Latinos Feel Pull Toward Non-Catholic Religious Traditions
Latinos across the world are converting in droves to non-Catholic denominations — attracted to aspects of worship and fellowship they say are not present in Catholicism.
by Travis Grabow
Like most Latinos, Emilio de la Cruz was raised Catholic. His parents would take him and his siblings to Mass most Sundays, and for a year his grandmother lived with the family and took them every week.
But de la Cruz drifted away from church and into the world of drugs. In 1975, he spent his 18th birthday in a Burley, Idaho, jail. There he was given a Bible, a book he read for the first time in his jail cell.
The week he was released, a friend invited de la Cruz to attend a Pentecostal service in the nearby town of Rupert. He showed up with a group of friends, high on marijuana.
“I don’t remember the sermon; I don’t remember anything, but I know that I felt something,” he said. “It wasn’t something that made me cry or anything like that, I just felt something in my heart… from that day on, I was changed. I didn’t want to drink anymore. I didn’t want to get high anymore. I didn’t want the life I was living anymore.”
That something led de la Cruz to return to church, alone, the following week.
“After that, you couldn’t keep me away. I was the first one to church and the last one to leave,” he said.
Within six months, de la Cruz was leading a youth Sunday school. Within two years, he was working as an evangelist, traveling through Idaho, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.
While working at the Avondale Christian Assembly, a Pentecostal church in Avondale, Ariz., the Ford Pinto he had been traveling in broke down. With nowhere to go, he decided to stay and help the pastor. Now, 22 years later, he is the pastor.
De la Cruz’ conversion experience is similar to that of a growing number of Latinos around the country. The number of U.S. Latinos leaving the Roman Catholic Catholic Church has been increasing for several decades, according to research by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Hispanic Center.
In a 2007 survey entitled “Changing Faiths: Latinos and the Transformation of American Religion,” Pew found that about 68 percent of Latinos in the United States considered themselves Catholic, a figure that has been relatively stable for years.
However, in just the past 20 years, the total number of U.S. Latinos has more than doubled — from 22 million in 1990 to an estimated 46 million in 2008, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. If the Pew estimate is accurate, that works out to roughly 15 million non-Catholic Latinos in the United States.
Some of those Latinos eschew religion altogether, but many join other religions, the Pentecostal Church among them.
According to the Changing Faiths survey, about one in five Latinos who leave the Catholic Church become Pentecostal. That translates to more than 3 million in the United States; in Latin America, the number stands at about 75 million.
Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church) also have reported large gains in Latino membership.
The Mormon Church, for example, dedicated its first temple in Latin America in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1975 and now counts more than 5 million members across Latin America — a large chunk of its total membership of 13 million worldwide. According to the church, more of its members speak Spanish than any other language.
Jehovah’s Witnesses also have found success among Latinos, counting more than 2 million members in Latin America compared to a little over 1 million members in the United States.
The group’s conventions, which occur throughout the summer across the United States, attract thousands of Latinos. Arizona alone had three Spanish-speaking conventions in June, one of which drew nearly 7,000 participants from Arizona, New Mexico and western Texas.
Latinos leave the Catholic Church and are drawn to other religions for reasons that are numerous and complex.
But certainly one reason is the explosion in the number of ethnic churches that offer Latino leadership or Spanish-language services, emphasize Latino culture or have largely Hispanic congregations.
Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said recent immigrants are especially apt to seek familiar surroundings when they go to church.
“Many of the [Catholic] priests in these Hispanic communities are not Hispanic, so there’s a lack of connectivity,” Rodriguez said. “And then the evangelical church says, ‘Hey, but here’s what we’re going to do: You come to our church, your pastor’s going to look like you, he’s going to speak like you, we’re going to have your music and your food.’”
These evangelical churches often become a home away from home for Latino immigrants, Rodriguez said.
The kind of worship service offered is another important factor in conversion. According to Pew, 61 percent of Latinos who converted from Catholicism said the Mass was not lively or exciting, and 36 percent said this was the reason they eventually left the faith.
