Hurricanes

Walking Home: Second of a Two-Part Series

| January 26, 2000
The crisis
Byron Barrera is distracted. His mind, usually focused and clear, seems to drift in and out of conversation. There's no smile on his face; the Winnie-the-Pooh paraphernalia and teddy-bear statuettes in his trailer seem to mock his mood. "Estoy preocupado," he says. I'm worried.

For almost a year, the pastor's disciple at Loves Creek Hispanic Baptist Mission has been dating a shy, round-faced girl named Wendy Benitez. She came into his life two years ago, when she attended an evangelism class he was teaching. In Latin American culture, relationships between teenage girls and young adult men are commonplace, but Barrera wasn't thinking along those lines when he first met Benitez.

"As my student, I knew I liked her, but I never thought there was anything as specific as love like a couple," he says. But in the spring of 1998, Benitez went back to El Salvador for two months to visit her family, and after Barrera dropped her off at the airport, he started missing her something awful. "I called her by telephone and I told her I felt so far away," he recalls. She confessed the feelings were mutual.That summer, they agonized over whether God wanted their relationship to be. Because of the age difference, Barrera says, "at first I thought her love was nothing more than an illusion." Benitez could act so much like a grown-up, with a strong spiritual core and a sense of responsibility for her two younger sisters. But she was still only 16. Barrera wondered if a girl her age could really know her heart, or if his would eventually be broken.

"As the days passed," he says, "I came to understand that her mind is more mature than the years would indicate. For example, she understands I can't dedicate all my time to her that she would want, because of the ministry I have. At first, it took some work to get her to understand. Always she was demanding, because I didn't give her much time. But later, she understood I have to balance everything. Even though I don't want to say she's totally mature, I know she has demonstrated that she's willing to change."

On this summer evening, though, everything is threatening to fall apart. Benitez's mother has announced that she's taking her three daughters back to El Salvador to live with their relatives, then returning to the United States by herself. American culture is too permissive, she has told the girls, and she wants them to grow up in a more traditional environment. "They were so different in El Salvador," she would later explain. "I thought if I took them over there, they would have better influences."

Benitez doesn't want to go. Her life is in Siler City. Her high school, where she has made friends and is learning English, is here. Her church, where she was born again in 1996, is here. Her boyfriend is here.

Benitez and her sisters grew up with their grandmother--whom she considers her real mother--in a rural village on the outskirts of the Salvadoran city of La Unión. "There were mountains, a river, many cows, many mango trees," she recalls. "A lot of poverty, yes, but my house had water and light. I went to school there for seven years, and after school we played soccer, baseball, things like that." Her natural mother, who said she didn't want to bring her children to the United States until they had their immigration papers, visited every year or two and sent money.

Then, in 1995, Benitez was told to pack her bags; her mother was bringing her to Siler City. Benitez was 13. "I was very sad," she says. "I didn't want to come, because I liked it there. This is another town, another state, very different."

From the time they arrived in North Carolina, Benitez and her sisters have had a troubled relationship with their mother. At least three times last spring, Benitez's mother, or sometimes another relative, called the police to report one or more of the girls missing. The mother always insisted her daughters had run away from home, but police reports hint otherwise. "Daisy Womble with Social Services called and stated that the Benitez children were with their father," says one report, filed in March after the girls left home without packing any clothes. "She also stated that one of them had bruises and stated the mother locked them out of the house." Benitez's mother would later say the bruises came from a bicycle accident, but add, "I did give them physical discipline many times."

Tonight, the Benitez sisters are again packing their bags.

Barrera is beside himself.

The plane leaves in two days.

The letter
Wendy Benitez is not alone in worrying she'll be sent back to Latin America. In August, a panic spreads after Rick Givens, chair of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners, writes a letter inviting the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to come in and rid the area of undocumented Latinos. It's a sharp reminder to the Hispanic community that their home here is tenuous.

"We have limited resources," Givens writes. "As year runs upon year, more and more of our resources are being siphoned from other pressing needs so that we can provide assistance to immigrants who have little or no possessions. Many of these new needy, we believe, are undocumented or have fraudulent paperwork. We need your help in getting these folk properly documented or routed back to their homes."

The response from Loves Creek Hispanic Baptist Mission is quiet but swift. Behind the scenes, Pastor Israel Tapia meets with a group of community and industry leaders, including the commissioners' chair himself. "I told Rick Givens, 'You hurt us. You damaged us.'" he reports. Tapia also meets with Nolo Martinez, director of Hispanic and Latino Affairs for Gov. Jim Hunt.

