A Growing Trend: Hispanic Catholics Leaving the Fold

By Hieu Tran Phan
The Riverside Press-Enterprise
January 11, 2003

When the music sounded, the crowd of nearly 400 erupted into religious fervor. Men jumped up and down, women swirled in the aisles, children clapped ever faster as a band member asked repeatedly: "Are you ready to be saved?"

Julieta Almaraz of Riverside, Calif., answered "Yes!" along with most of the rest of the congregation. She, like practically everyone else present, is Hispanic. And like at least 98 percent of the members of Amistad Cristiana, a fundamental Protestant church in San Bernardino, Calif., she is a former Roman Catholic.

These worshipers represent a growing trend: They are Hispanics who left the Vatican's fold for other religions. Some converts may criticize certain aspects of Catholicism, prefer a more casual approach to worship or favor a new church's tangible benefits - from food giveaways to drug counseling to immigration advice.

Almaraz chose evangelical Christianity. Frank Aceves selected Islam. Efrain and Guadalupe Rivera became Jehovah's Witnesses. Bernardo Teran joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And dozens have helped Jorge Cota found a budding, nondenominational ministry in Indian Wells, Calif.

"We are not fighting tooth and nail for believers. These people are glad to hear our message," said Cota, pastor of Southwest Community Church en Espanol. "They're looking for something that's missing in Catholicism."

Up to 600,000 of the United States' 35 million Hispanic Catholics convert each year, according to figures from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Protestant-minded Barna Research Group.

In a recent survey, American Catholic bishops found the number of Hispanics who define themselves as Catholic has fallen about 10 percent during the past decade. In contrast, the church's other ethnic groups have not shown a sizable drop or jump in membership.

The statistics are significant because Hispanic Catholics have fueled more than 70 percent of the U.S. church's growth since 1960. Pope John Paul II has called on priests and lay members to devise ways to stem the tide, acknowledging that other faiths have made steady inroads throughout North, Central and South America.

Sister Cecilia Calva, director of Hispanic affairs for the Diocese of San Bernardino, said the conversions shouldn't be pinned on Catholic neglect - church leaders pay utmost attention to Hispanics.

For instance, the diocese translates all church materials into Spanish, she said. It also operates seven centers that teach Hispanics about Catholic beliefs, trains lay members for leadership positions and offers special courses on marriage, immigration laws, social justice and church sacraments. In addition, Calva cited dozens of spiritual retreats for Hispanics.

When the diocese was created 25 years ago, she said, only two parishes held Mass in Spanish. Today, all 97 parishes have at least one such service.


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