January 11, 2010

Hispanics hold key to churches future: Spanish-speaking churches grow in Nashville

By Chris Echegaray


The temperature outside was freezing and the heat was broken, but worshippers packed the pews at Iglesia de Dios anyway, singing and praying, many with children on their laps.

The noon service was his third of the day, but Jose Rodriguez seemed more energetic than ever. The founder of Nashville's megachurch shed his coat, clapping and swaying near the band, raising his hands to heaven. Next year, he'll lead his flock of 2,000 from its church building on East Trinity Lane to a 25-acre site three miles away.

On the other side of the city, four vest-wearing attendants directed the stream of traffic from Nolensville Pike into parking for Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. As though he couldn't wait another minute, a man dropped to his knees and began praying in the pew nearest the entrance as church quickly filled to its 1,200-person capacity.

Two years ago, Our Lady of Guadalupe was a Spanish-speaking mission attached to an English-speaking church. On Dec. 12, it became the first all-Hispanic parish in the state, with 550 families worshipping there.

The dramatic growth of Spanish-language churches in Nashville is drawing the attention of national religious groups, who say Hispanic recruitment will be key to ensuring mainstream Christian churches' future. At the same time, demographers and theologians say, these newcomers will set their own social agendas and test Christianity's claim to be a universal religion that accepts all races and ethnicities.

Immigration and high birth rates have made Hispanics the nation's fastest-growing demographic group. Tennessee was home to 123,838 Hispanics in 2000, and new census figures are likely to show that number doubling over the decade. In Middle Tennessee, Hispanics are concentrated in Davidson and Rutherford counties, where they make up 8 percent and 6 percent, respectively, of the population.

No organization tracks Spanish-language churches or missions of mainstream churches overall, but anecdotal information from local pastors and researchers puts the figure at about 200 in Middle Tennessee.

Ed Stetzer, director of Baptist-affiliated LifeWay Research, said 66 percent of all new congregations added to the Southern Baptist Convention since 1998 were ethnic or African-American. He said English-language churches that grow are the ones adding Spanish speakers.

"The majority of the new churches are not Anglo," he said. "You look across the spectrum, and the Christian influence in the Southern Hemisphere is well represented here, and it's the leading edge of Christianity. Latino churches are now planting Latino churches."

Reaching out to help Mainstream pastors are still learning how to minister to these newcomers, said Tim Hill, who handles ethnic church planting for the Tennessee Baptist Convention. They are using English classes, Spanish-language Bible study and partnerships with Hispanic churches to attract membership. Hill calls it helping with their "social, physical and spiritual" needs.

"Our churches have never done Hispanic ministry and didn't know how to reach people with a different language, culture and religion," he said. "It's changing the way we're ministering to communities."

Methodists created a Latino leadership academy in Tennessee in 2007. The same year, they spent $1,750 on Hispanic ministries, said the Rev. John Purdue, chairman of Hispanic ministry for the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Last year, they spent $127,000.

Purdue said he noticed the growing demographic in Nashville and smaller Tennessee towns and urged churches to launch English as a Second Language programs, provide immigration aid and help with food, shelter and medical care.

Nearly 70 percent of Hispanics in America identify themselves as Catholic, but Pentecostals and nondenominational evangelicals, at 15 percent, are making the greatest gains among the group, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a nonprofit research group.

"Their outreach capability is unrivaled," said Luis Lugo, the forum's director. "They are aggressively recruiting, connecting with immigrants, and have a sense of community."

Lugo said evangelicals reach Hispanics before and after their arrival to the United States. Their missionary work is personal. They offer social change, a closer relationship with God and an emotional brand of Christianity that resonates with their potential members.

At Iglesia de Dios, founder Rodriguez, who has given himself the title executive bishop, encourages all members to recruit newcomers to one of the four services held every Sunday. Services are broadcast on three AM radio frequencies owned by the church. His sermons mix current events with biblical homilies, and he ends almost every statement by raising his right hand to the heavens in a prayer for resolution.

On Jan. 3, services started with two video clips from Spanish-language newscasts, played on a big screen at the front of the auditorium. One was about immigration reform, the other about the 2010 U.S. census. Rodriguez passionately prayed for worshippers who need help getting their immigration status in order. He told members living in the U.S. legally to help the undocumented immigrants among them.

It began with a prayer Fifteen years ago, Iglesia de Dios was Rodriguez, his wife and their five children. He and his wife taught grade school in Caracas, Venezuela, and took missionary trips when they could. They first saw Nashville in 1994, when they rushed a son with Kawasaki disease — a rare illness that involves inflammation of blood vessels and lymph nodes — to Vanderbilt's children's hospital.

Despite doctors' fears, the child pulled through. "We started to pray there," Rodriguez said. "It's one of the reasons we wanted to come and start our church in Nashville."

He said it has been easy to attract new members. "They get orientation, education and information, and the individual makes his decision. No manipulation."