From the pulpit, the pastor tries to debunk Givens' rhetoric while pledging his support to any undocumented members in the sanctuary. "We don't come to take away jobs," he says. "We come here to make Siler City the No. 1 town it is becoming, and I want to tell you the church is here to protect you and fight for you."

To further reassure his flock, Tapia distributes a newsletter from the Hispanic Liaison, a nonprofit group based in Siler City. "I have talked with various influential people, and no one thinks the INS will come to our county," Liaison director Ilana Dubester writes in the newsletter.

Indeed, some of the hermanos--the brothers and sisters of the congregation--go on with their lives without fear, whether or not they are documented. "I've always thought one day La Migra [the INS] would come, it would round up people, and all that," says one member. "But I haven't been too alarmed, because even though I am not legal in this country, I know I have certain rights. If La Migra comes and finds me here, or if for some reason they grab me in the street or wherever, or even at home, I have the right to talk in front of a lawyer. As long as I don't run away, I have those rights."

Not everyone takes the news so calmly. After Givens' letter becomes public, Dubester and Martinez appear on the local AM radio station. Although they assure listeners there's no need for panic, people call in and ask if it's OK to shop for groceries and send their kids to school. Shortly thereafter, Israel and Ruth Tapia take their three sons to the Chatham County Fair in Pittsboro. They see no other Hispanic faces.

"Some people were afraid even to get out of their homes, because they didn't know if there was going to be a raid at the supermarket, a raid at work," says Dubester. "Would they be put in jail, and their children abandoned? If you're from Latin America, you're used to seeing children on the street, just like abandoned dogs and cats. So there was a panic: Are they coming? What's going to happen? People were talking about leaving Siler City--just up and go, goodbye."

Panics like this one are a fact of life here. Bill McFadden, an immigration specialist at the Family Resource Center in Siler City, ranks the fallout from Givens' letter just "a 3 or 4 on the Rumor Richter Scale." As in any place with a large undocumented population, hearsay about impending roundups abounds. "Every four, five, six months, a rumor gets out that immigration is coming to a specific area," McFadden says. "Last spring, a rumor hit Siler City like a ton of bricks, that immigration was going to come here on a Friday night and clean out the town. I interviewed the owner of one of the Spanish stores. He said business was way down. The Laundromats were empty. We were missing star players from the soccer games. The streets of Siler City were decimated. It was about 7 on the Rumor Richter Scale."

But this is the first rumor that has credibility, coming as it does from newspaper articles about Givens' letter. Besides worrying immigrants, it inadvertently sends a signal to some white and black residents that it's OK to discriminate in small ways. "I don't think the intent was to encourage people to be racist," Dubester says. "But I think that was the effect." When the pastor's wife, Ruth Tapia, an American citizen, goes to get a new driver's license soon after the letter, the Department of Motor Vehicles clerk looks at her Texas birth certificate and declares it a fake. "They told her, 'We don't believe you, and we won't give you the license, and we are good to you because we don't put you in jail,'" her husband says.

The rescue
As Wendy Benitez's mother gets ready to send her daughters back to El Salvador, the oldest girl's situation becomes an all-consuming topic behind the scenes at Loves Creek. A half-dozen mission leaders, including Byron Barrera, meet regularly to discuss the situation, both as a group and in twos and threes. They grapple with how far they can go in protecting one of their own against her mother.

In the end, they decide unanimously that they need to do whatever they can to support the girl. Just as they helped save her soul three years ago, now it's time to save her skin. "We don't think it's fair for her to go back to a place where she doesn't want to go," explains Wilfredo Hernandez, the worship minister. "We feel like she's one of us. We have to help her."

They come up with a plan.

"You find out what day you're leaving," Ruth Tapia tells Benitez. "You call me, and I'll go get you that night. Don't be rebellious. Don't say, 'I'm not going, I'm not leaving.' You just act like nothing is going on. Pack a bag. Start acting like you're going to see your cousins over there."

Benitez agrees to the scheme. A week before the planned departure, she calls the Tapia home and tells the pastor and his wife when the plane is taking off. The night before the flight, Ruth Tapia pulls her car up to the curb, and Benitez comes flying out the door, suitcase in hand. Together, they drive to the house of a woman who does not belong to Loves Creek--a home where Benitez's mother would never think to look.

Just after 1 a.m., Benitez's mother calls 911 and reports her oldest daughter missing. City police officers and county sheriff's deputies descend on Barrera's trailer at 2:15. "The first officer told me he was looking for Wendy, and I said, 'Wendy isn't here,'" he would later recall. "Without asking any more, he pushed the door and he came in. After him came another. Those two opened the back door, and two more came in that way. Altogether there were four in here. They went in my bedroom, the bathroom, the closet, my father's room. They went into the other bedroom, where [our tenant] sleeps, and she was naked. They went in and she barely had time to cover herself with a quilt."

