Friday, April 17, 2009

NYC archbishop's challenge: Not losing Hispanics

The Associated Press
Thursday, April 16, 2009 4:04 PM

NEW YORK -- When Archbishop Timothy Dolan became the leader of the New York Archdiocese this week, he read a part of his first sermon in Spanish. It made demographic sense — many of the city's Roman Catholics are Latino.

But the church, which will increasingly rely on Hispanics for its continued vitality, is facing a challenge: A small but growing number of Latinos are turning to Protestant denominations, particularly Pentecostal and Evangelical, finding the worship styles and Hispanic pulpit leadership can be a better fit for their spiritual needs.

The shift from Catholic to other Christian denominations has been gathering momentum in the Latino community in New York and around the country in recent years, presenting the new leader of the archdiocese with a formidable challenge as he takes over the most prominent position in American Catholicism.

The Catholic Church is losing people like Corey Pagan, who now makes her religious home at the Primitive Christian Church, a Pentecostal church with a primarily Hispanic leadership and strongly Hispanic congregation on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

"I really like the idea of the relationship you build here with others and how you build a relationship with God," Pagan said. "I didn't really have that growing up in the Catholic church."

Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who speaks Spanish and can celebrate Mass in language, has spoken on the importance of reaching immigrants.

That's important for people like Patricia Rodriguez. The 45-year-old Harlem woman took a lunch break this week to witness the procession outside St. Patrick's Cathedral on the day Dolan was installed. She said she has seen the movement among her fellow Hispanics away from Catholicism toward other denominations, driving home the need for the archdiocese to do more to keep them.

"If they don't have a place to go or the leadership that is necessary, what are they going to do? They can go elsewhere," she said.

The Catholic church is working on increasing the presence of Hispanics in its leadership, and many churches are conducting services in Spanish.

Even with the challenges, Catholicism is in no immediate danger of losing its position of religious primacy among Hispanics. According to a 2007 report from the Pew Hispanic Center, 68 percent of Hispanics are Catholic, while 20 percent identified themselves as following a Protestant denomination.

But the report also found that 20 percent of Hispanics said they had followed another religious tradition as children, either turning to another church or not following any faith as adults. Of those who had changed, the vast majority were former Catholics.

"There is no question there is movement within the Hispanic community," said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Hispanic evangelical and Pentecostal leaders see no sign of the trend stopping.

"The future of the American religious landscape without a doubt will be dramatically impacted by the Hispanic population, without a doubt it will be evangelical in nature," said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

The strong link between Latinos and Catholicism goes back centuries, due to the colonizing efforts of European countries, primarily Spain, in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. As the Hispanic presence in the United States has grown, through immigration and generations born here, so, too, has that link.

But the connection has never been absolute. Other Christian traditions have had a presence as well, and different countries have had different experiences with Catholicism. According to the Pew report, 74 percent of Hispanics of Mexican origin are Catholic, while only 49 percent of Puerto Rican and 68 percent of Dominican-origin Hispanics are.

That's of particular relevance in New York City, where unlike the country as a whole, Hispanics of Mexican origin are strongly outnumbered by those tracing their roots to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

The inroads are being made both in the United States as well as Latin America, Rodriguez said, pointing to countries like Guatemala and El Salvador that have gone from being Catholic strongholds to having sizable Pentecostal and Evangelical communities. So when people come from those countries, they bring those faith traditions with them, he said.

The appeal of these other denominations comes from a variety of reasons, including how worship services are performed and who is leading the churches, said the Rev. Gabriel Salguero of the Latino Leadership Circle.

"The liturgical worship style speaks to many Latinos," he said.

The Rev. Marc Rivera, of the Primitive Christian Church in lower Manhattan, agrees.

He said the appeal for his worshippers was that "they are actively involved in their own spirituality, rather than going through a priest, rather than going through a hierarchical system."

The Pew study bears that out. It found that more than half of Latino Protestants come under the category of renewalist, which emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit through things like miracles or speaking in tongues.

At a weeknight service last week, the enthusiasm of the crowd did not stop when Rivera finished speaking. Afterward, worshippers milled about the pews, exchanging handshakes, hugs and conversation.

Jassy Ramirez, who like Pagan is a congregant at Primitive Christian Church, said the strong presence of other Hispanics was part of the initial appeal of the church, which she continues to attend even though she now lives up in the Bronx.

"It did make it easier for me to feel at home, to feel at ease," she said.

Despite the best efforts of the Catholic church to make Hispanics feel more welcome, Samuel Rodriguez predicts that it will be difficult for the church to stem the tide.

"By 2050, when you say Hispanic," he said, "the first word that comes to mind will be evangelical."

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