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 History Draws Hispanics To Islam

Protestant Faiths Are Learning To Speak Language of Latinos

History Draws Hispanics To Islam

AP Minority Issues Writer

June 16, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Associated Press Newswires. All rights reserved.

Ibrahim Gonzalez, raised as a Catholic, says he didn't convert to Islam - rather, he says, he reverted.

Like a small but growing number of Hispanics, the New York-born Puerto Rican has found a spiritual home in a faith with a long history in Spain, stretching to the rule of Muslim Moors from the 700s to the 1400s.

Today, Hispanics with roots in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Spain and Central and South America are turning to Islam. A mix of immigrants and longtime residents, they are expanding the image of American Muslims as Arabs, blacks and South Asians.

In 1997, the American Muslim Council counted 40,000 Hispanic Muslims; current estimates range up to 60,000. Estimates of the total number of U.S. Muslims vary wildly, from about 1.8 million to 7 million.

Hispanics' reasons for converting to Islam are numerous. Many are former Catholics disenchanted with Catholic tenets. Others were attracted to what they call the faith's simplicity and directness. Some convert because they marry Muslims.

"Islam was my choice because of the multiethnic components of Islam, its lack of bureaucratic hierarchy and the fact that it was very direct and gave a young man such as myself a wide purpose in life," said Gonzalez, who founded the Islamic center Alianza Islamica with a half-dozen friends who became Muslims as teen-agers.

"We're returning to a religion that we once belonged to and was very much a part of our historical heritage," he said.

On July 5-7, the Islamic Society of North America is gathering Hispanic Muslims in suburban Chicago to study efforts to attract more Hispanics to Islam.

Generally, though, Hispanic Muslims are a loosely knit group, bound by Web sites and volunteer and nonprofit groups that promote Islam among Latinos and provide social services and Spanish-language literature.

One such group - the Miami-based PIEDAD, which means "piety" in Spanish - began in 1988 to help Spanish-speaking women who married Muslim men. Now, said Puerto Rican founder Khadijah Rivera, "people are just coming and saying, 'I heard about Islam. I'm just curious."'

Curiosity brought Benjamin Perez Mahomah of Oakland, Calif. to his first Nation of Islam meeting in 1957. He was the only Latino at the meetings of dozens, then hundreds, of blacks, he said. Now, he travels around the country lecturing Spanish-speaking audiences.

"I saw there was a lot of knowledge in their teachings to black people. Their food was delicious. They were friendly. I liked it there and I stayed," he said.

Claudia Hein began studying Islam while living with a Muslim roommate after moving to the United States from Bolivia. A Catholic, she had always struggled with the concept of the trinity.

"I was always in search," said Hein, now 33 and living in Somerville, N.J. Islam was "what I'd been looking for all my life.

"It embraces all parts of life, everything that you do during the day," Hein said. "Islam teaches you everything, how to behave with your neighbors, how to be with your parents, how to educate your children. It embraces everything, every part of life."

Few Hispanic Muslims said they experienced the discrimination faced by Arab counterparts after Sept. 11, but some said their faith was portrayed unfairly by the media.

"All the lies they said, how they portray Islam ... that has given me a different understanding about what I take from TV," said Melissa Morales, an elementary school teacher in Tempe, Ariz., who converted from Christianity four years ago.

This month offered another challenge as a Hispanic Muslim, Jose Padilla, was accused of conspiring to detonate a radioactive "dirty" bomb in the United States. The New York-born Padilla was raised Catholic but converted to Islam and changed his name to Abdullah al Muhajir, authorities say.

News of his arrest shocked many in the Hispanic Muslim community, including Juan Galvan, a Mexican-American who is president of the Texas chapter of the Latino American Dawah Organization. "Islam does not condone terrorism," Galvan said.

Galvan, a former altar boy and Sunday school teacher, has wrestled with accusations that in leaving Catholicism, he rejected his Latino identity.

