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Evangelicals Gain Latino Followers

February 08, 1990|LYNN SMITH and RUSSELL CHANDLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Like most Latinos who came to worship in the chilly Santa Ana warehouse, Angie Martinez told a story of a life transformed.

After she accepted God into her heart, she said the painful struggle of a single, working-class mother vanished. She was able to forgive the husband who deserted her and her two children. She could look forward to her 10-hour-a-day job as an electronics assembler.

On this Saturday night, Martinez glanced at the men and women who had been waving their arms in surrender to God, beating tambourines in time to lively Latin music and offering emotional testimony in Spanish.

"I saw the joy and happiness here," said Martinez, a former Roman Catholic. "I want to worship like this."

She said she hoped to persuade the rest of her family, all Catholics, to join her at the Centro Cristiano, one of 40 Spanish-language evangelical congregations in Orange County.

Martinez's story is common in Southern California, where besieged Catholic leaders are now being forced to grapple with the realities of a rapidly transforming flock. A steady influx of Latino immigrants has sparked a battle for their souls that church leaders say will last throughout the 1990s.

The struggle has become a national issue, pitting the Roman Catholic Church against evangelical Christian groups competing with increasing success for Latino converts.

Sociologist-priest Andrew Greeley has concluded from recent data that about 23% of all Latinos in the United States are Protestant, and that the movement of Latinos away from Catholicism--which traditionally has included virtually the entire Latino population--has been accelerating. About 60,000 Latinos join Pentecostal and fundamentalist Protestant churches nationwide each year, Greeley found.

Church officials are particularly concerned about the defection among Catholic immigrants, but also worry about losing Latinos who have lived here all their lives. "Numerically we are behind," concedes Louis Velasquez, associate director of Hispanic Ministry for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Velasquez estimates about 70% of the 3.4-million Latinos in the sprawling three-county archdiocese are Catholic compared to about 85% in the early 1970s. Worse, he said, is that probably no more than 20% of Southern California Catholic Latinos attend Mass regularly.

The local Protestant Latino churches that are growing the most rapidly are charismatic, said Carlos Piar, lecturer in religious studies at Cal State Long Beach.

Immigrants find spirited services, lively music and lay leadership in those churches. "There's none of the staid organ hymns, Gregorian chants type of thing," said Piar, former pastor of the Spanish-language Emanuel Baptist Church in Fullerton.

In the United States, churches often serve as informal halfway houses for immigrants, Piar said.

The Evangelical Covenant Church in downtown Los Angeles, for instance, is 60% Salvadoran, 30% Guatemalan and 10% Mexican, Piar said. "You go to Santa Ana, churches are 80% Mexican, 10% Central American and maybe a few Ecuadoreans and Puerto Ricans mixed in."

As the rivalry between Catholics and evangelicals grows, it evokes anxiety and accusations.

Catholics complain that their competitors' "anti-Catholic" tactics have torn Latinos from their roots.

Many evangelical and Pentecostal groups take "a very emotional approach to the whole thing," said Father Luis Valbuena, pastor of the huge Holy Family Catholic Church in Wilmington, where nine of 11 Sunday Masses are in Spanish. "You and Christ; Christ and you. Does that mean your neighbor doesn't count? They aren't related to other things in the community . . . That is a very false gospel they are preaching."

But Protestant evangelicals such as Daniel de Leon, pastor of Templo Calvario in Santa Ana, say they are only responding to needs the Catholic Church has left unfilled.

"A little sheep, if not fed by the shepherd, will go looking somewhere else for food," said De Leon, whose 3,000-member church is one of the largest Latino evangelical churches in the country. His church had just 100 members in 1976.

With a $1-million annual budget, Templo Calvario has opened 40 missions associated with the Assemblies of God in Latin America and two in the United States.

De Leon says he hopes to expand his congregation to 6,000 during the 1990s and establish 15 new churches in the United States. The first one, Templo Calvario in Riverside, opened for services on Jan. 1.

The last survey of Latino Protestant churches in Southern California was in 1985, and showed 687 congregations in Los Angeles County and 80 in Orange County. Those figures have increased about 10% each year since, said Clifton Holland, president of In-depth Evangelism Associates, a nonprofit research organization.

The Protestants' success is forcing Southern California Catholic leaders to re-examine their own strategies.

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