LOS ANGELES — There was a time when being Hispanic meant being Roman Catholic.
A growing number of Latinos are changing their faith. Spurred by cultural differences with Catholicism and the increased outreach efforts of Protestants - particularly to Pentecostal and evangelical denominations - these Hispanics are slowly changing the tenor of Christian churches from Los Angeles to El Paso.
"It is a major phenomenon," says the Rev. Allan Figueroa Deck, director of The Loyola Institute for Spirituality in Orange, Calif. "Twenty-five years ago, 90 percent of all Hispanics [in the US] surveyed would identify themselves as Roman Catholic." Today, he says, surveys show as few as 70 percent of Hispanics make the connection.
Perhaps nowhere are the effects of this shift more observable than in the 3.5-million-member Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the nation's largest. More than 90,000 infants are baptized here each year - roughly equal to the total number of Catholics in an average American Catholic diocese. And with immigrants arriving daily from Latin America, the pressure to meet Hispanic needs is growing.
"Protestant churches made the decision 20 years ago to start training ministers of the same race and language so that people would feel a sense of identity," says Louis Velasquez, director of Hispanic Ministry for the Archdiocese, a Catholic organization. But "most of the [Catholic] priests in the archdiocese are not Hispanic," he adds.
The Catholic Church here, however, is reaching out to the Latino community, led by its popular archbishop, Cardinal Roger Mahony. The Archdiocese encourages its priests to become fluent in Spanish and "has done very well in trying to offer services in Spanish," says Fr. Deck.
Likewise it has encouraged lay efforts like "El Sembrador," whose 300 volunteer members now evangelize in some of the city's roughest neighborhoods, minister to families and youth, and broadcast the only Spanish-language television program focused on evangelizing in the Los Angeles area.
Yet some say that there are deeper issues that have led more Hispanics to Protestant congregations. Foremost among them, they say, is the distance between the Catholic Church and working-class Latinos.
"In the second half of the 20th century, Roman Catholics in this country passed from being primarily blue-collar, working-class immigrants to a middle-class group," says Deck.
By contrast "Pentecostals have traditionally been viewed as marginalized people - educationally, socially, financially," says Cecil Robeck Jr., professor of church history and ecumenics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. "So you will find them in poor neighborhoods, white, black, or Hispanic. There are a lot of storefront churches."
Protestant churches have also been very successful in getting out into Latino communities and making newcomers feel welcome.
"It's taking the church to the people. We come to their level ... and win ... their love and respect as individuals," says the Rev. Samuel Sanchez, superintendent of the Pacific District of the Assemblies of God. "Throughout our district we have distribution of clothing and food, committees to take these people to doctors [or] lawyers, interpret for them, befriend them."
This ability to connect with Hispanics is key, says Mr. Velasquez. "One of the most interesting reasons [Catholics convert] is the feeling that somebody wants them, somebody cares for them."
Bridging the gap
The Catholic Church's ability to make this connection is partially hindered by its chronic shortage of clergy. In fact, Velasquez says the ratio of priest to parishioner might be as high as 1 to 5,000 - a ratio "unheard of" in Protestant traditions. But there may be another reason for the conversions.
"In the Catholicism that the Latino Catholic has a hard time accepting, you will find a lot of rationalism," Velasquez says. "It's a very cold, non-descriptive approach to God. The Latino has a much more nature-oriented view. God is everywhere."
And while European theology doesn't deny this, he says, "There isn't that sense of unity the Latino view has. Many of the Pentecostal and evangelical churches understand that."
Still, Protestant churches have not been unaffected by the Hispanics entering their fold. Former Catholics are raising such issues as the place of the Virgin Mary and the saints. "If we've contributed to a change in the nature of [the Catholic] style of worship and expectations of spirituality," says Mr. Robeck, himself an ordained Assembly of God minister, "they are provoking discussions on the nature of the church among Pentecostal theologians."
Perhaps surprisingly, the result has not been a competition, but rather an ecumenical effort by Catholics, Pentecostals and other Protestants to come together in a respectful effort to figure out how best to serve Latino Christians.
"There's a curious kind of give and take going on here," says Deck. "What's at stake is the rise of another cultural form of Christianity that, in the past, was identified with Catholicism, but now could also be identified with Protestantism, because it's the same cultural group - people of Latin American origin - coming into both churches here, Protestant and Catholic."