HARVARD, Ill.—Roy Peraza, a Cuban-born pastor in one of America’s fastest-growing Protestant denominations, trolls this sleepy town’s supermarkets and restaurants in search of new Latino converts.
He approaches newly arrived immigrants, many of them lifelong Roman Catholics with few contacts or relatives in the United States.
It is here in the rural U.S. heartland where Peraza and other evangelical and mainline Protestant missionaries seek converts among the avalanche of immigrants from Mexico and Central America.
Less than a year ago, the Springfield, Missouri-based Assembly of God church told Peraza to start a ministry in the 8,000-strong community, where the Latino population has more than tripled to 3,000 in the past 15 years.
Latino immigrants are considered to be the backbone of the American Catholic Church—the country’s largest single denomination—that has recently struggled with allegations of sexual misconduct by priests and dwindling church attendance.
About 40 percent of the 67 million Catholics in the United States are Latinos, according to the U.S. Bishop Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The intensive recruiting of Latinos mirrors aggressive proselytizing by Protestant churches in largely Catholic Latin America. The effort has yielded a growing number of Protestant-converted immigrants trickling into the country, experts said.
The recruitment comes at a time when historically all-white U.S. Protestant and evangelical denominations are faced with sluggish membership growth. For the last decade mainline Protestant denominations have had dwindling numbers.
Of the 72,000 Southern Baptist congregations across the nation, 2,781 are Latino-dominated churches and the group estimates it will spend about $10 million solely on Hispanic ministries this year. A church task force announced earlier this year plans to evangelize 50,000 Latinos and build 250 Latino churches annually through 2010.
This year, the United Methodist Church channeled $3.8 million to build Latino churches, train Hispanic pastors and send consultants to English-speaking churches that want to provide services for Latinos.
The Methodist church has lost more than 287,000 followers since 1997 and is looking for ways to recover.
“We are doing everything we can,” said Miguel Albert, the head of the Methodist’s National Plan for Hispanic Ministry, adding that the church plans to create 100 new Latino congregations and train 800 Latino missionaries in the next four years.