De la Cruz, the Pentecostal pastor, said music is often the key.
“Latinos like fiesta. We like it loud, and we like it happy…” he said. “Music — and not just music, but annointed music — draws people in.”
Some denominations also specifically focus on bringing Hispanic members into the fold. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons deploy thousands of Spanish-speaking missionaries throughout the world.
Perhaps most important, many Latinos convert to other religions because they find something they didn’t get in the Catholic Church.
Maria Gonzales, a former Catholic who is now a member of the church de la Cruz leads, said she remembers her parents telling her “‘Don’t read [the Bible]. It’ll make you crazy. If you read too much of that book you’re gonna go crazy.’ And that would scare us. We didn’t want to read it.”
Gonzales said that in contrast the Pentecostal church encourages her to read the Bible and learn as much as she can.
Many Latinos also identify with some non-Catholic Christian faiths because of their emphasis on strong families.
“I had an idea that there was life after death,” said Luis Acosta of Mesa, Ariz., who was raised Catholic but converted to Mormonism. “But I didn’t know that families could be together forever. I didn’t know that after death, if you’re not sealed in the holy temple, you could be away from your family. The plan of God — now I know that it’s happiness, it’s with your family, not yourself.”
Still others, like Maria Perez of Phoenix, enjoy the intimacy of their new churches.
“[The] thing that caught my attention was that I could have one-on-one attention, especially from my teachers in the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” she said. “That made me special.”
Some Latinos feel that Catholic parishes are simply too big to provide this kind of attention. The average Catholic parish in the United States serves a few thousand members, while most Jehovah’s Witness congregations, for example, limit their numbers to about 200 and create a new congregation when one approaches that number. The Mormon Church takes a similar approach.
The average Pentecostal church also is small, although there are several mega-churches in the United States that serve several thousand members.
The Catholic Church has not been standing still while Latinos leave for other religions. It has increased the number of services offered in Spanish and has tried to raise up more Latino leaders.
According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, more than 20 percent of parishes in the United States have Hispanic ministries. Currently, 28 of the 258 bishops in the U.S. are Hispanic, and 15 percent of those ordained as priests are now of Hispanic descent.
Fortunately for the church, even as many Latinos leave, the overall number of Catholic Latinos in the United States continues to grow, thanks to an influx of immigrants, mostly from heavily Catholic Mexico. In fact, according to the “Changing Faiths” survey, this influx is enough to not only continue pushing up the number of Catholic Latinos but to ensure Latinos will play a more important role in the future of the church in the United States as well.
The survey concludes that, assuming that the rate of conversion over the past 25 years holds constant for the next 25 years, the share of U.S. Latinos who are Catholic will decline from 68 percent in 2006 to 61 percent in 2030. Meanwhile, the proportion of U.S. Catholics who are Hispanic will increase from 33 percent to 41 percent.
In order to more effectively minister to Latinos in this country, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (now the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) unanimously approved the National Pastoral Plan for Hispanic Ministry in 1987. The plan commits the church to diversifying the experience of its members and becoming more supportive of Hispanic culture and styles of worship.
Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, assistant director of Hispanic ministry for the conference, said the plan has proven effective for thousands of parishes.
He knows from personal experience what a difference the efforts to engage Latinos can make. He was the director of Hispanic ministry in the archdiocese of Portland, Ore., when he was asked to implement the new pastoral plan for Hispanic ministry.
“And in a matter of years, we went from serving Hispanics in 12 missions to having 39 parishes serving Hispanics, [from] having only a handful of priests working with Hispanics to having over 40 priests working with Hispanics,” he said.
“The moment the parishes decided to reach out to them and welcome them as a community, there was much less of a need for Hispanic/Latino Catholics to go elsewhere to find God and to worship God and to pray and to celebrate and so forth.”
There is another movement within the Catholic Church that is drawing Latinos, even though it was not developed by church leadership. The Catholic Charistmatic Movement, or Charismatic Renewal, incorporates some aspects of Pentecostalism into traditional Catholicism.
