For 20 years, leaders of the predominantly white Trinity United Methodist Church in Dalton, Georgia, had had little luck attracting congregants from the town’s growing immigrant community.
Today, that’s changing. A few Hispanic families have now helped the church earn a significant level of trust among the Latino community, says pastor Leslie Daniels, and new congregants are filling the seats at Bible school classes, dinners, and other church functions. “When they invite people, they come,” Daniels says.
In her opinion, such involvement is essential to the future of her church. As the country’s demographics shift and the white majority shrinks, American churches are following suit. Those that can effectively integrate communities of color, especially Hispanics, are poised to survive the demographic upheaval. As evidence, Daniels points to Trinity United Methodist: While the church’s adult members are predominantly white, its children’s and youth programs are filled with majority Hispanic members.
“They are the future of the church,” says Daniels. “Our church does a lot of outreach. We have a food pantry and a thrift store. Those kind of ministries will be able to continue after the older generation passes away.”
They are the future of the church, Daniels says of local immigrants.
Immigrants are contributing to Dalton in other significant ways, she says, beyond the church walls. As one of America’s carpet manufacturing capitals, Dalton depends on a strong labor force. The housing crisis hurt the carpet industry, but “I think they would have had trouble recovering if they did not have the Latino workers,” says Daniels.
At her child’s elementary school, where the student body is 90 percent Hispanic, Daniels has been encouraged by the tight-knit families. “They prioritize their children and are very strong and loving families, which I think is a value that American culture needs to reclaim,” she says.
As a pastor and an active community member, Daniels also sees how the country’s broken immigration system makes it difficult for these families to thrive and, in turn, hurts the whole community. While many, if not most, undocumented immigrant workers pay income taxes, deducted from their paychecks under false names, legal status would bring more workers into the system, she says. “I’m hoping that someone will come up with an answer for those who don’t currently have legal status . . . where they can obtain status and contribute by paying taxes and giving back to their new homeland,” says Daniels. “They have a lot to offer.”