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Latino churches experience an exodus of their members

POSTED: October 9, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS /The Times

Centro Evangelistico Pastor Lemuel Betancourt leads church members in prayer during Tuesday evening's service at the Memorial Park Drive church. Membership at the mostly Hispanic church as dropped to about 50 members from 100 in the past few years.

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The numbers are dwindling at Centro Evangelistico, a mostly Hispanic church in Gainesville, but pastor Lemuel Betancourt keeps turning on the lights and welcoming the worshippers.

The church that boasts of having Georgia's first Hispanic church-run child care center is now in danger of having to shut its doors.

"They've left," Betancourt said of his members. "They've either had the option to be deported ... or leave before anything could get any worse."

Concerns largely center around the 287(g) section of the Immigration and Nationality Act, a local-federal partnership that gives sheriff's officials new authority in enforcing immigration law.

Since about April, anyone booked into the Hall County jail who is determined to be in the country illegally faces deportation proceedings.

Betancourt said his church's membership has dropped to about 50 members from 100 in just a few years. The child care center has lost some 27 to 30 children.

"You transfer that into the church and we have to say the law is the law and we certainly teach you have to obey the law," he said.

"But there's some areas (in the law) that haven't been clearly specified, and authorities in different counties or agencies ... have (287(g) discretion). It is not as tough (elsewhere) as it is in Hall County."

Area ministers are reporting similar concerns among their Hispanic numbers.

Some may not be seeing the large drops that Betancourt has seen, but they are seeing their workload change.
Father Fabio Sotelo of St. Michael Catholic Church in Gainesville said he is spending more time on jail ministry.

He has very strong opinions on U.S. immigration policy.
"I have admired the United States for the protection of the dignity of every human being," said Sotelo, a native of Colombia.

"But in the last two years, I wondered if that ... is still the norm here or is changing. I see an inhumane attitude with application of the law here in Georgia, here in Gainesville."

He said he has seen "many children - American children - crying because their father was deported, and I can't believe how the United States is doing that."

The church has a ministry that helps the poor and needy.
"At this moment, we are helping more Latinos because of the deportation of husbands who were the ones who brought the money home," Sotelo said. "Wives and children are left here without any jobs and options."

The Rev. Ruben Perea of the Latin American Community Baptist Mission at 1715 Cleveland Highway also has seen his duties change.

In addition to more visits to the jail, he has had to arrange for transportation to the church.

"We have to get a bus because (members) are afraid to drive," Perea said. "We are trying to get families to get their own bikes."

Jimmy Pinzon, who works particularly with Hispanics at the Atlanta Road Church of Christ, said his ministry has been challenging, particularly because of the Bible's mandate for people to obey their government's laws.

The Venezuelan native said approaching members who are illegal immigrants about their status is sensitive business within the Christian confines of compassion and truth.

Pinzon also refers to the Bible on what he believes could be the possible outcomes of a continued exodus of Latinos, particularly on churches and their finances.

The Bible "teaches we don't worry about tomorrow," he said. "We just need to worry about today."

Betancourt said the end could come very soon for his church. The church could lose its property in 30 days.

But he has faith that finances will turn around. "They will, we believe," he said.



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