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The Columbus Dispatch

A Growing Flock

Dennis M. Mahoney

January 31, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Columbus Dispatch. All rights reserved. 

Radames Perez says he has seen God's power in his wife's recovery from a brain tumor during the past four years.

''God has proven himself to me. He didn't have to. But he has manifested himself to me. . . . He is totally in control of all circumstances,'' Perez said.

His wife, Margaret, was fortified in her faith because of her illness.

''Through all this, he put peace in me,'' she said.

The Perezes, who moved to Columbus from New York City in 1995, are among a growing number of people of Latino ancestry in central Ohio who have embraced a high-energy, born-again evangelical Protestantism.

Officially, the region has about 24,000 Latinos, according to the latest Census data. But the Rev. Luis Goicochea, pastor of Door of Blessing Church, where the Perezes worship, said there may be as many as 35,000.

Goicochea estimates that 15 percent of central Ohio Latinos are evangelicals. Since 1987, the number of such churches has grown from one to 11.

Throughout Central and South America, evangelical Protestantism is on the rise. In Guatemala, for example, 49 percent of the population now considers itself evangelical.

The core of evangelical belief is that faith in Jesus is the only way to salvation. The Bible is considered inerrant.

Many conduct baptisms by immersion in water. Those who adhere to the Pentecostal tradition believe a person also is baptized in the Holy Spirit, as often manifested by speaking in a different language, or ''in tongues,'' as it is known.

Angel and Carmen Maldonado have witnessed the growth in evangelical belief in central Ohio's Latino population, which has itself been surging.

The Maldonados, born in Puerto Rico, came to Columbus in 1985 from New York. They found few evangelical Latino congregations, mostly small groups that met in established churches.

Like many Latinos, both had been raised Roman Catholic and came to the evangelical faith when they were older.

They joined Door of Blessing, originally known as Door of Heaven, when it opened on Cleveland Avenue in the Linden area in 1987. It was the area's first Latino evangelical church and has since moved one block north.

Both initially came to the faith because it offered them something intangible that they needed.

''The way that they were praising God, and the way they were serving God, it was something new to me,'' said Mrs. Maldonado, 59. ''Even though I was a faithful Catholic, it was more, I felt God more.''

Mr. Maldonado, 58, said Catholicism taught him to love God, but he became an evangelical because ''you need the spirit of God working in your life, that change in your life.''

Door of Blessing's congregation keeps growing, he said, because the church is filled with love.

''I think love is everything,'' he said. ''If you go to my house, and I show you love and appreciation, you're going to come back.''

Plans for expansion

The growth in the church has been steady, and members are making plans to build a 1,000-seat sanctuary on the property within two years.

Goicochea, of Puerto Rican ancestry, came from New York City to Columbus in 1995 to take over the church. At the time, Sunday attendance was about 25.

Eventually, the church merged with a small Spanish-speaking congregation that was meeting on Parsons Avenue.

Sunday services at the church, held at 2 p.m., draw an average of about 150, sometimes topping 200. There also are services on Tuesday and Friday nights and a Sunday-morning Bible class.

Most congregants have come to Columbus in recent years from countries such as the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, as well as from Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth. Services use both Spanish and English, the latter for younger people who speak it regularly and those who do not understand Spanish at all.

Goicochea, a minister of the Spanish Pentecostal Church of God -- International Movement, said many members, such as himself, come from Catholic backgrounds.

One reason Latinos are turning to evangelical churches is that the Catholic liturgy is ''a lethargic type of worship. When you come to an evangelical church, you see a dynamic praise and worship,'' he said.

He said congregants who listen to the message ''begin to realize what the gospel is, what it's meant to be, how changing it can be.''

The Catholic Diocese of Columbus continues to try to ''meet the needs, spiritual and temporal, of the Latino population the best way we can,'' said Tom Berg, diocesan spokesman.

There is one Spanish-speaking parish, Santa Cruz, and Spanish-language Masses are conducted regularly at several parishes, he said. In 2001, the Latino Center was created to develop Latino programs.

Some criticize the evangelical message as being long on emotion and short on theology. Goicochea said the faith is based on ''conviction,'' not theology, and that emotion is an important element.

''No one can change what you feel,'' he said. ''They can tell you it's emotional, but there's a certain ability in you, an educated ability, to know this is true.''

The story of growth is similar for other central Ohio churches.

The Rev. Eduardo Julca pastors a congregation of about 200 at El Paso Hispanic Church of God on the West Side. The congregation previously met at the Potter's House Church of God, also on the West Side, but became large enough to move into its own building in 2001.

Julca, a Peruvian native who was ordained in the Assemblies of God, came to Columbus in 1996 to pastor a group of about 25 Latinos meeting at Potter's House.

Besides a Sunday service, the church has small Bible-study groups that meet in homes during the week. The groups often are a person's first contact with the church.

''We don't want to wait for people to come to church,'' he said. ''We want to go and get them.''

Julca said some members are attracted by the church's lively services, which he described as ''a spiritual party.''

Like many churches, he said, El Paso offers social help to the needy. More important, he said, the church gives people the spiritual help they often don't get elsewhere.

''When you help a person in a spiritual way to break their habits, to seek God with all their heart, then people stop drinking, they stop using drugs, they try to have a family life, they look for jobs, they bring money home,'' Julca said.

When the Rev. Felipe Matos came to Calvary Apostolic Church in the Short North from New York City in 1998, he started from scratch in helping the church reach out to Latinos.

He now has 65-70 people at a Sunday service, and another 70-75 attending weekly Bible studies in homes.

Matos said the number of evangelical churches in his native Dominican Republic has quadrupled since 1980, and the trend is unmistakable throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

''For years, all Spanish countries were under the Catholic faith,'' he said. ''And then the people felt they had nothing inside. So they tried to find something a little more real, in their soul, in their life, in their family.''

Comfort from Bible

The Perezes said sharing their faith with their four children has been important to them. Mr. Perez said his wife's illness and recovery were lessons for them.

''They would question why and how. 'Is mommy going to die, is she going to live?' And I would often open the word of God and illustrate to them what God's word says. If she goes, it's because it's God's will,'' he said.

At Door of Blessing, members eat together after the Bible class and before the service, sharing foods from different Latin cultures.

''It's almost a mix of the gospel of Jesus Christ and our cultural beliefs. . . . It's like a part of home,'' he said.

But the church is no longer exclusively Latino, and it is beginning to draw more who don't have such ancestry.

Today, some who attend don't understand the Spanish at times, Mrs. Maldonado said, ''but they are feeling it. They are feeling something in their heart . . . that is special.''

The Perezes have attended non-Latino evangelical churches in the area, and have found ''they're just like us,'' she said.

It is important to keep the church's doors open to anyone no matter what language they speak, Mrs. Maldonado said.

''They are going to be our brothers and sisters in heaven, so we have to get used to who they are,'' she said.

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