More Latinos expanding their religious horizons
It's Sunday morning and evangelical churches are packed.
Pastors are preaching, Bibles are being read and churchgoers are singing.
While the Catholic church is still the principal religion for Latinos, a growing number are bucking tradition and moving toward evangelism -- particularly among the younger generation.
"My mother is so Catholic," said Jose Rosales, 55. "She tripped out when she found out. She and my aunt said, 'Oh, great; now you're a Hallelujah.'"
About 23 percent, or 9.5 million of 41 million Latinos in the U.S. in 2004, identified themselves as Protestants or other Christians, according to statistics compiled by Gastón Espinosa, an assistant professor of religious studies at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
Each year, as many as 600,000 U.S. Latinos leave the Catholic Church for other Christian denominations, Espinosa said.
In the most recent numbers — a 2007 Pew Research Center report — 43 percent of the 4,600 Hispanics interviewed identified themselves as evangelicals who had converted from Catholicism.
Destiny Church in Indio, Calif., opened its doors in 2004. Five years later, it added a Spanish service and bought another building in anticipation of the growing Spanish ministry.
In 2009, when the Spanish service was first offered, 15 to 20 people would attend the service, said Anthony Martinez, the church's membership director. Now, an average of 150 are there.
Most of the Hispanic former Catholics at the church are second and third-generation, he said.
The Rev. Howard Lincoln of Sacred Heart Church in Palm Desert, Calif., said a second Spanish Mass was added in 2010 to accommodate the growing number of Hispanics attending.
"For us, there's a great generational mix," Lincoln said. "The program has really blossomed."
Growth in mainline denominations over the last seven years can, in large part, be attributed to Hispanics, said Pastor Rigo Magana, board member for the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
When Magana became pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship in Greeley, Colo., 16 years ago, about 120 attended one Sunday service offered in Spanish only, he said.
Now the church serves 1,500 in three Sunday services, and 90 percent of the attendees are Hispanic.
Magana says many in his congregation are former Catholics who, realizing they don't have to follow the lead of older generations, decided to leave Catholicism.
"When I was younger, I was Catholic because that's just what Hispanics did," said Ray Mancilla, 28. "It came down from the older generations."
A second-generation Latino, Mancilla began attending a Protestant church as a teen after his parents converted from Catholicism.
"I was able to finally see Christ in a personal way, and I was really drawn to the idea of having a relationship with him," Mancilla said.
Anell Carno, 35, is no longer Catholic, but she says there's a lot of good in the Catholic faith. She just found what she was looking for in the Protestant church.
"It comes down to knowing Christ," she said. "I was drawn to the simplicity of the Gospel message and the unconditional love that comes with Christianity."
According to the 2007 Pew report, an overwhelming 90 percent of former Catholics indicated they had converted because they were searching for a more direct and personal relationship with Christ.
Obed Martinez, pastor of Destiny Church, credits a simple Gospel message presentation for drawing Catholics to evangelical churches.
"I call it the 'I get it,'" Martinez said. "It's about putting an ancient Bible into a modern world, seeing its relevance and being able to apply it to life."
"Catholicism isn't always able to do that," he added.
But Catholic church officials aren't overly concerned.
"Hispanics are the fastest growing group in the United States, and they also happen to be the fastest growing group in the Catholic Church," said Mark Gray of Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
The 2010 Census counted 50.5 million Hispanics in the United States, a 43 percent growth since the 2000 Census.
"Are we looking at the numbers and saying 'Oh my gosh, the Catholic Church is in trouble?'" Gray asked. "No, we're not."
Contributing: The Arizona Republic