When he converted, his sister asked him, '"How could you do that to the Virgin? How could you just leave her behind like that?" He still hasn't told his grandparents.

But Galvan has discovered some comforting similarities between Islam and his Latino culture. The pita bread at a mosque dinner reminded him of the tortillas his mother patted out by hand.

"I was thinking, 'This really isn't that much different,"' Galvan said.

Protestant Faiths Are Learning To Speak Language of Latinos


July 2, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. All rights reserved.

ONTARIO, Calif. -- Spanish-language lyrics flashed on a screen above the altar of La Familia de Dios, a Southern Baptist church, as 400 congregants clapped and swayed to a booming five-piece band.

Francisco Hernandez was among the most fervent worshipers. He sang at the top of his lungs and cheered at the tally of 109 new believers brought in by church members during the past week. Every time the pastor called out, "Who lives?" he bellowed in chorus: "Christ!" Mr. Hernandez listened earnestly as the pastor suggested that John Lennon had died for saying the Beatles were more famous than God. And he laughed when the pastor quipped that God would deliver a curvaceous wife to any man who waited for Him to provide, rather than finding a mate on his own.

Mr. Hernandez, a 45-year-old Nicaraguan immigrant who arrived in the U.S. in 1984, hasn't always prayed with such intensity. Like most Latinos, he grew up Catholic. But, he says, "in the Catholic Church, there were only a few occasions in which I felt God."

More and more, Latinos in the U.S. are leaving the church of their youth to join competing Christian faiths. The Southern Baptists, whose 16 million members make them the nation's largest Protestant denomination, now have about 2,200 Latino congregations, and they are adding more than 300 new Hispanic churches annually. Other evangelical faiths, such as the Pentecostal Assemblies of God, are also capturing big slices of a religious market that was once a virtual Catholic monopoly. So, too, are Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses.

The Catholic Church, overwhelmed by the Hispanic community's booming growth, has been caught with a severe shortage of Spanish-speaking priests. Rival faiths, meanwhile, have stepped into the void with a powerful offer: Join us, and your life will have meaning. They offer a straightforward guide to live by -- be virtuous and prosper.

Enticing Message

It is a message especially enticing in immigrant communities, where social problems such as drug addiction, alcoholism and gang violence are common, and where links to homeland traditions, including Catholicism, are weakened as people struggle to escape poverty in their new country.

Meanwhile, certain Catholic strictures -- such as those barring unmarried couples and those not wed in the church from taking sacraments -- can drive away Latino immigrants who are sometimes caught in awkward situations, such as having one family in the U.S. and another across the border.

In the U.S., the Catholic Church has lost members before, notably among the Irish. And its angst about the defection of some Latinos is tempered by overall growth in church membership, including Hispanics. In the 1990s, the number of Catholics in this country climbed to 64 million, from 59 million, thanks chiefly to immigration from Latin America and high Hispanic birth rates. "Wherever you have masses in Spanish, churches are full," says Ronaldo Cruz, executive director of the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Nonetheless, the steady erosion of Latino loyalty is a problem. A 1997 study by the Rev. Andrew Greeley, a sociologist, concluded that between the early 1970s and the mid-'90s, the ranks of Hispanics who were Catholic had dropped to two-thirds from more than three-quarters. Other studies show a less severe falloff, but they point to the same general trend, especially among the children and grandchildren of immigrants. A recent survey funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, for example, found that 74% of Latino immigrants are Catholic, but by the third generation, the number drops to 59%.

"The bishops are very concerned at what is going on," acknowledges Mr. Cruz. Indeed, a 1999 Catholic Church report found that 69% of diocesan bishops believe Latinos are "highly susceptible" to evangelizing by non-Catholics.

