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An Evangelical Revival

L.A.'s Latino immigrants are remaking the city's spiritual landscap with . . .

March 29, 1998|Ruben Martinez | Ruben Martinez, an associate editor at Pacific News Service, is currently finishing a book about life and death in the borderlands

INDIO, CALIF. — They say Yahweh is the God of the Desert, so I've come to the desert to look for him. I kneel on clean, soft, gray carpet, steadying my suddenly wobbly body by holding onto the pew in front of me. There is another force that keeps me from falling, a slightly trembling hand on my back, right between my shoulder blades. It is the hand of Brother Arturo of Guadalajara. An usher at the church, he's my spiritual sponsor this Sunday afternoon in this baked town about 30 miles east of Palm Springs, where aging Chicano gangsters, recently arrived immigrants and poor, hard-working people employed at local factories and in the desert fields live.

On the altar, a band plays a slow spiritual, an MTV-age hymn with just three chords repeated in an endless loop that sounds like a hypnotic rock jam of the late '60s--a wall of Christian sound. The pastor, Luciano Montes, is an amicable, paunchy thirtysomething. He stands at the pulpit, bellowing into the microphone, a baritone without much technical grace but who inspires through sheer enthusiasm.

The anthem is sung and played loudly, stadium-loud, but it is still not enough to drown out the congregation. Some faithful sing along, others sputter rapid prayers, others tearlessly wail, still others tearfully laugh.

Now the hands start moving. First, an elderly woman, silver hair delicately covered by a mantilla, waves right hand heavenward, hailing the savior. A Chicano O.G., with head shaved and checkered Pendleton shirt draped loosely over his burly body, claps suddenly, rapidly, almost angrily, not to the beat of the band, but to his own, private catharsis. Even the 10-year-old girl in front of me, all bright eyes and crooked teeth--her electric hands flutter above her head.

I feel it. With Brother Arturo fervently praying at my side, with tears streaming down the faces of the elders at the altar, with the band filling our hearts with that earnest spiritual--I feel the power that drew this congregation together.

If you want a religious experience that feels like the raucous times we live in, the Pentecostals can provide it. About 400 million other people around the world have thought similarly and, unlike me, switched from Catholicism or whatever "mainline" church they grew up with. As with many changes taking place in California these days, much of the energy is coming from that insurgent, much-maligned force: Latino immigrants.

There are some 1,000 Latino Protestant churches in the city of Los Angeles alone, the majority of which are evangelical. There are thousands more throughout the Southwest. Even within the Catholic Church, the Pentecostal influence is felt: The number of "charismatic" churches, congregations that want to remain within the Catholic flock but seek the kind of spiritual pyrotechnics of the evangelicals, is on the rise--and this movement is also powered, to a great extent, by Latinos.

Though a recent survey by the Tomas Rivera Center indicates that 77% of Latinos remain more or less faithful to Rome, the momentum is on the side of the Pentecostals. Catholics switch to Pentecostalism in large numbers--and hardly ever the other way around.

Pentecostalism is the religion of our times. It has the right tone (apocalyptic), the right rhythm (fast), the right philosophy (communitarianism as a salve for urban fragmentation and paranoia). You might say Pentecostalism is the MTV of religions: It's hip, precisely what a crew of Pentecostal teens, dressed in torn jeans and flannel shirts, told me at a mammoth Mexico City revival recently: "We like it because it's different."

On April 9, 1906, in a wood-frame house on Bonnie Brae Street (in a neighborhood that is today Pico-Union) a new Day of Pentecost came to pass. Over time, the flock who gathered on Bonnie Brae and, later, at a former livery stable on Azusa Street in downtown became famous for causing a quake that rocked the spiritual Richter scale.

The Pentecostal gathering featured all the trappings of early Christianity, particularly the mystical, and sometimes downright scary, "speaking in tongues." It also was a manifestly L.A. experience, for the City of Angels has always been a place where, despite its radical individualism, and race and class segregation, people, at key moments, always find a way to come together and rise above it all.

Among the first followers of preacher William Joseph Seymour, an African American, were blacks, whites and Mexicans. What they had in common was that they were all of modest means, the "forgotten ones" whom the mainline churches had gradually and ultimately neglected.

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