Latino Christians are being drawn to Protestant churches

The Advertiser (Louisiana), July 11, 2003
http://www.theadvertiser.com/
July 11, 2003

Minister Manuel Guzman gives Spanish-language services at the Pentacostals of the Twin Cities, in West Monroe. While the majority of immigrants to the United States from Spanish-speaking countries identify themselves as Catholic, an increasing number of Latino Christians are being drawn to Protestant churches.

Born in Honduras, Manuel Guzman was raised in the Catholic Church and attended Catholic school.

Although acquainted with Pentecostalism in his home country, Guzman says it wasn’t until he attended a concert at a Pentecostal church in New York City a decade ago that he embraced the charismatic Christian faith.

“It was a turning point in my life,” Guzman, 34, says. “I had an experience with God. My way of life completely changed.”

Guzman is not alone.

While the majority of immigrants to the United States from Spanish-speaking countries identify themselves as Catholic, an increasing number of Latino Christians are being drawn to Pentecostal and Evangelical churches. In many cases, worshippers identify themselves as Catholic as well as Pentecostal, Evangelical or born-again. Some Latinos and scholars say Latinos are attracted to Protestant churches because they offer more leadership opportunities than the traditionally hierarchical Catholic Church. Others say Pentecostal and charismatic churches appeal to Latinos because of their emotion-filled form of worship.

“A lot of people are looking for something more than religion,” Guzman says. “They are looking for an experience.”

To respond to the faith needs of Latino immigrants, Guzman moved with his family two and a half years ago from New Orleans to West Monroe, La., to lead the Latino ministry at the Pentecostals of the Twin Cities.

In addition to leading weekly worship services and Bible studies, Guzman, who immigrated to the United States in 1989, helps congregants navigate life in the United States. He says he often drives people to the doctor, helps them send money back home and acts as a translator.

Because many of the Spanish-speaking worshippers who attend the Pentecostal services are migrant farm workers, Guzman says the size of the congregation swells and shrinks according to the farming cycle. An average of 30 people attend weekly worship services, with attendance climbing to 80 during peak seasons. Guzman says he expects church attendance to grow in the coming weeks as watermelons, and later sweet potatoes, are harvested.

While the influx of Latino immigrants to the United States has boosted the U.S. Catholic population — Latino Catholics in the country now number 25 million, which is an all-time high. However, “mass defections” are taking place away from the Catholic Church, says Gaston Espinosa, a religion scholar at Northwestern University in Illinois.

“For every one Latino who returns to the (Catholic) church, four leave,” said Espinosa during a recent presentation in Dallas about a research project he directed on Latino churches in the United States.

The study, titled “Hispanic Churches in American Public Life,” examined the impact that 35 million Latinos have on American religion, politics and civic life. The Pew Charitable Trusts funded the $1.3 million project, which surveyed 3,000 Latinos in the United States.

Although the study found that the proportion of Latinos in the United States who are Catholic has remained above 70 percent from 1988 to 2002, more than one in four of these Catholics reported having had a born-again experience with Jesus. In fact, the majority of those professing a born-again experience — 5.4 million Latino Catholics — also identified themselves as being Catholic Charismatic, born-again, spirit-filled, charismatic or Pentecostal.

“The Latino population (of Catholics) that identifies as born-again is as large as the American Jewish population and larger than the American Muslim population,” Espinosa says.

He says more Latinos are joining Pentecostal and Evangelical churches because of their emphasis on divine healing, social outreach and spiritual transformation.

The study found 4.5 million U.S. Latinos — or 13 percent — claim to be Pentecostal, charismatic or spirit-filled.

Timothy Matovina, a theology professor the director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, said many Latino immigrants are drawn to Protestant churches because they offer more leadership opportunities than the Catholic Church, whose religious parishes are led by seminary-trained priests.

Although many traditionally Catholic Latinos defect to Protestant churches after immigrating to the United States, some grew up in Protestant traditions.

Bayardo Cardoza, 37, a West Monroe carpenter who attends the Pentecostals of the Twin Cities and practiced the Pentecostal faith in his home country of Nicaragua.

He says people who join Pentecostal churches are “attracted to the truth.”

“In my country, there are a lot of Catholic people,” says Cardoza. “They only go by the traditions.”

Guzman says the key to attracting Latinos to churches is offering worship in their native language. He says when he invites new Latinos to the church, they always ask, “Do you really have services in Spanish?”

Guzman says he sees no problem with having a dual religious identity.

“We don’t like to create a sense of division,” Guzman says. “We just identify ourselves as Christian.”

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