Mateo Rodriguez, 35, is one who left the fold. A building contractor who arrived in the U.S. eight years ago, Mr. Rodriguez was brought up a Catholic in Mexico. But he had never gone to services here and was feeling lonely and out of sorts when the couple whose home he was working on invited him to visit La Familia de Dios one Sunday last May. The experience, he says, was overwhelming. "God destroyed my ego and turned me into a new person," he says, choking back tears. Now, he plans to move his family from San Fernando, north of Los Angeles, about 60 miles east to live near his new church.

Evangelical Christianity has likewise changed the life of Mr. Hernandez. In the early 1980s, he was both Catholic and a member of the Sandinista revolutionaries, a leader of the bank workers' union in his hometown of Chinandega in northern Nicaragua. Disenchanted with the revolution, he ultimately fled the country with his wife and son, arriving illegally in the U.S. after a dangerous trek from Mexico. The Hernandezes crossed the Rio Grande near Brownsville, Texas, just under the nose of the Border Patrol. After arriving in the U.S., they were granted political asylum and have become citizens.

"In Mexico, we went to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe to ask for a miracle," recalls Mr. Hernandez. Once in California, he says he and his wife went on their knees before the statue of the Virgin at Saint Martha's in thanks for making it to the U.S. They started to attend the church regularly.

But at Saint Martha's, Mr. Hernandez and his wife, Gloria, never even met the priest. "You executed the traditions and then everybody went home," Mr. Hernandez says. Adds Mrs. Hernandez: "The Catholic Church left me empty."

When her sister invited them to attend an evangelical Calvary Church service in 1987, they were immediately drawn in. Mr. Hernandez stopped drinking, and the couple even ended their beloved salsa-dancing sessions. "We thought it wasn't contributing to our Christian life," he says. Two years ago, the Hernandezes switched to La Familia de Dios, which is similar in flavor and belief to the Calvary Church. In return for their faith, Mr. Hernandez says, God has provided. Mr. Hernandez credits his new faith for, among many other things, the new job he got last year as a controller at a school-bus dealership.

The Catholic Church is trying to woo back its strays. Dioceses have opened special offices for Hispanic ministry, and seminarians are learning Spanish. About 50 pastoral institutes train Latino lay leaders all over the country, including a Jesuit group that travels from parish to parish across the Midwest. The Catholic Church has also launched an effort, known as "Charismatic Renewal," in some Hispanic parishes to introduce a more lively, cathartic style of worship.

Manpower Shortage

However, even as the Catholic Church tries to make itself more accessible to Latino immigrants, it lacks the manpower to minister to them effectively. In the U.S., there is only one Spanish-speaking priest for every 10,000 Hispanic Catholics, compared with one priest for every 1,200 Catholics in the general population, according to Mr. Cruz, of the bishops' conference. And training a priest can take seven to 12 years.

The competition has a much faster turnaround. For instance, the Hispanic Baptist Theological School in San Antonio takes two years to train a "church planter" or a pastor. And unlike the Catholic Church, which demands high-school diplomas of its candidates, the Baptist school accepts "people that have never stepped into a school anywhere," says Javier Elizondo, the dean.

Although the Catholic Church does do some missionary work, it is ambivalent about proselytizing. Meanwhile, the competition is relentless. "You can start evangelizing the minute after you received Christ," says Mr. Hernandez.

On a recent Sunday, as he usually does after services, Mr. Hernandez drove his white Ford Expedition, with a "Jesus is Lord" chrome plate under the back window, to the parking lot of the Cardenas supermarket a few blocks from the church. There, he led a team of evangelists seeking new converts among the mostly Mexican clientele.

The Southern Baptists worked the blacktop for about two hours. Mr. Hernandez himself used various tactics to persuade people to come to God, including a sort of spiritual cost-benefit analysis: "If you take Christ in your heart and it turns out he doesn't exist, it didn't cost you anything. But if what the Bible says is true and you didn't take him in, you'll go to hell."

At one point, Mr. Hernandez strode briskly toward a couple pushing a grocery cart. He pressed leaflets into their hands, and asked them in Spanish, "Have you taken Jesus Christ into your heart?" They promised to do just that.

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