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Children of Hispanic immigrants face unique religious challenges

Published: Friday, Nov. 15 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

Another experience recounted in his book "Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America's Largest Church" (Princeton University Press, 2011), tells of an email from one of Matovina's Hispanic students who didn't need the church the way her immigrant mother did.

"The church was there for my mom in her sufferings and I felt it and I loved it for that," the student wrote. "It became a part of me, but that isn’t my experience of life anymore. I have learned that I don’t have to suffer through everything. I have the resources to fight oppression."

Religious switching

The PRRI study suggests that the Hispanic Catholics who are leaving the faith of their childhood may be joining the ranks of evangelical Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated.

Seven percent of Hispanics said they were raised evangelical Protestants, compared with 13 percent who say they are now evangelical Protestant. Growing at a slightly faster rate — from 5 percent to 12 percent — were those with no religious affiliation.

Religious switching is also an American phenomenon that studies show can happen to a person more than once, even among Hispanics, who may be seeking a more spiritual experience similar to that in their homeland or who may simply be presented with more choices in America.

"There is a lot more moving around than meets the eye," he said. "It's not just unidirectional movement from the Catholic Church into evangelicals and unaffiliated, but there is dynamic movement going on in all directions."

That fits the profile of Arlene Sanchez Walsh, a fourth generation Hispanic American and professor of church history and Latino church studies at Azusa Pacific University, near Los Angeles.

She was raised Catholic, but personal conflicts with church teachings prompted her to look elsewhere and she joined a Pentecostal faith. She now prefers mainline Protestant churches, including her husband's childhood Presbyterian faith, and has settled on the Episcopalian church.

"Our oldest (child) has started asking what we are," Walsh said, explaining why she sought out a new church.

She considers her faith journey unusual for most Hispanic Americans, who would not be as interested in theology as she is. In her research, she finds most second- and third-generation Hispanic Catholics drift away from their faith because of competition for their time.

"For some they are just burned out, but in terms of real rebellion there is not much there," Walsh said. "Religion is now a choice for them that is secondary to the larger questions of who am I and how am I going to make it."

Finding meaning

Father Banuelas said his approach tries to answer those big questions when his Hispanic members are in their youth through service projects. Each summer, St. Pius Parish youth groups head to Mexico to serve poor, indigenous families scattered in the Sierra Madre mountains by helping with home repairs, playing games with children, holding self-help seminars or assisting health care professionals from other organizations.

"When they come back they start questioning if the way they live has anything to do with people’s suffering and poverty across the border," Banuelas said. "Things like immigration reform, natural resources, food, water and other things make sense in a different way.

"Then, you can start talking about scripture and teachings because (the youths) know the people we are talking about," he said.

Leaders of the youth ministry are selected from among the young adults and trained to reach out to their peers to help them with challenges they have with family, drugs, relationships, school or other issues that may be unfamiliar to their parents.

"A lot of them are struggling in their homes because their parents aren’t there, so there is a really deep sense that we are family," Banuelas said. "They don’t even call it a parish. They call it their family."

Matovina said the bonds are so strong and meaningful that he has seen students at Notre Dame give up lucrative job opportunities after graduation and return to El Paso for the opportunity to continue volunteer work in the parish.

"Their Catholic faith calls them to do whatever they are called to do before material success," he said. "(Father Banuelas) just has it humming down there."

Other things that can connect Hispanics back to Catholicism even if they have left it, Walsh said, are the "social rhythms" of Hispanic life that often center around the church, such as baptisms, marriages and religious holidays.

Those strong familial and cultural ties are leading factors that will keep levels of disaffiliation among Hispanics below the current 20 percent found among all Americans, Walsh predicted.

"I was raised Catholic. … I have a cousin who’s a priest, so it’s rooted very much in who I am," she said, explaining how cultural aspects of Catholicism will always be a part of her life.

"This is an anchor of familiarity that has been passed down to you."

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com

Twitter: deseretbrown

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