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Growing Hispanic population flocks to Pentecostal, evangelical churches

Associated Press
Aug. 24, 2003
Sarah Linn, Associated Press
www.journalnet.com

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Monday August 25, 2003

HILLSBORO, Ore. (AP) – More than 400 people pack the sanctuary of the Hillsboro Spanish Seventh Day Adventist Church on a Saturday morning. They talk, laugh, sing. They throng the altar, shaking hands and patting backs.

And when the Rev. Roger Hernandez roams the pulpit, hand raised to the heavens, cries of “Amen” fill the air.

With 125 new members this year alone, the church reflects a regionwide trend.

Traditionally Roman Catholic, Latinos in the Pacific Northwest are seeking out other branches of Christianity. The most rapid growth is in the Pentecostal, charismatic and evangelical churches, where congregations aggressively pursue Hispanic members.

“When people come to the United States, they come looking for a change in their lives,” said Hernandez, the Hillsboro pastor.

That means switching to a worship style that is more contemporary, intimate and participatory than the formal, ritual-based Catholic masses back home, he said.

The Northwest echoes changes in Latin America, said Mark Shibley, sociologist of religion at Southern Oregon University. There, more people are turning to Pentecostal and charismatic sects.

“We hug a lot. We have a lot of emotions,” said Edgar Alquinta, who has attended the Hillsboro church for two years. He converted from Roman Catholicism at age 16, he said, because he felt more accepted as a youth in the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

In the United States, Protestants and other non-Catholic Christians make up 23 percent of the Latino population, according to a University of Notre Dame study released in March 2003. About 70 percent are Catholic and the rest are nonbelievers or members of different faiths.

Almost all Protestant Latinos belong to evangelical or Pentecostal denominations, said the study called “Hispanic Churches in American Public Life.”

Alquinta said that Hispanics, Oregon’s largest minority group, feel at home in the nontraditional sects.

“They’re not losing their roots,” Alquinta said. “They’re being accepted, and programs are actually being tailored for them.”

Catholicism itself is changing, the Notre Dame study reported. Almost a quarter of the 25 million Latino Catholics in the United States identify themselves as charismatic, or spirit-filled, the study said. And 26 percent say they’ve had a “born-again” experience, usually associated with evangelism.

“There’s always a lot of fermentation and blending of religious styles, especially in migrant communities,” said Shibley, the sociologist.

Across Oregon, there is dramatic growth in Pentecostal, Assembly of God, Jehovah’s Witness and evangelical sects. That’s because those churches are aggressive recruiters, said Arturo Fernandez, interim pastor of Casa Metodista in Woodburn.

The Hillsboro Seventh Day Adventist church offers English classes, a food bank, Bible studies and 20 small social groups. Some groups are bilingual or English-only, Hernandez said, to reach younger Latinos or others who may not speak Spanish.

Members of the Tabernaculo de Salem visit local jails twice a week, the Rev. Jerry Miranda said. He said the Pentecostal church’s message of life-changing redemption and a deeply personal relationship with God helps make its prison ministry the largest in the area.

“You can talk to God yourself,” Miranda said. “You can feel Him, feel His touch.”

The 30-year-old church has produced nine daughter churches throughout Oregon, Washington and Mexico.

Other Christian sects have less of an impact on the Latino community. Many mainline, conservative Protestant churches concentrate their efforts on community services, not proselytizing, said Fernandez, the Methodist pastor.

The Mormon Church, the second largest in the state, doesn’t have a specific ministry for Hispanics, said Robert Wilson, regional director of public affairs. It directs much of its mission work to Latin America itself.

But Catholic churches still draw the largest crowds. Latinos constitute 42 percent of Catholics in western Oregon, according to Raul Velazquez, director of the Archdiocese of Portland’s Office of Hispanic Ministry.

Velazquez said that Catholicism is a cultural identity for nearly all Hispanic Americans.

“When we are away from our homelands, the first reference is to the church,” he said. “The connection with our faith is the connection with our homelands.”

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