Published November 17, 2014
Largely unseen by Alabama's English-speaking natives, Hispanic churches have become a touchstone for opponents of the state's crackdown on illegal immigration, similar to the way black churches provided a home to the civil rights movement in the South during the 1950s and '60s.
Immigrant pastors are helping members understand and cope with fallout from the law, activists say, and many are offering spiritual comfort to both legal and illegal residents now living in fear.
In cities large and small, buildings owned by Hispanic congregations have been used for mass meetings and "know our rights" workshops where activists and organizers use Spanish to explain intricacies of the statute to community members, many of whom don't speak English.
The church involvement goes even deeper. Leaders from as far away as Arizona gathered at a large Hispanic church in Albertville earlier this month to help organize local opposition to the law, and another area church played host to a meeting that drew scores the same weekend.
It's unclear exactly how many Hispanic churches operate in the state, but the number is easily in the dozens just in north Alabama, where thousands of immigrants work on farms and in poultry processing plants. A community organizer with the Birmingham-based Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, Victor Spezzini, said the churches have been busy helping the immigrant community statewide since the law took effect in September.
"I think they have been crucial. They provide an infrastructure. They have been able to provide places for immigrant rights workshops, and that's huge," said Spezzini.
Gov. Robert Bentley earlier this year signed the Republican-backed legislation to clamp down on illegal immigrants by making it more difficult to work, live and do business in the state, but federal courts have put sections of the law were put on hold in response to lawsuits filed by the Obama administration, immigrant groups and individuals. Police are still required to ask people for proof of citizenship during traffic stops, and government offices are barred from conducting even basic transactions without citizenship checks.
Conservative Christians helped push through the law: Bentley himself is a Southern Baptist deacon. But amid fear over the law, Pastor Fernando Rodriguez said he and members of his Spanish-language church, Luz a las Naciones, feel compelled to help their mostly immigrant community because of their Christian beliefs. In English, the church's name means "Light to the Nations."
"We are helping the Spanish-speaking people. We are encouraging them to not go to other states, and to stay here," he said. "We are encouraging people to be organized, to let people know if they are being harassed by the police. Next month, we are going to have the Mexican consulate and probably Guatemalan consulate come to help people because so many people do not have IDs."
Unlike a half-century ago, when black churches served as rallying points for minorities seeking an end legalized segregation across the state, Alabama's Hispanic congregations and pastors typically lack deep roots in the community. Many of the churches didn't even exist a decade ago, a fact that makes it all the tougher for them to be on the front lines of the effort today.
"I haven't seen the political activism coming from the Hispanic community as much as I've seen it coming from existing community organizations," said Bart Tau, a United Methodist minister who pastors a bilingual congregation in suburban Birmingham. "(They) are a first-generation community."
Yet Hispanic churches are still involved, although often out of direct view.
Spezzini said he has held about a dozen immigrant workshops around the state since July, and most of them were in Hispanic churches. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- a main cog in the civil rights movement decades ago -- is now working with immigrant churches and others in opposition to the law.
"We are joining forces. Through a grass-roots effort we are trying to coalesce our communities," said the Rev. Anthony Johnson, community relations director for the Birmingham NAACP, which held a community forum that drew hundreds of immigrants to a public school in Birmingham.
Still, like many English-speaking Alabamians, Johnson said he's not sure what is going on in Spanish-speaking churches in response to the law. "I don't go to one," he said.
Tau, a Tennessee native whose wife is a native of Mexico living legally in the United States, said attendance at his Spanish-language service is down by about half to 30 people since the law took effect, but the church is doing what it can to help the immigrant community.
"Quietly, we have hosted several groups that have come through to organize, but we are not a central location. Of course, I have participated as have members of my church in marches," he said. "Those who have voices are commanded and required to speak up on behalf of those who do not have voices. My spirituality demands it."
Rodriguez, the pastor from Albertville, said Hispanic churches are trying to figure out how to be even more active, but many pastors and members don't know what to do and others are scared. He said he has tried to build ties with English-speaking ministers in northeast Alabama, but that's tough given the state's political climate.
"They never want to get close with us," he said. "Sometimes it is hard to work with people with closed minds."