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United Methodist pastor ministers with Hispanics on Gulf Coast

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A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

The Rev. Sally Bevill works with Hispanic/Latino ministries in Biloxi for the Mississippi Annual Conference.
Aug. 31, 2006

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

BILOXI, Miss. (UMNS) ? The Rev. Sally Bevill spends a lot of time in dark places looking for her flock.

Bevill, pastor of Beauvoir United Methodist Church, serves as coordinator of Hispanic Ministries for the Katrina Response Team of the Mississippi Annual (regional) Conference.

For Bevill, that means seeking out those on the edges of society — the “invisible” immigrant population.

Bevill was appointed pastor in Biloxi and Hispanic ministries coordinator in June. Prior to that, she served Ridgeland United Methodist Church near Jackson, some 170 miles north of Biloxi. She also worked with the Hispanic community in Jackson.

Following Katrina in August 2005, she started getting a lot of SOS calls from the coast.

“We had people calling who didn’t even know a hurricane had hit,” she says. Calls came in from people with no electricity, no medicine or diapers for their babies; many lost jobs and had no money.

A lot of the calls also involved confusion about Federal Emergency Management Agency and Red Cross funding. When callers went to apply for help, no one at the offices spoke Spanish.

“A lot of them got turned away when asked for certain documentation that they really didn’t have to have,” Bevill says. “You don’t have to be a U.S. citizen or even a resident to get Red Cross money.”

Bevill went to the Mississippi Conference and said something needed to be done.

“I knew after six months (at Ridgeland) I was supposed to pick up and come,” she says. It has not been easy she admits. Her family gave up a home and community they loved.

“The bottom line is we are just not sure what God’s vision is at the moment,” she says. “I trust it to be revealed or I wouldn’t be here.”

Hispanic community grows

The Hispanic/Latino population on the Gulf Coast has increased by 25 percent since Hurricane Katrina hit the coast Aug. 29, 2005.

“They were the ones who came in and did a tremendous amount of the cleanup work,” Bevill says. “They were the ones pulling out the dead bodies.”

As the area moves into the rebuilding stage, she predicts the Hispanic population will increase even more.

“Within a one mile radius of Beauvoir United Methodist Church there are 3,000 to 4,000,” she says. “If you are not intentionally looking for immigrants they may seem invisible but if you really set out every day to look ? the community is huge.”

And Bevill is looking every day.

Recently she found a group of immigrants living in “awful” condition in a trailer park. They had no water and the children had no shoes, she says.

“I encountered a man who had been mugged. They had burned the bottom of his feet with cigarettes until he gave up his money,” she says. “We had suspected our Hispanics were a target because of getting paid on Fridays and walking around with a lot of cash because they can’t get checking accounts. That just affirmed what our suspicions were anyway.”

Establishing trust

Bevill says she hangs out at Wal-Mart, day labor places and apartment buildings handing out flyers about the church.

She is fearless in her quest. She talks about walking up to an apartment complex where Hispanics were drinking and playing loud music. “Look, you don’t need to make this harder than it has to be,” she told them.

“Right now everything is OK, but we are going to move to a point where the police and border control are going to start being called in,” she said. “When people decide they don’t like the presence (of the Hispanic/Latino community) it won’t be hard for them to get rid of it.”

Recently, Bevill held a Saturday night gathering at Beauvoir for Hispanics in the neighborhood. She says the turnout was lower than she had hoped but a lot of bilingual people in the neighborhood volunteer to help the ministry.

“Right now we need to listen and organize the community,” she says. “It is a mess. It almost feels like I think people must have felt right after Katrina.”

She says little is being done for Hispanics/Latinos.

The Catholic Church celebrates mass and a couple of independent churches hold service but there is no social justice outreach or advocacy, she says.

“Everyone is very interested in having church ? that is always a lot of fun, but not too many folks are interested in the other part that goes along with being church,” says Bevill.

She has hired Mary Townsend, a bilingual case manager for the United Methodist Committee on Relief who is also canvassing the neighborhoods. Townsend is also making a lot of calls looking for places that will offer “English as a Second Language” classes. Bevill and Townsend also have started the process of accreditation for a legal clinic for immigrants.

“It is a most exciting time to be here,” says Bevill. “It is overwhelming, but it is very exciting. God will lead. My being here is very much a God thing.”

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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