They don't find Benitez there, of course. Nor do the police find her at the house of another church family they visit. She is safe.

Two nights later, there's a palpable sense of relief. As far as anyone knows, Benitez's mother is 1,700 miles away in El Salvador with her two younger daughters. But no one knows for sure. At the Saturday worship service, Pastor Tapia invites anyone who needs special intercession to come down to the altar. Anyone who's sick, who's hurting, is welcome.

Barrera is the first one there. He curls his tiny body into a prayerful ball as the pastor thanks God for the "promise of eternal life." Quiet keyboard music weaves through the minister's words, as if the notes are trying to attach themselves to the pain of the past week and carry it away.

The end of the world
The intensity doesn't let up all summer. The two local crises are followed by a much larger disaster, this one halfway around the world.

In August, an earthquake hits Turkey, and by the Saturday night service, the death toll has climbed to 11,000. Seeing a greater meaning in this disaster, Tapia takes his preaching in a new direction. For several weeks, he stops talking about the gozo, the joy, that comes from the assurance of eternal life. Instead, he talks about something that has long been one of his father's passions: omnipresent signs that the world is coming to an end.

"The times are changing," Tapia preaches. He is wearing a blue tie with red stripes, which ends about 6 inches too high against his white shirt. These are los últimos días, the final days, and no one can predict exactly when the end will hit. "Understand this," he says, quoting Matthew 24:43-44. "If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and not let his house be broken into. So you must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him."

In the final days, the pastor says, all sorts of unusual things will happen. The world will be overrun with natural disasters, and mankind will start doing unnatural things. Again, he quotes Matthew: "Nation will rise against nation. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places." Look around, Tapia says: Earthquakes in Turkey. Drug trafficking in Colombia. The Oklahoma City bombing. Starvation in Africa. Incurable diseases. People walking around with "plastic hearts." Soon, a homosexual couple will be allowed to sue a minister who refuses to marry them.

Signs everywhere.

But "we have hope," the pastor adds. "Christ is going to wash us clean of all sin." This is the time to wake up, he says, to get ready, to preach the Gospel. We can't save every non-Christian on the planet, but we can save as many as possible. And we can save ourselves. This is the time to repent, because "Cristo viene, Cristo viene." Christ is coming.

The millennial message continues for weeks. In early September, a visiting evangelist named Eusebio Alfaro comes to Loves Creek, preaching for four days with a charismatic fervor. He's a small man with combed-back hair and a pencil-thin mustache, and as he shouts the Word, his face turns red and his voice echoes through the sanctuary.

"Pay attention, please," Alfaro tells the hermanos, who are already rapt. His green shirt is open at the top. His sleeves are rolled up. His tie is loosened. "The destiny of the world is complete destruction," he warns. "All the signs of the destruction are happening right now."

His voice starts softly, like that of a science teacher explaining the principles of astronomy. "Someone wrote an article in a NASA magazine telling us an asteroid left its orbit, and he said the asteroid will pass close to the Earth. But he also says the Earth has a system called gravity. When the asteroid hits the Earth's gravity, it will explode into a thousand pieces. Thousands of pieces. It's going to fall to Earth, because everything that enters the gravitational system tends to fall, never to go up."

Suddenly, jarringly, the evangelist's voice turns into a roar--an urgent, primal call. "When I hear those things and see those things coming," he shouts, "I pray to God that at least I can go to North Carolina and ask the people there to repent. Because when is the time going to come that people are going to see the signals God is sending? Repent, because by the glory of God, there's always an opportunity." He stretches the last syllable of the last word--oportunidad--into four syllables. Oportunidaaaaaaaaad.

During the weeks of millennial preaching, the expressions on the hermanos' faces change. Byron Barrera clenches his eyes shut when he prays. Jose Franco wipes away tears as he plays the guitar.

The reactions don't come because the litany of disasters is scary and unfamiliar. Rather, they are all too familiar. Since late 1998 alone, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and most recently Venezuela have been walloped by deadly floods and mudslides; Hurricane Mitch tore through Honduras, taking thousands of lives and sweeping away entire pueblos; and an earthquake in Colombia killed 1,000 and left many more without homes. In one Colombian city called Armenia, two-thirds of the buildings collapsed, displacing 180,000 people.

For many of the Loves Creek hermanos, the only way to make sense of this carnage is to believe it presages something better.

