March 23, 2015
By Karina Ioffee
When Alvaro Urbina first walked into the Jubilee Christian Church, his marriage was in crisis and his daughter gravely ill. A Mexican immigrant who came to the United States in 1993, he was desperate for a place he could feel at home.
“People came up to me and said, ‘Welcome’ and I felt like that day I started a new family,” said Urbina, 35, who after a decade at the San Jose Evangelical church now leads a men’s group and occasionally fills in as pastor. “It was something I had never had as a Catholic.”
Urbina became part of one of the most dramatic trends in American religion: The rapid growth of Latino evangelicals, many of whom are leaving a Catholic church that has long dominated religious life in their homelands.
Though the majority of American Latinos still identify as Catholic, the percentage has dropped from 67 percent in 2006 to about 59 percent in 2013, according to a Pew Research Center study released last year. Meanwhile, the number of Latinos who identify as Evangelical rose by more than a quarter — up from 14 percent in 2006 to 18 percent in 2013, making Latino evangelicals the fastest-growing religious group in the country.
Locally, Latinos who now call themselves Evangélicos say there are several reasons they’re happier at their new churches: being able to participate in spiritual practices, gatherings and festivities that connect to the cultural traditions of their home countries; hearing messages of hope that help them rise above hardships; and finding ways to become leaders as immigrants in a new land.
“There is a lot more flexibility and freedom (than in Catholicism) in terms of starting new churches and leadership roles,” said Jonathan Calvillo, a researcher at UC Irvine studying Latino Evangelical congregations in California. “You can go from leading a Bible study to being a pastor in less than a year, which creates new pathways for gaining respect and status previously not available to them.”
Mike Stewart, a pastor at Foothill Baptist Church in Los Altos and executive director of missions for the Central Coast Baptist Association, based in Santa Clara, said Latinos also find a personal link to community in Evangelical churches.
“People are coming to a new area and there are a lot of changes for them,” he said. “These churches allow them to connect with people they didn’t know, but also see people from home.”
Also, faith is expressed through joyful, exuberant celebrations accompanied by lively music, and singing that are integral to their culture.
On a recent Sunday, Pedro Galvan, 33, paced in front of parishioners at Richmond’s Iglesia Dios Pentecostal, cracking jokes and throwing out Bible passages, sounding more like a motivational speaker and comedian than a pastor.
“God didn’t give you dreams so you could say, ‘OK, thanks.’ He gave them to you so you could go out there and accomplish them,” he shouted in Spanish as worshippers responded with whoops of “Amen” and “Hallelujah!”
Local Catholic leaders say they are not worried about the flight of Latinos.
“I won’t deny that we are losing people, but we might be losing people because our churches are full, so people are not getting the personal attention they want,” said Hector Medina, head of the Department of Latino Ministries at the Diocese of Oakland.
Local Latinos who have migrated to Evangelical churches say they serve as a “second family”: people with whom they pray, do community service, barbecue and celebrate such milestones as baptisms and quinceaÃ±eras, gatherings common back home, but not necessarily in the United States, where individualism often trumps community.
“There were many times when I felt so alone and that nobody cared for me,” said Carmen Barrera, 52, of Antioch, who works as a janitor and found community and peace of mind in the past year at Ancla la Fe church in Pittsburg. “Now, with the love of God, I feel loved and happy surrounded by all my brothers and sisters. I feel like I’ve arrived at a place where I belong.”
At Evangelical churches, the message of faith, hope and empowerment helps Latinos who might feel adrift overcome troubles and reframe their lives.
Teodoro Lorenzo works in construction during the week, but on weekends, he is the pastor of Iglesia Evangelica de Espiritu Santo del Monte Sinai in Oakland. The church started with seven people in 2006 and now has 80 people, most of them Guatemalan immigrants, who speak Mam, an indigenous language.
“With God’s help, I am able to help many people, people who are living in vice, are in pain, their relationships are broken, and as they accept Christ, they see that another way is possible,” Lorenzo said.
Aleyda Espinoza, 41, started attending a Bible study at Richmond’s Iglesia Dios Pentecostal four years ago, after her son began running away and her husband, Abraham, lost his job.
“We were arguing about money all the time and it created a lot of tension for us,” said Espinoza, of Richmond. “We had to really touch bottom to know God.”
Espinoza said she is more confident, and is a better mother and wife, thanks to her faith. Her husband has held his job for three years and their life narrative has changed, from one of scarcity to one of hope and prosperity. “I know He is looking out for us,” she said.
Having more freedom about how to worship at Evangelical churches, especially at the more charismatic Pentecostal congregations, also appeals to Latinos. There, parishioners can fall on their knees, faint in fits of religious fervor, speak in tongues and talk miracles, actions that appeal to long-held cultural beliefs, yet are frowned on by the Catholic Church and mainline Protestant congregations.
According to a Pew study, 64 percent of Latino Evangelicals say they have received divine healing and revelation, and nearly 60 percent said they had seen spirits driven out of someone.
“Pentecostalism speaks to the tradition of supernatural phenomena within many Latinos’ world view and that’s definitely a point of attraction for many,” Calvillo said. “The tradition empowers the individual to engage in the spirit world in their own terms.”
Evangelical churches also provide opportunities for Latinos, including women, to serve in leadership roles, with an emphasis on personal growth.
Jose Zavala, 71, is a retired carpenter who has been in the United States for four decades and speaks English haltingly. But since 1998, he has led a congregation at Ancla la Fe in Pittsburg. As a respected elder, members approach him for advice on everything from drug addiction to relationship woes.
Zavala, a former Catholic, struggled with alcoholism until he saw an Evangelical minister, also a former alcoholic, preach.
“My life has totally changed and every day I have the chance to preach and reach more people,” he said.
Urbina, too, credits his church, Jubilee, with his success by helping him see himself not as a victim, but a survivor guided by God’s unwavering love. In 2008, the McDonald’s where he is the general manager was selected as one of the Top 10 performing franchises in the country.
“If God gives you opportunities, it’s because he believes that it’s a better path for you,” he said.
Source: Santa Cruz Sentinel