Baptists unite to foster Hispanic congregations

Iglesia Bautista Cristo Vive is more than a church.

It's a community that rings of home for the area's Spanish-speaking immigrants.

It's also a symbol. Cristo Vive, a new Hispanic church with a campus in Clearwater and a second opening in Harlem planned for August, is the product of teamwork within and among Augusta's Baptist churches.

"It is nothing short of a miracle," said the Rev. Max Guzman, who pastors the new church. "It would be easy to ignore the Hispanics here, but you have people saying, 'No, we have to do something to reach them.' "

In less than a year, the Augusta Association of Baptist Churches recruited six churches to partner with Cristo Vive and invest in its mission to reach unchurched Hispanics.

Sharing the gospel is the primary goal of Cristo Vive, which translates as "Christ Lives," Guzman said. "We don't want to be a club. We don't want to be just a gathering of Spanish speakers. We're a church."

Several stepped forward with money, property and supplies. Heights Church in Clearwater volunteered worship space -- rent free. Grace Baptist Church in Evans and Grove Baptist of Grovetown gave Cristo Vive a building for a second campus in Harlem. A coalition of churches pays salary. Others work with Guzman to canvass neighborhoods, as he's done since arriving in Augusta in November.

Guzman and his family took a few months to explore the area, driving through mobile home parks and neighborhoods, visiting peach farms and stopping in local stores and restaurants. Cristo Vive held its first service in March, and more than 60 people came to worship.

The services, conducted entirely in Spanish, draw people from Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and Cuba. Worshippers meet in a warehouse behind Mi Rancho Restaurante Mexicano in Clearwater.

Sunday services start at 2 p.m. with pastries and coffee. Guzman plays the drums with a worship band then delivers a sermon. A "short" service ends sometime after 4 p.m.

"It's one way we're different," Guzman said. "Starting a Hispanic church is different than another kind of church. We're not driven by numbers or a time line. Attitudes are different, too."

He means that both the congregation and community surrounding a new Hispanic church can be prone to wariness.

"The Hispanics, they haven't learned to trust you yet," Guzman said. "And the community at large is somewhat scared. Some are clearly looking forward to serving this community, but a lot of people wonder what these people are doing in their land."

Terry Jackson, the minister of missions at West Acres Baptist Church, understands the concerns but says the church wants to help.

"There are a lot of people without credentials," he said. "They're timid. They're not sure they want to be in groups that'll draw attention. They need to feel safe, and as the population grows we've got to find better ways to do that. Legal or illegal is immaterial to us. They all need the gospel."

Hispanics are the fastest-growing population group in the country. Their numbers are also growing faster in the South than anywhere else in the nation, according to U.S. Census data.

In Georgia, the number of Hispanics grew from 108,922 in 1990 to 780,000 in 2008, making up about 8 percent of the state population, according to Pew Research's Hispanic Center and the U.S. Census.

In South Carolina, the Hispanic population grew from 30,551 in 1990 to 178,000 in 2008, making up 4 percent of the state's population.

Guzman, who was born and raised in Mexico City, came to the United States as a teenager when his father, a pastor in Mexico, found work at a church in a Texas border town. He went to school, studying graphic design and sociology, and met his wife, Jacqueline. They married and moved to France, ministering to minorities for two years before moving back to Texas, where he worked as a graphic designer.

After five years, he felt the call to full-time ministry. Guzman and his family rented the largest U-haul they could find and, in 2002, left Texas so he could study at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. He graduated and found work at a new Hispanic church in Raleigh, N.C.

"We realized our call is to the minorities. In France, we worked with the Moroccans, the Algerians. No matter where we've been, the minorities have been on our heart," said Guzman, now 40 and a father of three children, ages 2, 6 and 9.

In summer 2009, he heard from his father that the Augusta Association of Baptist Churches was looking for a minister for a new Hispanic church.

They had no family in Augusta, or as Guzman put it, "no one, no nothing." He realized that was OK because the same is true for much of his congregation.

"We came, and we're so glad we did. It is an honor, a blessing, a privilege," Guzman said. "There are so, so many people who need a place to worship, a place where people literally speak their language."

Iglesia Bautista Cristo Vive

Iglesia Bautista Cristo Vive, or Christ Lives Baptist Church, is at 401 Birch Street, North Augusta, SC. For information, call (706) 399-2977 or visit IglesiaBautistaCristoVive.com or ChristLivesBaptistChurch.com

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