"For the American that lives in comfort and the material world, maybe this preaching is a shock," explains Pastor Tapia. "But for the people who come from that background, it is almost normal. You talk about the many towns that disappeared in Honduras because the water destroyed and killed thousands of people. That's real. We don't have the recovery potential that the United States has. It may be 100 years before Honduras recovers. So when the people were listening [to the evangelist], that was a time of reflection. We know what he's talking about."

Amidst the terrifying images, there are still glimpses of gozo. The afternoon after Alfaro's asteroid sermon, the visiting evangelist again preaches, this time at an outdoor revival on an old basketball court behind the church. Before he takes the microphone, though, there's music to make. The pastor plays the synthesizer. Wilfredo Hernandez, the worship minister, pounds the congas while his daughter and cousin play drums and bass. Jose Franco plays guitar. And Byron Barrera leads more than 50 hermanos in a medley of praise songs, which ends with the Spanish version of a familiar American gospel hymn:

He's got the whole world in his hands,
he's got the whole world in his hands ...

He's got Guatemala ...
He's got El Salvador ...
He's got Mexico ...
He's got Siler City in his hands.

The storm
Three days after the outdoor revival, after weeks of preachment about natural disasters and the Second Coming, forecasters predict a deadly hurricane making its way toward central North Carolina. It's another sign of the end times--but before focusing on the spiritual lessons, there's skin to save.

The last time a major storm hit Siler City, Hurricane Fran came barreling through town in 1996, taking down trees, destroying houses, and knocking out power and telephone service for days. The small frame house where Jose Franco now lives was twisted on its foundation. His brother-in-law got hit even worse: A large tree fell in Victor Sanchez's yard, crushing part of his trailer. Schools closed for more than a week as the entire Triangle area struggled with its worst natural disaster since Hurricane Hazel in 1954.

By 7 o'clock the night of Hurricane Floyd, calls begin coming into the Tapia household. A half-hour later, the pastor gets in his car, drives down to the church, and unlocks the doors for anyone who wants shelter.

Fifty people show up, both hermanos from Loves Creek and their Pentecostal and Methodist neighbors. For more than five hours, they fill their church home with piano music, conga rhythms and voices joined in song. Jose Franco and his family come with a veritable picnic: bread, avocados, beans, water and canned food, along with milk for their baby. "We came here, truthfully, in order to be a bit safer," he says. "We are here not because the walls are made of brick or because the building is strong, but because we know that if we ask God, He who controls everything, to change the path of the hurricane, He will shift its course."

With the Pentecostals present, there's more shouting than usual, a fever pitch that continues as the news drifts in that Floyd has turned its course. Finally, at 2 a.m., the music winds down, and the hermanos spread out around the building, bedding down in Sunday school classrooms, the day-care center and the fellowship hall, one family to a room.

Everyone goes home in the morning to survey the damage. This time, there is none.

At church the next Saturday, Tapia revisits the night of the hurricane. His sermon is reminiscent of Pat Robertson's claim that his prayers, and those of staff, diverted Hurricane Gloria from the Virginia coast in 1985. "We sang and we prayed and we cried," the pastor says. "People said, 'Who are the crazy folks? Don't they know Siler City is going to be destroyed, North Carolina is going to be destroyed?' But because of the power of praise, we didn't have fear. We trusted in the Lord, and the Lord said, 'I will listen to my people.' He said to the hurricane, 'Go away from here.' The scientists said, 'Something happened! What happened? What happened?'" But no matter how hard mankind tries, the pastor says, only God knows the course of a storm.

As he preaches tonight, Tapia's apocalyptic fever breaks, and joy returns to his message. For the hermanos, he says, life is a succession of storms that can only be weathered by the combination of skin-saving community and soul-saving faith.

"How many people have premonitions of hurricanes in their own lives?" the pastor asks, in words that would be familiar to his white brethren. "There are always signals, just like many people know that summer is coming because of the signals. Hermanos, we have all lived through these storms. I might be feeling at this moment a force coming over me with the strength of a hurricane. I might feel there's no solution, there's no remedy. If you feel this way, let me tell you that God offers a strong and safe ground for your life. If you trust in the Lord, you'll be part of something that won't move or disappear.

"Hermanos, in these times of emergency, how many of you go out and buy bottled water, in case the drinking water gets contaminated? How many of you get food or emergency supplies? Spiritually, hermanos, let us go to God's supermarket, so we can be provided with all we need. If you lack gozo, arrange to get lots of cans of gozo. If you're lacking faith, get some packages of faith.

