ELKHART — When he first moved to Elkhart in 1995, says Samuel Que, there was just one Hispanic evangelical church.
In Goshen, there were three, maybe four.
Today, Que — pastor at Crossroads Hispanic Church, associated with Crossroads Community Church — can count 12 in the city of Elkhart and another 12 or so in Goshen. He estimates that the “vast majority” of members at his church are former Catholics, underscoring a shift in churchgoing habits that a 2007 study said has “drawn down” the ranks of the Catholic church.
Catholic leaders in Elkhart County, meanwhile, report that their pews are increasingly filled with more and more Hispanics, traditionally Catholic and still overwhelmingly drawn to the church. And that same 2007 study — by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life — notes that the share of Hispanics in the Catholic church in the United States, about a third of the total, will likely increase in decades to come.
Still, Hispanic evangelical leaders here note a distinctive set of circumstances prompting more and more immigrant Latinos to look to Protestant evangelical churches. And they foresee increases in the ranks attending their services.
Many are Catholic because the religion has been passed down to them from their parents. “It’s not a personal thing, it’s tradition,” said Que, who’s originally from Mexico.
And no longer within the direct sphere of influence of close family members, some Hispanic immigrants look elsewhere to fulfill their spiritual needs when they get here.
“Arriving here in the United States, their parents aren’t here, and they take on a new tradition,” said Que.
THE CATHOLIC-PROTESTANT SPLIT
Here’s what the Pew study says about the Protestant-Catholic split among Hispanics in the United States:
“Simply put, immigration, particularly from Mexico, has added steadily to the number of Latino Catholics. Meanwhile, conversion to other religions, particularly to evangelical Protestantism, has drawn down the number of Catholics. About one in 10 Latinos was once a Catholic but is no longer holding that affiliation.”
The study estimated that 67.6 percent of Hispanics in the United States are Catholic while 19.6 percent are Protestant, belonging mainly to Pentecostal, Baptist or nondenominational churches. Another 2.7 percent are “other Christians,” belonging mainly to the Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon churches, while 7.8 percent are “secular.”
Rough estimates provided by religious leaders here parallel the study’s figures.
The Rev. Glenn Kohrman of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Elkhart estimates that 4,200 to 5,600 Hispanics attend the church, 70 percent of the total membership there.
Que estimates that the Hispanic evangelical churches in Elkhart typically have around 100 members each, give or take. Multiplying that by 12, the number of such churches in the city, yields an estimated 1,200 Hispanic evangelicals in Elkhart.
‘A PERSONAL QUESTION’
Que, his office wall adorned with two acoustic guitars, an electric guitar and a bass, cites several factors in the growth of evangelical churches geared to Latinos.
Sure, the increasing number of Hispanics in Elkhart County figures big. But other things are at play.
The Catholic church, as he sees it, doesn’t offer enough Bible instruction, and his church members are hungry for that. “What does the Bible say about the family? What does the Bible say about finances? What does the Bible say about education of kids?” he said, noting the sorts of questions his church tries to address.
With increased means of communication to get the word out, Hispanics see there are religious alternatives and try evangelical churches. At the same time, Mario Perez, an evangelical pastor originally from Guatemala, notes that evangelical Christianity is stronger in the United States than in Latin America, where Catholicism still dominates. Thus it’s easier to be exposed to the religion on coming to the country.
“When we come to this country, we forget about our customs and religious traditions,” said Perez, who heads up Tabernacle of Restoration Church, a Hispanic evangelical church east of downtown Elkhart.
Being new arrivals here in a new country, with different cultural norms and a less central Catholic church, “there is no tradition,” continues Que. “Now it’s a personal question. Now they decide what to do.”
San Moreno, the founder of the Hispanic ministry led by Que, cites what he says is the livelier services at evangelical churches. “They’re worshipping, they’re singing, they have the ability to speak if they need to,” he said.
Kohrman of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church knows some Hispanics who had identified as Catholic now go to evangelical churches. He doesn’t see it as a threat, though.
“I don’t feel threatened by that so long as they’re being drawn closer to Christ,” he said.
He suspects some may switch owing to the “flexibility” of evangelical churches on such questions as divorce and remarriage. Maybe those who leave, he added, never really understood the Catholic faith or actively practiced.
Either way, if the change keeps those who move to evangelical churches from engaging in destructive behavior, so much the better. The bigger issue for him is finding common ground within Christianity.
“My hope is that all Christians can find unity again, that we can be drawn together instead of being divided,” he said.