Planting new churches, Latinos alter religious landscape

Immigrants, who in the past were almost exclusively Catholic, embrace a more emotive worship.

In a run-down section of this old mill town, inside a modern-looking church - where congregants say that healings often take place and worshipers speak in tongues - Brazilian immigrants clap their hands and dance to Christian pop. "Amém," they proclaim, raising their palms to the ceiling."Aleluia."

This two-hour midweek service in Lowell - which straddles the Merrimack River north of Boston - drew about 50 congregants. They hold hands, wrap arms, and sway to the church's music, punctuated with live drums.

"I have no family here," says Edelizete Silva, over the music. "This church is my family."

The Lowell Renewed Baptist Church, which incorporates the Pentecostal and charismatic tradition of experiencing the Holy Spirit, reflects the allure of a more emotive worship among Latino immigrants.

Even in a society that in many ways seems increasingly secular, fervent Christian movements continue to draw more members - and Latinos are an important part of the trend. Experts say as these immigrants plant new churches across the country, the texture of American Christianity is changing.

"Immigrants will have a profound impact on the future of Christianity," says Gaston Espinosa, author of a Pew Research Center study on Hispanic churches in American life. "In order for mainline churches to reach out and bring in Latinos, they are going to need to practice a kind of religiosity that is more spiritual, more experiential, more inviting ... and less institutionally driven."

Today, there are 9.2 million Latino Pentecostals or charismatics in the United States - more than the number of Jews or Muslims in the country. The conversion movement - taking place in the US and beyond - is a shift from the Catholic identity long associated with Latin America. The appeal for new immigrants here is multiple: Services are more expressive, they are typically given in an immigrant's native tongue, and they focus on the individual. The emphasis on social and financial mobility is also appealing. "Protestant churches have a great impact on changing individual lives," says R. Stephen Warner, a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The larger impact

Experts say the movement has broad implications for religion in the US - making it more socially and theologically conservative. Such churches tend to emphasize a literal reading of the Bible and take a conservative stance on contentious issues like gay unions or abortion, says Mr. Warner.

Scholars say the trend is bound to affect the way traditional, mainline churches worship. "It's not just a matter of going through the formalities," says the Rev. Daniel Groody, a professor of Latino spirituality at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. "It is offering something people are hungry for."

Maria Shay, a member of the Catholic Church in Lowell serving Brazilians, says she understands why many opt for the smaller evangelical churches in the area. "The Catholic Church has the ritual, but that's all it has," she says. "In the other churches, they pray, talk, listen. The pastors are more in touch with the people."

Experts disagree on the movement's growth. Mr. Espinosa's study found a 7 to 10 percent increase since the late 1980s. Others say the numbers have held steady. But with the influx of immigration throughout the 1990s, the hard numbers have increased. "Seven percentage points in a growing population adds up," Espinosa says.

Yet to some people, the movement can come across as "anti-intellectual." Ms. Shay, for one, can attest to a certain mistrust she sometimes senses in Lowell. "People see how many churches there are, and they want to know who is doing this," she says. "They are not very comfortable with the direction."

To the ministers and those who attend such churches, however, the services are part of the fabric of their community.

The Rev. Marco Romeiro was one of the first pastors in Lowell's Brazilian Protestant community when his family helped form the Lowell Renewed Baptist Church 10 years ago in a church basement. The congregation purchased their own building in 1999. Now, they want to purchase a bigger building to house the 250 members who gather for Sunday night services.

"We can change people's lives," says Pastor Romeiro.

A win-win scenario?

While many have characterized the movement as a win-lose battle among denominations, others say Latino immigration is, overall, a win-win scenario for Christianity. Yes, Pentecostalism is growing, but at the same time, the number of Latino Catholics has remained relatively stable over the past decade - due to a surge in immigration, primarily from Mexico, in the 1990s. (Seventy percent of Latinos in the US are still Catholic.)

"What we are actually witnessing," says Espinosa, "is a re-Christianization of America."

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