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SILER CITY — Lendy Carias’ journey with a Hispanic advocacy group started with a three-day church retreat in Atlanta.
She’d been attending a class in a church called Fiesta Cristiana when she was invited to attend a weekend retreat about a Hispanic Methodist caucus. She nearly didn’t go, yet three days later, she was voted one of the group’s newest board members.
“That was my first time there, and I heard all the things that they do for the Hispanic community people in the United States,” said Carias, a Siler City resident. “When I heard all that, I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, we need all that information in Siler City.’”
The group, officially known as the Southeastern Jurisdiction (SEJ) Hispanic/Latino Caucus of the United Methodist Church, seeks to empower the Hispanic community inside and out of the Methodist Church (UMC). Founded in 2015, the caucus serves nine states from Virginia to Florida, with Mississippi as its westward boundary.
According to caucus president and Georgia pastor Ivelisse Quiñones, the group is one of many standalone “arm(s)” of MARCHA, a national Methodist caucus that advocates for and provides resources to the Hispanic community all over the United States.
While MARCHA formed around 50 years ago in Texas, Quiñones said the SEJ Caucus’ own roots come from a workshop in Durham.
“We met because we realized that the Southeastern Jurisdiction has as much Hispanics as the Western Jurisdiction,” she said. “So that’s why we decided that we had to have a higher or stronger presence in the jurisdiction.”
Since forming, the SEJ Caucus has often joined MARCHA and its other branch organizations in lobbying for DACA in Washington and supporting immigrants. Among other things, Quiñones said they’ve worked with others to take water to the border and to host various workshops on immigrants’ rights. Carias hosted one such workshop last October at her church, Iglesia El Camino UMC in Siler City.
“God is love and love does not include racism, discrimination, lack of housing (or) lack of food,” Quiñones said. “We all were created by God, and it doesn’t matter the color. It doesn’t matter that we are Black, brown, yellow or white.”
Though the pandemic has prevented the caucus from meeting in person, they’ve continued to promote resources and advocate for the Hispanic community. Vice president David Ortigoza, a Charlotte pastor, participated in the North Carolina Latino Congress’ Aug. 13 Zoom call with the governor and attorney general to hold both accountable for promises they made the Hispanic community in 2016.
But beyond advocacy work, SEJ Caucus members provide their communities with access to undergraduate and graduate scholarships.
The United Methodist Church offers around $6 million in scholarships every year to its congregation. As part of the UMC, the SEJ Caucus can connect students with scholarships ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars — and for some of these, citizenship status doesn’t matter. Though law doesn’t prevent undocumented students from attending college, federal and most state laws do disqualify them and DACA recipients from receiving government aid, including cheaper in-state tuition.
That’s why the UMC General Board of Higher Education and Ministries recently opened up scholarships to DACA and undocumented students under Specialized Theological Ministries director David Martinez’s watch. “We treat them the same as everybody for some of the scholarships that we have,” he said. “But we made a special emphasis for Dreamers because there’s a lot of Dreamers who need those opportunities.”
Though requirements vary depending on the scholarship, Martinez said high school seniors applying for a general scholarship must be involved in the Methodist Church for at least a year and have at least a 2.5 GPA. Scholarship money can go toward any accredited, four-year college, and recipients can study anything they want. Applications generally open up in early January and close in March.
“Our dream is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” he said. “So we are really focusing in on that, and the way that we are focusing (on that) is giving an opportunity for Dreamers to move forward in the educational system and get involved and impact the community.”
Martinez said he thinks the pandemic probably won’t stop their scholarship programs or education services for next year.
“With COVID-19, we will continue probably support right now even though they have online (classes),” he said. “It’s important, I think, right now to make sure we support them because it’s a difficult time.”
In her church in Siler City, Carias has been spreading the word about these scholarship opportunities to Chatham’s young people — like Snow Camp resident Milene Trejo.
Trejo has been attending Iglesia El Camino since she was in fourth or fifth grade. Since then, she’s participated in the church’s youth group and sung as part of the youth choir, among other things.
Earlier this year, Trejo applied for and received a UMC scholarship for $1,000 after hearing about it from Carias. Now she’s a freshman at Appalachian State University, where she’s planning to major in pre-nursing and minor in psychology.
“(The scholarship) was really helpful,” she said, adding, “I’ve always wanted to continue with my education, but college is kind of expensive. So, any amount that I got really meant a lot to me.”
Carias said she’s also been trying to teach Chatham’s immigrant families about the importance of education and UMC scholarship opportunities since many prioritize finding work upon coming to the U.S.
“I know it’s scary to go to school because they think that it’s expensive and they don’t have the money and all that,” she said. “So, we want to let them know that we can find them resources to provide a scholarship and all that for their children.”
Carias said she speaks from personal experience: When she moved to the United States, she thought her parents had brought her there just to work, too, and she didn’t know what to expect.
“But I was wrong,” she said, “because education is important if you want to be somebody in this country.”
That’s why she said being part of the SEJ Caucus means a lot to her — because the caucus provides her with the means to educate, advocate for and provide an example for her community.
“I can share my experience and (be) like, ‘Look, I was like this, but now I’m this,’” Carias said, “‘and if I’m doing it, you can do it, and you (too) can be the change for this community.’”
Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.