"If there's any person who has hurricanes of fear and doubt, be assured that we all lose our way," the pastor says. "For all of you who have raised your hand, come forward to the altar, because there's nothing wrong with coming together in front of God and recognizing it." Nine people--Jose Franco, Dorindo Interiano and seven others--make their way up the aisle and kneel in front of the pastor, to be touched and healed, to get words of encouragement to weather the next storm. Pastor Tapia, too, falls on his knees and prays.

Cohabitation
Through the summer and fall, Saturdays are given over to construction of a more permanent shelter. At the mission's future home, drywall goes up; window trim goes in; a volunteer contractor from east of Raleigh comes to finish the ceiling.

One October morning, members of the host church join the Hispanics for a 35-person work marathon. The Rev. Roy Helms, pastor of the white congregation, paints the doors with a beige primer coat. Wendy Benitez shovels dirt into a wheelbarrow to make mud, which Byron Barrera spreads along the foundation. Spanish gospel music plays from a green GMC pickup truck. At lunch, Israel Tapia says, "I can't wait to play here." Grinning like a teenage boy, he breaks into air guitar: "Él es el rey, Él es el rey, Él es el rey de mi vida." He is the king of my life.

On these Saturdays, the camaraderie between the white and Hispanic Loves Creek members is tangible. Even though they eat their lunches on separate sides of the construction site, conversing in their own languages, each group expresses goodwill toward the other. "I call them servants because they have a servant heart," Tapia says of the Anglos. "It's not a mother church, a protective church, but a church that wants this congregation to become independent, self-supporting. Sometimes we have suppers, international suppers with the Anglos, that show we are all committed to building bridges."

Those bridges have occasionally been shaky. After the incident with Wendy Benitez, the host church's missions committee denied Byron Barrera a youth-minister license he had been hoping for. "There is no question about Byron's commitment or qualifications," explains Helms. "Byron has done absolutely nothing wrong." Still, he says, Barrera's "incidental" participation in rescuing his teenaged girlfriend raised questions among church members. For his part, Barrera has taken the news with a combination of hurt and defiance: "There are people who have a bad opinion of me. But I don't care about having a piece of paper. What I care about is to be right with God."

Then there's the issue of two congregations' sharing a small space. "There has been some impatience on the part of our people, wanting to see the mission meet somewhere else," Helms says.

Just as immigrants and old-timers are learning how to share the church building, they are also learning how to cohabit Siler City. One-on-one, the hermanos agree, the town's longstanding residents have been accommodating. "I've always had a good relationship with the Americans I've talked to," says 24-year-old Abel Chavez, a Salvadoran immigrant who plays guitar for the mission. "Last year, I had a car accident, and my face was full of blood. An American woman--she was about 30--stopped to help me. She cleaned my face and asked me, 'Are you OK? Are you sure you're OK?' She didn't treat me any differently because I was Latino."

But around town, not everything is hunky-dory. Back in the spring, The Chatham News reprinted an editorial from an Eastern North Carolina newspaper with the headline, "English Preferred." "In the politically (in)correct frenzy toward multiculturalism," it said, "every effort, especially on the part of the government, has been exerted toward immigrants and others to [sic] foreign background to continue use of their native language. ... In the latter 19th and early 20th centuries, being able to speak, read and write English was a matter of pride and a badge of honor proudly worn by new citizens."

With some classrooms at Siler City Elementary School now 100-percent Hispanic, public education has become the town's biggest racial flash point, and the editorial clearly tapped into the resentments of some town residents. At Rainbow Graphics downtown, owner Jay Gatlin laminated the article and put in on a display table in his shop. "I have granddaughters in school, and they tell me the teacher wants to teach the Hispanics, but they have to take time to make sure they read in English," Gatlin says. "That's wasting the time of the other students in the class." Gatlin adds that he was "flabbergasted" when he attended an awards ceremony at a local school and watched the teachers making presentations in both languages.

The racial resentments came to a head in September, at a standing-room-only School Board meeting where 35 people debated a small exodus of non-Hispanics from the system. "You cannot teach with the language barrier that you've got," said Kay Staley, whose adopted granddaughter had recently transferred to a charter school. Staley told the board that the girl had started the school year in Siler City Elementary, but was one of only two white kids in her classroom. "These two little girls were devastated and scared to death because no one spoke their language," she said.

Pastor Tapia didn't attend the meeting, but he later told The News & Observer that the barriers cut both ways. "It's a problem when the Spanish kids don't understand English and the school teachers don't speak Spanish," he says. "I feel there's a sentiment of fear within the Spanish community. I feel the children aren't welcome."