All members are encouraged to invite someone they know, often from work. It's how Juan Bustamante, a lapsed Catholic and a heavy-machine operator from Oaxaca, Mexico, found out about the church.

"The focus is for a better life for our families, so we can be healthy, be good people, have a good home," Bustamante said.

Today, Iglesia de Dios congregants fill parking lots of neighboring businesses on Sundays. They are slated to move to a new building on Dickerson Pike in 2011, one where members can get job training, English classes and tutoring, but that will depend on fundraising from a flock already financially pressed.

Merry Osorio, who studied journalism in Mexico, came to Nashville from near Cancun with her 6-year-old son nearly a decade ago, planning to work for a weekly Spanish-language newspaper. She was excited about the new venture, even if it meant moving to a place without established friends or relatives and, because she was unchurched, no religious family, either.
It didn't go well, she said.

"The pay was really bad, and it was a cut-and-paste operation," Osorio said. "I ended up working at Wendy's because it paid more."

Osorio wasn't discouraged. During her trying times, a friend took her to Iglesia de Dios, where she has been a member for six years. Today, she's a successful property manager.

"We know God has everything under control," she said. God sent a message, but while Hispanic congregations like Iglesia de Dios and Our Lady of Guadalupe have amassed huge numbers, most in the area consist of about a hundred congregants meeting in storefronts or borrowing space from mainstream churches.

Pastor Rosalba Hernandez and her husband started Centro Cristiano El Faro De Luz (Beacon of Light) nearly eight years ago in their apartment. A couple of times police knocked on their door because the praising was a bit loud.

Later, they met in the basement of an English-speaking church in Paragon Mills, then outgrew their own small church on Nolensville Pike, then moved to the current location on Bell Road behind a collision repair shop. The 165 members meet in what used to be a grocery store.

Hernandez grew up Catholic but ventured into reading tarot cards and spiritual healing. She was living in Southern California when she got a message her lifestyle wasn't working.
"God came to me and told me he did not agree with what I was doing," she said, sitting in her office, where her citizenship paperwork hangs framed on the wall.

"I thought what I was doing took me closer to God," she added. "It turns out everything I was doing was wrong."

Hernandez said the Lord's message was clear: Sell your belongings and start a church in the middle of the country. With no family close by and no job prospects, the couple sold all their belongings and came to Nashville.

"At first, I didn't see Hispanic churches here," she said. "(Now) here we are with lots of others."
Some leave Catholicism.

The people who join Our Lady of Guadalupe generally were practicing Catholics when they arrived from Central and South America. While the all-Spanish parish is a first for Tennessee, it's not expected to set a trend, said Rick Musacchio, director of communications for the Catholic Diocese of Nashville. Half the 52 parishes statewide offer Spanish Mass, and attendance varies from year to year.

"Much of the Hispanic presence here is by migrants, and the economy has had an impact in reducing the number," he said.

Seven years ago, Soledad Garcia and her family moved to Nashville from Miami. She and her sister, who were already established here, started attending St. Edward Church, where Our Lady of Guadalupe was a mission.

Garcia, originally from Peru, said it was a special moment to watch a Catholic bishop oversee the new church's inauguration.

"There's spiritual growth too," Garcia said. "People are giving, and it will continue to grow. We even have about 180 children getting ready for Communion."

Ten years ago, Juan Andres Salinas was one of the first Hispanics to attend St. Luke's Catholic Church in Smyrna. The church launched a Spanish Mass, and on Sundays, attendance is at 250 and growing. A small crowd gathered for Epiphany Mass — known as Three Kings Day — on Wednesday.

Salinas became St. Luke's de facto representative of the Hispanic community, volunteering for fundraisers plus organizing and training newcomers as numbers swelled.
"We were very few and now … too much," he said wryly.

But the Rev. Miguel Rivera, chairman of the board of directors of the Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, said growth in Hispanic churches will stay with the evangelicals as many Catholics depart the denomination of their youth.

Rivera said some Hispanics left Catholicism over the church's priest scandals, the inflexibility regarding marriage for priests, and political alignments by the church in some Latin American nations.

"The truth is that those issues have hurt them," Rivera said. "And all of a sudden there's been a 20-year explosion with evangelical charismatics."

Still, Hispanic Catholics and evangelicals, he said, tend to align on a social agenda: against abortion and same-sex marriage and for universal health care and swift immigration reform.

They are parting on one issue: Rivera's group wants Hispanic immigrants to boycott the 2010 census to show anger over a lack of movement on immigration reform. Other religious leaders want them to be counted to show the group's potential power as a voting bloc and to attract federal grant money.

The next trend to watch is how many small Hispanic churches will be absorbed into large, predominantly English-speaking congregations, said Ellen Armour, a theology professor at Vanderbilt University's Divinity School. She said Christianity is increasingly shifting from a white, European faith to include more Hispanics.

"It's both a challenge and real opportunity for Anglo-Christians to learn something about diversity in a wide range of cultures," she said.

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