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God's Word, Echoing In English


July 2, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

PHOTO: Dith Pran/The New York Times

Services on Sunday afternoons at the Primitive Christian Church on East Broadway on the Lower East Side are conducted in English, and draw a diverse congregation with their revival-meeting style. Spanish services are also offered at the church.

He wouldn't want his father to hear him say so, but Getulio A. Cruz prefers to listen to his dad, who is pastor of the Monte Sion Christian Church on the Lower East Side, preach in English on Friday nights rather than in Spanish on Sunday mornings.

"My father really interacts with the children on Friday nights; he goes right up to them," said Getulio, who is 14 and shares his father's name. "On Sundays, he stays up there in the pulpit most of the time."

But body language is not the only aspect of the Rev. Getulio Cruz's delivery that his son is reacting to. He wouldn't want his father to hear him say this either, but he is simply more comfortable worshiping in English.

Getulio is far from alone.

Attendance at many Pentecostal churches in the New York metropolitan region is dropping, church officials say, as more young people insist on speaking English, despite maintaining an intense relationship to Hispanic culture.

As a result, Monte Sion and others are reversing the reason they were founded in the 1950's, when large groups of people arriving from Puerto Rico were eager to find religious services in their own language, and are managing to survive, and even thrive, by giving English equal billing.

Taking that step has not always been easy. In some cases, the English speakers have splintered off and formed a richer and more lively congregation.

But older worshipers, and the ruling body of the Pentecostal church, worry about the loss of the language that had offered a safe harbor for newcomers half a century ago.

"It does create some problems," said the Rev. Rafael Reyes, superintendent of the Spanish Eastern District Assemblies of God, which encompasses 328 Pentecostal churches in 17 states. Monte Sion belongs to another Pentecostal group called the Assembly of Christian Churches, which includes about 100 Spanish-speaking or bilingual churches in its eastern district.

"The older people feel that everyone should converse in the Spanish language," Mr. Reyes said, "and the younger people say they need to understand what the pastor says."

Mr. Reyes said that the conflict doesn't stop at language. "When churches begin to establish an English focus, they also adopt the culture and strategies that are so different from the traditional way of doing things, that these churches eventually split."

Pentecostal churches have played an important role in New York's Latino community because of their history and the way they reflect Latino culture.

"The establishment of these churches in the early 1950's was in part the result of a large migration of Puerto Ricans to New York and the Northeast, and the fact that Catholic and other churches weren't welcoming," said Félix Matos Rodríguez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College.

The Pentecostal churches, often begun in storefronts, combined the Hispanic language and culture with a religion that had already been established on the island of Puerto Rico early in the last century. Pentecostals are Christians, and many believe the presence of the Holy Spirit is evident in the speaking in tongues.

The early Pentecostal churches in the New York region were focused on delivering community services. "They developed a more indigenous leadership," Dr. Matos Rodríguez said, "with pastors and leaders coming from the community itself, rather than Irish or Italian priests."

Today, the churches individually reflect the character of their pastors. Older pastors, who themselves might speak only broken English, observe stricter cultural rules, such as banning beards for men, and not allowing women to wear pants.

But younger pastors are perfectly comfortable in English and Spanish. They look at declining memberships and realize they need to do something.

"Here's my dilemma," said Pastor Cruz, 46, who was born in Brooklyn to parents who came from Puerto Rico. "We want to minister in English but we don't want to lose the people who speak only Spanish."

A little over a year ago, Pastor Cruz began experimenting with ways to bridge the language and culture gap inside the yellow-brick former synagogue that houses Monte Sion. He began by ministering in both Spanish and English on Sunday mornings, but that stretched the service to well over two hours.

Then he began using a translator, but he found that some things were not coming across the way he intended in the English translations.

In January, an all-English service was instituted on Friday nights. Sundays were returned to being exclusively in Spanish, with Bible classes in English for teenagers so families could remain together.

So far the experiment seems to be working well and there's little fear of a split, in part because the congregation – consisting of only 40 members – is so small. One of them, Georgina Mercado, 79, speaks very little English. Still, she attends services on both Sunday mornings and Friday nights. "I have my grandchildren here so I come to learn a little English," she said.

But the concern within the church is really more far-ranging than attendance at a particular service. "If people who speak only English are coming to the church and they rise within the church, who is going to be a leader 15 years down the road?" Pastor Cruz said.

Not far from Monte Sion on the Lower East Side is another Pentecostal church that is betting its survival on English. The Primitive Christian Church on East Broadway now attracts twice as many people to its Sunday afternoon service in English as to its Sunday morning service in Spanish.

The morning service at Primitive follows the Pentecostal tradition of singing and praying. The seats are filled with families of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent, many consisting of several generations.

But in the afternoons, Hispanics, those of other European heritages, blacks, and a few Asian-Americans come in for a service that sounds like a born-again revival, with few links to Latin culture and no Spanish at all.

"In the mornings, there is still the typical Puerto Rican mindset of thinking about going back to Puerto Rico," said the Rev. Marcos Rivera, who was born in Puerto Rico but raised in New York and who ministers at both services. "But during the English service, people feel they are fulfilling their destinies here in New York. Their culture tends to be Latino, especially in food, but they prefer to worship and sing in English."

Worshipers at the morning service call him Marquito, because they all knew him growing up in the church. In the afternoons, he is Pastor Marcos.

Mr. Rivera is certain that 15 years from now there will be two separate church organizations sharing the building on East Broadway, two separately incorporated congregations, one in English and one in Spanish.

"Our trajectory will be the same as in other cultures," he said. "The difference will be that we're not tearing ourselves apart but rather transforming ourselves into something new."

The current influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico, Ecuador and other countries presents yet another challenge.

The Rev. Frank Vega, pastor of the Fountain of Eternal Life Church in Mount Kisco, N.Y., said that although his congregation has grown tremendously since English services were introduced a little over a year ago, part of the church will always remain Spanish.

"Our church was launched as a Spanish ministry, and that is still the strength of our church," Pastor Vega said. "As Hispanics from Central and South America come to this country, they will need this service. Spanish will be here to help them transition themselves to English."

When he took over in 1993, only three people attended Sunday services that were held at the United Methodist Church. Last summer, Fountain of Eternal Life moved into the old Elks Club in Mount Kisco and now has about 450 members, including the Yankee outfielder Bernie Williams, who was born in Puerto Rico and attends the English services.

About 35 percent of congregants attend the English services, Pastor Vega said.

"At this same time next year," he said, "it will be 50 percent."

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