The refugee
Wendy Benitez's mother decides she doesn't feel welcome either. After her daughter's escape, she leaves Loves Creek for another church. "I thought pastors and members of a church were supposed to give you comfort, direction, helping you when you have a problem," she says. "No one ever came to my house and asked how I'm doing."

About 20 others leave at the same time, some of them in support of the mother. Pastor Tapia calls the exodus "a strike" to the mission, but he stands by the leaders' decision to help Benitez. "When you have convictions, you have to pay the price. I have a principle: This is God's work; it's not my life. My conviction is that I have to do it the right way, or not do it at all."

This is not the first time Loves Creek Hispanic Baptist Mission has experienced a mass retreat. When Tapia first arrived, there was a Babel of worship styles: Baptist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian. Over the past five years, there have been various fissures, as different groups set off to start or join more compatible churches. "It has been painful every time it has happened," the pastor says.

But every time someone leaves, someone else arrives.

In October 1998, Latin America's worst storm in two centuries blew through Honduras, killing more than 9,000 people and destroying the infrastructure of a nation. Hurricane Mitch washed away whole neighborhoods, even whole villages, with its 200-mph winds. One million people were left homeless. Banana plantations and coffee farms were ruined, creating an unemployment crisis that recalled America's Great Depression. Contaminated water and untreated sewage attacked a malnourished population, helping to spread cholera, malaria and dengue fever. Skin rashes and diarrhea ran epidemic.

In the storm's wake, in a poverty-racked Honduran village, a gangly young man with swept-back hair and woolly-worm eyebrows left his wife and 20-month-old son to find a living.

Selbin Perdomo's life was hard even before Mitch blew through it. At the small clothing factory where he worked, he brought home $5 a day, not enough to support his family in anything but subsistence conditions. But after Mitch, he lost even those wages. The bridges to the industrial city where he worked were destroyed, cutting off access from his village of Santa Rita, Yoro. Others in his family were left without jobs when the banana plantations were washed away. The family's only income came from his sister, who sent her small savings from a factory job abroad.

For Perdomo, there was only one way to support his family: join his sister in America. And there was only one place he knew where jobs would be available to a Hispanic like himself with limited skills: the town where his sister processed chickens for an hourly wage higher than she could make in an entire day in Honduras.

So in August, Perdomo, a 23-year-old who had never before traveled outside Honduras, left his home to come to Siler City.

Perdomo knew his life would change when he left Santa Rita, but he didn't know how quickly. Early one morning, en route, the vehicle he was in caught fire. Someone else was driving, and Perdomo was asleep. By the time he woke up, there was smoke everywhere. It was a cold, cloudy day in the Mexican countryside, with no water in sight to put out the flames. But as they ran from the burning wreckage, one of the passengers spotted a house with a little well. With five buckets of water, they extinguished the blaze.

It was only after the scare that Perdomo realized how close he had come to losing his life. "It was a miracle we were saved," he says. "That was when I got to thinking the Lord had saved me from death."

Perdomo, who was not a Christian when he left Honduras, entered the United States with a new set of priorities. In retrospect, he believes God sent him on this trip in order to have that near-death experience. "If I had stayed in Honduras, I wouldn't have accepted the Lord," he says. "The Lord had to make me take this trip, so I would understand it is my responsibility to serve Him."

In Siler City, Perdomo settled into an apartment overlooking a construction site where a church was being built. One day, he and his sister went down to see it. The drywall had only started going up, and the floors were still unfinished cement. There were no inside doors, no window trim, no landscaping. But it was a Hispanic church, and the sight of it renewed Perdomo's commitment to serve God. His sister told him that one of her co-workers in the chicken plant was a leader of the church, and she promised to introduce the two young men.

Not long after that, Perdomo met Byron Barrera. They hit it off immediately, these two young men thousands of miles from their homes. Barrera invited Perdomo to a youth-group meeting the next Tuesday, and suddenly the Honduran immigrant didn't feel quite so lonely. "I shared my experiences with the hermanos there," he recalls. "They gave me a warm welcome, and I felt a joy inside me." Soon, he was participating in every event he could: the youth and adult services, the business meetings, the Saturday morning workdays at the construction site.

Perdomo became Barrera's disciple, just as Barrera is the pastor's disciple. Now, every Monday, Barrera reminds Perdomo about the youth-group meeting the next day, and tells him not to make other plans. They travel together to the weekend worship services. Perdomo attends Barrera's evangelism class. "He has even asked me about doctrine, and I've been explaining some things," Barrera says. "I also make it clear to him that we cannot reach a very high level right now. Like a newborn, he has to start slowly, to take on the studies he can understand."

Moderation, though, isn't Perdomo's strong suit. He is among the most outwardly passionate of the hermanos, weeping openly and hugging easily. When he prays, he closes his eyes in a squint so intense that it seems to burn calories. He gets overwhelmed with gozo. One recent Saturday evening, he couldn't suppress his smile; he had just spoken to his wife in Honduras, and even though she's not a Christian, she had been to church.

It took Perdomo a while to find work, but now he makes $7 an hour in the loading area of a small factory. He has moved into the trailer next-door to Barrera's, where he rents a room from Barrera's cousins. Every two weeks, he sends $100 back to his family. "That seems like a large amount," he says, "but when you spend it it's not that much. Food is quite expensive and life is hard."

But now, as with Barrera and Franco, earning money isn't his only reason for being here. "I feel very comfortable with myself and I feel sure of what I do, which I didn't in Honduras," Perdomo says. "Now my life has a meaning. There are reasons for living. My plan is to preach the Gospel, here or in my country, however the Lord chooses. If He gives me the opportunity of establishing myself here, glory to God. If it is to go back to my country, to help my country, I'd be glad to do it."

The reconciliation
As the weather cools down, Byron Barrera no longer wears the worried face of someone whose sweetheart might be forced to move almost 2,000 miles away.

Since the summer, Barrera's girlfriend Wendy Benitez has been living next door, renting a room in the trailer where Selbin Perdomo lives, attending high school and learning to be an adult. "I'm not receiving orders from my mother," she says. "I have to make my own decisions: whether I go to school or not, if I go to church, whether to go out. This is a time of quick growth." It's a scary time too, she says, "because if I don't think correctly, I might do something bad." Whenever she gets stuck in her thinking, Benitez turns to her grandmother for advice, or to Barrera.

Barrera knows that some people outside the mission think his efforts to rescue Benitez were self-interested. But he's not losing sleep over that. "All the hermanos of the church know the reality of the situation, how we all helped her together," he says.

Tonight, Wednesday, he has news to report: He and Benitez have secured her mother's blessing for the marriage. "Last Thursday, we went to talk with her. We chatted for three hours, and now things are resolved, fixed," he says. "We arrived at an accord. We told her that Wendy wants to marry me, and I her. And she said she was in agreement, that she would give us whatever support we needed, and we could forget about the past. There was no reason to remember it: Those were her words.

"She said too that she wants to send us on a honeymoon for a week. At minimum, she wants to send us to Myrtle Beach. She wants us, when we get married, to enjoy at least one week of not working. Some people with few resources just take off the weekend to get married, and Monday they're back at work. That's what she didn't want for us. Oh, we were happy. I think this will be the wedding present she'll give us."

Not everything is resolved, though. Benitez's mother still hurts. She says she has forgiven her daughter and Barrera enough to bless the union, and to sign any documents the couple needs so Benitez can get married before her 18th birthday. But right now, she doesn't plan to attend the wedding. And even though Benitez comes to visit her once or twice a week, "it's not the same," she says. "There are things deep in my heart that will take a long time to change."

The celebration
Wendy Benitez walks through the door of a mobile home just outside town, wearing a short blue dress with shoulder pads. Her hair is tied back with a cloth band, and a single curl falls on her forehead. Walking two steps behind her, in a dark shirt and pleated pants, is her boyfriend Byron Barrera.

She has no idea what she's about to find: a living room full of cheering hermanos, balloons everywhere, and a banner of shiny cardboard cut-out letters spelling out "HAPPY BIRTHDAY." It's a bit much for Benitez, who embarrasses easily. She tries to walk back out the door, but Barrera urges her back, so their friends and relatives can celebrate her 17th birthday in style.

Birthdays are a big deal in the Hispanic community. At Loves Creek, a week of multiple birthdays can stop the worship service for a good 20 minutes, as each cumpleañero, each birthday celebrant, is called up to make a speech praising God. Then the musicians strike up, and the whole congregation comes forward to hug the cumpleañeros. The pastor prays for the celebrants, who often wipe away tears as they walk back to their pews.

Today, Benitez is hardly in the door and seated in an armchair before Barrera hands her a gift-wrapped box that barely fits on her lap. As everyone watches, Benitez opens it up, and pulls out another, smaller box. "Byron!" she says, a little abashed, as everyone laughs.

She opens that box. There's another inside. Otra caja!" she says, smiling. Another box! "Byron!"

She opens it. Another box. The crowd laughs harder.

She opens that one. Another box. More laughter, shouts.

She opens the smaller box, and pulls out yet a smaller one.

She opens the fifth box, and pulls out the last one. It's tiny.

