pastor of Tupelo First Seventh-day Adventist Church, said his church’s Hispanic ministry is down to half of what it was six months ago.
“All of our members, who form what we call a ‘company’ are officially members of the New Albany church,” said Elsberry. “But the economy, jobs, we’re seeing a difference.”
Since the Baptist Association got involved in Hispanic ministry in 2001, it’s tried to take less of a legal and more of a pastoral approach. Howard said it hasn’t been easy.
“Your heart – the heart of any Christian – has to go out to the poor, to those who seek the church, who seek to work and live with dignity,” said Howard.
Baptist Hispanic missions like Emmanuel are supported by money from the association as well as by donations from individual churches. Howard said that between the economy and heightened sensitivity about immigration, people aren’t giving as much.
“Even the collections we take up, like for bottled water for Hispanic field workers, and food pantries, have gone way down,” said Howard. “I just think the attitudes out there have changed.”
Gonzales at St. James said tension between Anglos and Hispanics is also evident in area Catholic churches. Most of it has to do with Anglos having established and continuing to pay the lion’s share of the church’s bills.
“It’s no secret, and the Hispanic people realize that Anglos built these churches,” said Gonzales. “But, we’re all immigrants, even the Anglos.”
Hodges in Booneville said the issue of money is a recurring theme in Hispanic ministry.
“They pay what they can, but a lot of their money goes home, to other countries, and it’s difficult for them to help support churches,” said Hodges.
Howard and Gonzales both said they’re concerned about a growing feeling among Hispanics, one that throughout history has sprung up among ethnic groups when the economy is bad. “I think, sadly, that many Hispanics feel that Anglos just don’t want them around,” said Howard.
Tzib said the Baptist missions need to concentrate on prayer and preaching the gospel. If they do that, things will be fine.
“Mississippi wants to protect its interests, and I understand that,” said Tzib. “But, the state also has a long history of racism and poverty and we need to consider those things as well.”
Gonzales said he’s confident in the tenacity of the Hispanic people.
“We do well in tough times,” said Gonzales. “We can survive on rice and beans. We have to. For many of us, it’s all we’ve ever known.”
Sunday, at Emmanuel Church, Luisa Navidad sang a dolorous song about following the footsteps of Christ across the desert of life. The words spoke directly to the Hispanic, immigrant experience:
“I grow weary of the walk,” the song said in Spanish. “I need a place of refreshment for my heart.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal