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A dream deferred

"A dream deferred" Continued...

Issue: "Finding their way," Oct. 8, 2011

Ramirez sympathizes with illegal immigrants who want a better future for their children but says the United States needs to be "practical" by improving border security: "The U.S. cannot handle all the immigration that comes here." The debate continues, but in the meantime students like Carlos have to put their future on hold. He had considered returning to Honduras and then coming back legally, but when he heard about the DREAM Act he decided to stay to see if it would pass. It hasn't and Carlos is still waiting, with his options running out.

"My life is here," he said. "There's so much keeping me here and it's hard-even if I wanted to go back, I can't just leave. Every morning I wake up and I don't know if I'll be here tomorrow."

Bridge building

Churches find ways to close the gap with Latin American community

By Brittany Smith

Kevin Ziechmann/Charlotte Observer/MCT/Newscom

On a hot Wednesday night in Charlotte, N.C., Spanish and English voices fill the lobby of Iglesia Bautista de Hickory Grove as adults chat on one side with their middle school to college-aged children on the other. Then the two groups split, with 40 adults heading to the sanctuary for a Spanish-language sermon on the Israelites' false idols, and 30 students to another room for Pictionary and charades.

The youth group gathers in a circle, snacking on popcorn and laughing with friends, speaking only in English. Youth leader Luis Tejera, son of a Hickory Grove pastor of the same name, asks the students for prayer requests, then prays in Spanish because he says it's easier for him. After the prayer, conversation and games switch back to English.

The students have mostly grown up in American public schools and can speak both English and Spanish. Probably nearly half are here illegally. The church reaches out to the Hispanic community by offering Spanish-language sermons and Bible studies, but also connects congregants to legal services and teaches them how to comply with laws and stay out of trouble.

Pastor Tejera is aware that some in his 500-member congregation are not here legally, but he says his job is to minister to all members: "The Bible says I have to reach everyone. There are political facts about the issue, but I'm not a politician. There are legal issues, but I'm not a lawyer. I'm a Christian, and I respond to the needs of everyone how God sees it."

Tejera says many immigrants are accustomed to authorities and even religious institutions taking advantage of them, and Tejera says it takes a lot of time to gain their trust. He also makes it a point to help congregants understand that American culture is different from the one they left: "They have to understand this is a different place, and they have to abide by the rules."

Sixty miles north of Charlotte in Hickory, Brandon Martin deals with similar issues. Every Thursday night, The Bridge Hispanic Mission he pastors brings together for English classes a group of Lutheran parishioners-55 volunteers from 13 local churches-to meet with area Hispanic families at a local school. Martin greets everyone warmly, switching seamlessly between Spanish and English. Beginners meet in the school's library where tutors and their students sit around square tables, and a teacher directs their attention to the screen at the front for that night's lesson.

Elsie Johnston, a volunteer from Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church, says, "We try to keep it light." The teacher has the students play games during the two-hour session, and tonight's game is simple: In English, ask those next to you, "When is your birthday?"-and they answer you in English. Some of the Hispanic women whisper nervously to each other and laugh when one of them accidentally says a month in Spanish. Johnston says the games are integral to helping students overcome their fear of speaking.

Martin, who taught in Mexico and Guatemala, said part of the reason he wanted to start this ministry was because he "realized most North American churches were entirely disconnected from the Latin American community."

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