July 14, 2005

U.S. Protestants recruit Latino immigrants

By Alonso Soto

HARVARD, Ill. (Reuters) - Roy Peraza, a Cuban-born pastor
in one of America's fastest-growing Protestant denominations,
trolls this sleepy town's supermarkets and restaurants in
search of new Latino converts.

He approaches newly arrived immigrants, many of them
lifelong Roman Catholics with few contacts or relatives in the
United States.

It is here in the rural U.S. heartland where Peraza and
other evangelical and mainline Protestant missionaries seek
converts among the avalanche of immigrants from Mexico and
Central America.

Less than a year ago, the Springfield, Missouri-based
Assembly of God church told Peraza to start a ministry in the
8,000-strong community, where the Latino population has more
than tripled to 3,000 in the past 15 years.

Two decades of steady economic growth in the Midwest and
the South has led to thousands of Latin American immigrants
searching for jobs in the farm fields and meatpacking

At a recent service in Harvard 75 miles northwest of
Chicago, Peraza delivered a sermon in Cuban-inflected Spanish,
led singing in the language and played salsa tunes on the
church organ.

"I just need to throw the net and they will fall in,"
Peraza told Reuters.


An overall shortage of Roman Catholic priests, particularly
a lack of Spanish speakers, has encouraged the exodus of
Latinos to Protestant churches, scholars say. The Assembly of
God and Baptist churches appear to be among those having the
greatest success in attracting immigrants.

Pilar Villegas, a Mexican immigrant who lives in Rochelle,
Illinois, is one of the thousands of Latinos who have recently
converted after growing up Catholic.

"I never considered myself a Catholic," said Villegas, who
converted nine months ago after reading a flyer about an
Assembly of God church in this rural city of 9,000 people. "The
Catholic church doesn't really match my way of thinking."

Like Villegas almost all the other members of the Buenas
Nuevas church, a small temple overlooking a corn field, are
former Catholics who said they used to feel distanced from the
Catholic Church. Many said they previously saw Catholic priests
as part of a hierarchy that interfered with direct worship.

Recent Latino converts also said Protestant and evangelical
churches were offering a more close-knit community, making it
easier for them to meet others who speak their language and
share a similar background while living in a strange land.

The new wave of Latino evangelization has added a difficult
challenge for the already beleaguered American Catholic church.

"This is a positive challenge for the Catholic Church,"
said Rev. Virgilio Elizondo, a visiting professor at the
University of Notre Dame and a parish priest in San Antonio,
Texas. Elizondo described the challenge as positive because the
Latinos are remaining Christian.

"There is no easy answer to this phenomenon," he said,
adding that his church has limited resources to cope with the
massive influx of Latinos around the country, especially in
rural areas.

Sister Luz, a Catholic nun in Harvard, is organizing prayer
groups to reach out to the newly arrived immigrants and
reinforce Roman Catholic beliefs and traditions.

"We need to strengthen the faith," she said at the end of
the first of two Spanish Sunday masses that packed the St.
Joseph church. "We don't want people to convert (to a
Protestant faith) only because of ignorance."


Latino immigrants are considered to be the backbone of the
American Catholic Church -- the country's largest single
denomination -- that has recently struggled with allegations of
sexual misconduct by priests and dwindling church attendance.

About 40 percent of the 67 million Catholics in the United
States are Latinos, according to the U.S. Bishop Conference of
Catholic Bishops.

The intensive recruiting of Latinos mirrors aggressive
proselytizing by Protestant churches in largely Catholic Latin
America. The effort has yielded a growing number of
Protestant-converted immigrants trickling into the country,
experts said.

The recruitment comes at a time when historically all-white
U.S. Protestant and evangelical denominations are faced with
sluggish membership growth. For the last decade mainline
Protestant denominations have had dwindling numbers.

"This is a religious awakening," said Edwin Hernandez, the
director of the Center for the Study of Latino Religion at
Notre Dame. "Latinos are revitalizing many denominations that
for years have been stagnant."

About one-fourth of U.S. Latinos -- about 8 million people
-- belong to Protestant churches, with most of the rest Roman
Catholic, according to surveys.

"(Latinos) are crucial for the growth of our denomination,"
said Bob Reccord, the president of the North American Mission
Board of the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, the
largest U.S. Protestant denomination. "This is a massive

Of the 72,000 Southern Baptist congregations across the
nation, 2,781 are Latino-dominated churches and the group
estimates it will spend about $10 million solely on Hispanic
ministries this year. A church task force announced earlier
this year plans to evangelize 50,000 Latinos and build 250
Latino churches annually through 2010.


Already, Latino churches in parts of the U.S. South account
for about a third of all new Southern Baptist churches in the
region, church officials said.

This year, the United Methodist Church channeled $3.8
million to build Latino churches, train Hispanic pastors and
send consultants to English-speaking churches that want to
provide services for Latinos.

The Methodist church has lost more than 287,000 followers
since 1997 and is looking for ways to recover.

"We are doing everything we can," said Miguel Albert, the
head of the Methodist's National Plan for Hispanic Ministry,
adding that the church plans to create 100 new Latino
congregations and train 800 Latino missionaries in the next
four years.