Despite growing up in the Catholic Church and attending parochial school, Gladys Verdejo said that for years her faith didn't extend much beyond attending Sunday Mass.
But an invitation to a worship service at the Lamb's Church of Nazarene in New York City seven years ago changed that.
"I fell in love," said Verdejo, who was born in Puerto Rico, of her experience visiting an evangelical church.
On a recent Sunday at the Lamb’s Church, Verdejo was among a large number of Latino congregants worshipping to gospel songs in Spanish. When the Rev. Gabriel Salguero took to the pulpit, he began his sermon with a fiery message: “Education is power! Ignorance is slavery!”
According to Verdejo, it was this message of empowerment and a direct connection to the gospel she felt she was lacking in the Catholic Church. “I feel more comfortable and at home here. I have a lot to learn still, but it's great,” she said.
As millions of Catholics throughout the country await Pope Francis’s first U.S. visit this September, the steady movement of Hispanics, like Gladys Verdejo, away from the Catholic Church underscores a dilemma for the church: Despite efforts to attract and retain U.S. Latinos through expansion of lay ministry positions and support for immigration reform, many Hispanics continue to convert to an evangelical church or abandon their faith altogether.
The pope is expected to speak about immigrant rights at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia later this fall. In a nod to U.S. Hispanic Catholics — who comprise 17 percent of the population and 38 percent of U.S. Catholics — the pope will also offer a historic canonization Mass in Spanish for the Junipero Serra, a Franciscan missionary who established mission churches in California.
Addressing Latinos in Spanish “will be an unquestioned acknowledgment of the importance of Latino communities and Latino Catholics in the United States,” said Professor Luis Fraga, director of the Institute for Latino Studies and professor of Transformative Latino Leadership at the University of Notre Dame.
After the pope's 2013 inauguration, Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, presumed the evangelical church's success in drawing in U.S. Latinos would diminish.
“We [Latino Evangelicals] expected Pope Francis to, in a very measurable manner, slow down the exodus from Catholicism to Evangelicals in Latin America and here in America. But guess what? He’s not slowing down the exodus,” he said.
In fact, Pew Research Center polling from last year notes that among Latinos between 30 to 49, “the net movement has been away from Catholicism and toward both evangelical Protestantism and no religious affiliation.”
"I Experienced the Presence of God"
After the service at the Lamb’s Church of Nazarene in Manhattan, Katira Castro de Lopez, 34, of Queens, New York, chatted with parishioners as her two children played.
Born in Puerto Rico and baptized in the Catholic Church, Castro de Lopez said she was a teenager when she first visited an evangelical church.
“I experienced the presence of God. It was tangible. I’ve never experienced that feeling in my life ever before,” she said.
The Catholic Church has experienced a net loss of members for decades, and evangelical Protestantism has woven its way into Latino immigrant communities since the 1940s. While the greater part of Latinos in the U.S. still belong to the Catholic Church, the Pew data show that this majority continues to shrink as evangelical Protestant and unaffiliated groups rise among U.S. Latinos. According to the research, nearly one-quarter of U.S. Latinos are now former Catholics.
Rodriguez’s Sacramento-based organization, which encompasses over 40,000 member-churches representing millions of Latino Evangelicals, is the largest Latino Christian organization in the country. Rodriguez said intense community-building efforts continue to draw Hispanics to the evangelical church.
“You’re Salvadoran; we prepare your food and we sing your songs. You’re Mexican; we sing your music at church. You don’t have to abandon your culture when you come to our parish,” Rodriguez said.
The church isn’t just offering cultural affirmation. Rodriguez said it’s a message of personal and spiritual empowerment, including a message of financial prosperity, that’s attracting an increasing number of Latino immigrants who have experienced poverty.
“We validate the American dream. The Catholic Church is very ambiguous — almost silent, if not antagonistic — to the idea that America does represent social economic vertical mobility,” Rodriguez said.
Penance and Power
Rodriguez said the evangelical church’s inclusion of spiritual, social, and financial empowerment in gospel teachings resonates with Latino churchgoers.
Among the ways the evangelical church empowers, said Rodriguez, is by mobilizing congregants around social and political movements, and by using its leverage to persuade Congress on immigration reform.
For its part, the Catholic Church has worked to empower U.S. Latinos for decades, Luis Fraga said. One successful way, he said, is the Church continues to affirm its Latino base is by expanding the appointment of Latino deacons.
“There is an explicit attempt to appoint individuals who have language knowledge, cultural capital, life experience directly related to Latino communities, and give them very important roles in ministering to Hispanic communities,” he said.
Fraga added that Catholic social charities, local parishes and organizations like the Catholic Campaign for Human Development — the Church’s domestic anti-poverty program which works to address immigration reform and assist low-income communities — have been highly responsive to the needs of immigrant communities. Initiatives by Latino dioceses across the U.S. are anchoring the Catholic Church, according to Fraga.
“The growth in the Catholic Church — at least the slowing of the decline — of strong Catholic congregants is directly related to the increased presence of Latino immigrant communities,” he said.
Mar Muñoz-Visoso, executive director of Cultural Diversity in the Church at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, describes the Catholic Church’s efforts to minister to Hispanic communities as all-embracing.
“We have close to 5,000 parishes in the United States that do have some kind of ministry for Hispanic immigrants,” she said.
Muñoz-Visoso also said that 47 percent of lay ministry positions in the U.S., including youth ministers, parish managers, and religious educators, are filled by Latinos.
“[T]here is something very impressive there because it really means that we’re preparing the next generation of Latinos for the Church,” she said.
As trends in American Christianity continue to indicate a decline in membership, both Catholic and evangelical church leaders agree the future of Catholic and evangelical churches alike are intimately linked to Latinos in the U.S.
Rodriguez said for the better part of a decade he has been putting pressure on conservatives in Congress as well as assuaging the concerns that he said many white Evangelicals have about comprehensive immigration reform. “You need to support immigration reform because if not, you’re actually deporting the very future of your church,” he said.
Echoing the official views of the Catholic church, Muñoz-Visoso describes the Catholic church’s approach to immigration reform as comprehensive. “There has to be a grassroots movement to make sure that human dignity is respected, that due process is respected, and to understand the root causes of immigration,” she said.
Pope Francis has been vocal about the plight of immigrants worldwide. In a message for the 2014 World Day of Migrants and Refugees, he addressed the need for thorough reform. “Migrants and refugees are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity. They are children, women and men who leave or who are forced to leave their homes for various reasons, who share a legitimate desire for knowing and having, but above all for being more,” he wrote.
Pope Francis is expected to address immigration in a speech in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia during the World Meeting of Families. The event's theme is “Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive.”