The charismatic movement emphasizes the Holy Spirit, more vibrant worship and more participation in the Mass. Some prayer groups and “healing Masses” have adopted Pentecostal practices, such as speaking in tongues.
The movement began in 1967 during a spiritual retreat at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Penn., where a number of students and professors claimed to experience a “baptism of the Holy Spirit,” a powerful personal experience that may be accompanied by “charisms,” or spiritual gifts, such as speaking in tongues or prophesying. Similar events occurred at the University of Notre Dame the next year, and from there the movement grew so rapidly in the United States that Pope Paul VI addressed its adherents in 1977.
“This authentic desire to situate yourselves in the church is the authentic sign of the action of the Holy Spirit,” the Pope said. “How could this spiritual renewal not be a chance for the church and the world?”
Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict have blessed the movement as well, although they also have cautioned that its adherents should remain anchored to the Catholic Church.
According to Pew, 54 percent of U.S. Latino Catholics consider themselves charismatic, whether they attend services organized by the movement or not. Jose Corral, a Catholic pastor of the St. Finn Barr parish in San Francisco who is involved in the charismatic renewal, said the movement is a way to attract Latinos to the church and, perhaps more important, retain Latinos who already are Catholic.
“If we support it, and if we give good guidance and good instruction and good evangelization … then they are not going to leave,” he said. “They are going to stay with us. They are going to mature. And they are going to serve the church. ”
It does seem to be the case that charismatic Catholic Latinos are slightly more committed to their faith than their non-charismatic counterparts. According to Pew, 45 percent of charismatic Catholic Latinos attend Mass at least weekly, compared to 40 percent of non-charismatic Catholic Latinos. Similar numbers hold true for those who read the Bible at least weekly and evangelize at least weekly.
However, the movement is largely left to independent groups because the church has not created official renewal programs or parishes. Corral said members hope the church will one day officially support the movement.
“We need more acceptance by the Catholic Church,” he said. “The people need to accept this movement. The priests need to accept this movement. In a special way, bishops need to accept this movement as part of our Catholic Church.”
Fausto Borja, a charismatic Catholic in San Francisco, agreed: “Every time that we gather in groups we are praying, we are begging to the Holy Spirit that the traditional church understand what we are doing. What we are trying to pray for the church is that they open their hearts and they understand.”
Religion and Politics
This changing religious landscape means more than a shifting of religious demographics: It has potentially large political implications as well.
“I believe in 2008, according to the exit polls, the Hispanic evangelical community was critical to giving President Obama the White House,” said Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “Without the Hispanic evangelical vote shifting from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party in 2008, President John McCain would today be occupying the White House.”
Rodriguez said the Latino evangelical vote cannot be pinned down by party ideology. “It’s very centrist and moderate,” he said. “It’s the quintissential swing vote or moderate vote.”
And that’s another reason he believes the Hispanic evangelical vote “may very well be the game-changing vote in the American electoral process, and it will be for generations to come.”
Certainly, Latinos are becoming more politically engaged. In the 2008 presidential election, 9.7 million Latinos voted, according to Pew, up from 7.6 million 2004. And the Latino population is the nation’s fastest-growing: Census data show that more than a third of U.S. Latinos are under the age of 18, compared to a quarter of the total population.
Not only does it appear that more Latinos will become part of the evangelical voting bloc in the United States, but they may change that voting bloc by their presence as well.
In general, the Latino population cares about more than one or two political issues, Rodriguez said. They have strong feelings about family values issues, such as gay rights and abortion, but they also care deeply about social justice issues, including immigration reform and poverty.
He invoked the imagery of the cross to explain: The vertical portion of the cross represents salvation, he said, while the horizontal branch stands for social justice.
As a result of Hispanic influence, the evangelical movement in the United States “will be comprehensive; it will be both vertical and horizontal; it will be both redemptive and relational, covenant and community,” he said. “It will be both John 3:16 and Matthew 25. It will be both Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr.
“That’s the future -– righteousness and justice.”