Latinos turn to Pentecostal church

Pentecostal church draws Latinos
By Jennifer Garza, jgarza@sacbee.com, Apr. 25, 2009

In a plain building behind the Taco Bell off Watt Avenue, well-dressed worshippers sing and sway and shout to the Holy Spirit. They praise God in two languages.

On this Sunday afternoon, the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez preaches in English. His wife, Eva, echoes his words in Spanish. Together, they work the crowd at Christian Worship Center into a bilingual fervor.

"It is not about being at the right place!" Rodriguez shouts into the microphone. "It's about being at the right place at the right time!"

Rodriguez knows something about timing. The Sacramento minister, who leads the congregation of about 200 with his wife, is at the forefront of a growing movement that is drawing Latinos – many raised Catholic – into the Pentecostal church, the fastest-growing denomination in Christianity.

The Assemblies of God pastor is also president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, an advocacy group that serves 18 million evangelical Latinos.

At 38, Rodriguez, who has been preaching since he was a teenager, is an influential religious leader who was courted by both Republican and Democratic candidates during the presidential election.

"He is considered to be rising star – not just among Latinos but among evangelicals in general," said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington, D.C. "A lot of people are definitely keeping their eyes on him. He represents a very important constituency."

Rodriguez described his group as having the conservative theology of Billy Graham with Martin Luther King Jr.'s commitment to social justice issues.

"Put those two into a blender and that's us," he said. "With a little bit of salsa."

Many members new to faith

While her husband frequently travels, Eva Rodriguez oversees the day-to-day duties of the church the couple started a few years ago. She is senior pastor. The two, who have been together since they met as teenagers in Pennsylvania, have been married 20 years. They live in Elk Grove with their three children.

Both pastors are of Puerto Rican descent and were raised in the Assemblies of God Church.

Many members of their Latino congregation, however, are new to the faith. Most have been Pentecostals for less than two years, according to Eva Rodriguez. From the music to the language, the Latino culture is a big part of the church's appeal.

"I love the music, the emotional sermons and the emphasis on the Holy Spirit," said Desiree Martinez, who has been attending Rodriguez's church for two years.

Martinez is often so moved during the worship service that she cries. "I didn't get those feelings in the Catholic Church," she said.

Pentecostalism, which emphasizes a personal relationship with God and a strong presence of the Holy Spirit, has more followers than any denomination except Catholicism, according to a 2008 Pew Study, "Changing Faiths: Latinos and the Transformation of American Religion."

An estimated 1.3 million Latino Catholics have joined Pentecostal congregations since immigrating to the United States. The report says that the longer Latino Catholics stay in this country, the more likely they are to leave the church.

Catholic Church leaders have noticed the shift and say the Catholic Church can learn from Protestants.

"By and large, they have been better preachers and that's something we can learn from them," said the Rev. James Murphy of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, who adds that there are also many Catholics with similar religious practices, known as charismatic Catholics.

Murphy said the Catholic Church also can do a better job in teaching people how to pray. He praised Pentecostals' spontaneous prayer but added caution. "Public prayer can become a show if there isn't a strong private prayer life at home as well," Murphy said.

Women have role in church

Many of these Pentecostal congregations are simple storefront or warehouse churches like Christian Worship Center. There is no ornate artwork or incense or pews. Worshippers sit on folding chairs.

When Rodriguez preaches, he moves from one side of the church to the other, working up a sweat. Halfway through, he looked away from his notes and stopped. "Are you getting this?" he asked.

The audience stood up and cheered.

Rodriguez loves to preach but admits that most of his time is spent running the advocacy group. As president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, Rodriguez speaks out on topics important to Latinos, such as immigration.

His group is against illegal immigration but believes the issue should be dealt with more compassionately and that churches should play a bigger role. "Every single successful civil rights issue in this country has been led by the church," said Rodriguez.

A motivational speaker, the pastor recently published his second book, "Path of Miracles," which says following Christian principles will lead to more fulfilling life. Now there is a book tour.

"My wife, she's the one who really runs things," said Rodriguez. "She's incredible."

Eva Rodriguez said women play a big role in their church. Many of the band members are women and a female minister helps with the bilingual sermons when her husband is traveling.

"Of course there are always going to be the machismo men who believe women shouldn't play such big roles in the church," said Rodriguez. "But that's not my husband. We're a team."

Near the end of the sermon, Samuel Rodriguez tells worshippers that Christian Worship Center has outgrown its current building. Church leaders hope to be in a new facility by summer, one that will accommodate more growth.

"If you believe this," Rodriguez said,"say amen."

Without missing a beat, churchgoers answer:

"Amen."

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