The room falls silent.

She can't bring herself to open it. Her face flushes. She clenches her fist to keep her arm from trembling.

She looks at Barrera, who is sitting across the room, on the arm of a sofa. He flashes back a Winnie-the-Pooh grin. She buries her forehead in her hand for a moment before sitting up straight and opening the final box. Inside sits a diamond engagement ring.

Barrera walks across the room and gets down on his knees. He leans over, kisses her on the cheek. He places the ring on her finger and hugs her tight around the shoulders. "Feliz cumpleaños, honey," he whispers. Happy birthday, honey.

Christmas
The curbside trees lining downtown Siler City are heavy with yellow lights, but there's no one around on this 20-degree Christmas night to appreciate them. The streets are deserted. The stores are locked. The parking lot of the chicken plant is empty, though steam continues to billow from its chimneys.

But inside Loves Creek, it's no silent night. A joint service with an Asheboro church has swelled the congregation to almost 200, and the gozo is palpable. Jose Franco, his black hair newly buzzed, is clutching the microphone with both hands, belting out songs like a rock star. Sweat streams down the face of Wilfredo Hernandez, the worship minister, as he plays the congas. Hermanos from both congregations stand behind the pulpit, taking photographs of the filled sanctuary. And like a syncopated anthem, everyone sings, "El nombre de Jesus es poder." The name of Jesus is power.

Just before the sermon, Byron Barrera emerges from the wings, wearing an olive choir robe with a gold-trimmed collar. "We are celebrating the birth of our King, Jesus Christ," he announces. "We'd like to present something different." In identical robes, 10 others follow him, including Selbin Perdomo, Israel and Ruth Tapia, and Wilfredo Hernandez. Men flanking one side of the pulpit, women flanking the other, the Christmas choir presents a medley of carols: "Joy to the World," "O Come All Ye Faithful," "Angels We Have Heard on High."

As the last in excelsis Deo dies down, there's a split second of silence before Barrera takes the microphone for a solo. As he sings "The First Noel," his normally confident voice turns soft and quavering:

La noticia sin igual, el ángel la dió
A los fieles pastores del campo en Belén,
Y aunque el frío invernal en la noche cundió
Las ovejas estaban cuidadas muy bien.

On either side of him, Barrera's hermanos chime in, "Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, hoy ha nacido el Rey de Israel."

The service ends with a series of announcements: upcoming prayer meetings, a new youth project, tomorrow's Holy Communion. And one final announcement: Next Saturday, Jan. 1, Perdomo and Franco will be baptized.

The baptisms will be a symbolic initiation of these two young men into Christianity, but it will also be a symbolic initiation of the new year. For the hermanos of Loves Creek, 2000 promises to bring myriad large and small changes--in their individual homes, in their church home, in their hometown.

Siler City will continue to struggle with its new identity as an immigrant community. This week, a group of local officials--including Rick Givens, the county commissioner who wrote the letter inviting the INS to rid the county of undocumented Latinos--will visit Mexico to learn more about its culture and history, and about immigration issues. "I'm glad the government has decided that, hey, maybe it's time to relate to this segment of the community," says Loves Creek's Rev. Helms. "Maybe the climate is changing."

Closer to home, the Duke Endowment has funded a program to hire lay health advisers to help the new immigrants get the services they need. Working out of local churches, they'll make sure pregnant women get prenatal care, help domestic-violence victims find shelter, and deal with a wide range of medical, legal and immigration issues. At Loves Creek, the health adviser will be Byron Barrera, who in November gave notice at the chicken plant. For Barrera, it will be a first step toward ministering fulltime.

Pastor Tapia also has big plans for ministering to his flock's everyday needs in its new home, which will have its inagural service this coming Saturday. "We are planning for the church to host volunteer doctors and dentists, that come and offer free appointments, free medical assistance to the people," he says. "That is what I am planning to do at the new church building. We know how much is needed, especially for people who are afraid of going to public places. We don't know how this is going to work, but I think it is going to work well."

Some of the changes 2000 brings will be more personal.

Wendy Benitez plans to marry Byron Barrera.

Jose and Vilma Franco plan to have a church celebration of the quiet civil wedding they had last month.

Someone new will come to church, needing prayer or money or friendship.

Someone will leave.

There will be at least one birth--Vilma Franco's sister-in-law is pregnant--and numerous celebrations in the new building. There will also, no doubt, be crises, hurricanes of the soul. But no matter how hard the winds blow, the hermanos at Loves Creek Hispanic Baptist Mission will keep returning to God's supermarket, stocking up on extra packages of faith. EndBlock

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