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The Plain Dealer

Evangelical Pastors Form Group To Help Hispanics

By David Briggs; Plain Dealer Religion Reporter

January 30, 2004
Copyright ©2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Conservative Protestant pastors representing some 40 Northeast Ohio churches have started their own religious advocacy group for Latinos.

The Hispanic Evangelical Leaders and Pastors Association, in collaboration with the Spanish American Committee, is opening up offices today in a united Pentecostal-evangelical effort to provide social services and ministry to the Latino community.

The Rev. Eliezer Negron, pastor of the Pentecostal Church of God on Lorain Avenue and president of the new group, said it is a historic moment for the Hispanic evangelical community that has grown rapidly amid the much larger Latino Catholic community.

Thirty years ago, there were 10 or 12 Hispanic evangelical churches serving fewer than 1,000 people in Greater Cleveland. Today, there are 40 churches serving an estimated 4,000 people, he said. Ten of those churches were started in the last five years, Negron said.

The Hispanic Catholic population is also growing rapidly: The United States now has an estimated 25 million Hispanic Catholics, and rising birth and immigration rates are expected to make them the majority of U.S. Catholics sometime later this century.

In the Diocese of Cleveland, there are an estimated 23,000 Hispanics who are practicing Catholics.

But Catholic officials long have been concerned they may be losing some members to the smaller Pentecostal churches that often can provide more intimate worship settings and Latino clergy. There are six predominantly Hispanic churches in the Cleveland Diocese, but there are no Latino priests.

Negron said Latino Catholic leaders were not invited to be part of the new group because of differences in theology and the fact that the Catholic Church has its own social service agencies and outreach to Latinos.

In the new collaboration, the Spanish American Committee will be providing offices for the pastors' association to coordinate social service, ministry and advocacy programs.

Negron said the organization eventually hopes to offer a family shelter and possibly a drug and alcohol abuse rehabilitation center.

Leo Serrano, director of the Spanish American Committee, said his organization sees the group as offering another opportunity for community development and organizing. "They represent the new voice, a new level of influence," Serrano said.

Negron and other Latino evangelical leaders said the organization represents a coming of age for a part of the religious community that is growing quickly, particularly with large immigrant populations from Mexico and Central America.

His own experience is a good example. A native of Puerto Rico, he started pastoring a church on Lorain Avenue in 1985 with five members. They moved into new quarters in an old furniture store down the street and now have 200 members. In what was once a strictly Puerto Rican congregation, there are now 30 members from Central America, Negron said. The church sold its old building to a Guatemalan church.

As the religious community grew, the next step for Latino evangelicals was to develop an organization for them to work together on services from emergency aid to evangelization, church leaders said.

"It is like a dream come true," said the Rev. Jose Reyes, pastor of the New Life Church in Cleveland.

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