Hispanic Churches Add English Services

Eric Gorski, Newsday, August 23, 2007

On Sundays at La Casa del Carpintero, or the Carpenter’s House, they’ve raised twin yellow banners for churchgoers that read “Welcome” and “Bienvenidos.”

As a complement to the regular 11:30 a.m. Spanish service at the independent Pentecostal church, where they’ve worshipped Papi for years, there’s now a 9:30 a.m. English one where the faithful praise God the Father.

While churches from every imaginable tradition have been adding Spanish services to meet the needs of new immigrants, an increasing number of Hispanic ethnic congregations are going the other way—starting English services.

It’s an effort to meet the demands of second- and third-generation Hispanics, keep families together and reach non-Latinos.

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Hispanic churches are part of the United States’ long tradition of religious congregations bonded by common ethnicity or language. While Italian and Irish Catholic parishes and other examples have largely faded from view, Hispanic churches are poised to endure thanks to high birth rates, close proximity to Latin America and the sheer numbers of people seeking a better life here.

“The precedent churches are setting by preserving the Spanish language while breaking down ethnic differences and encouraging the use of English is really at the vanguard of where the United States is heading,” said Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, a Brooklyn College professor emeritus and co-author of “Recognizing the Latino Resurgence in American Religion.”

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A survey earlier this year by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 77 percent of first-generation, churchgoing Hispanics in the United States choose churches with Hispanic clergy, Spanish-language services and a mostly Hispanic congregation. But as Hispanics become more established in this country, the hold loosens: 53 percent of second-generation Latinos attend ethnic congregations, while the numbers drop to 42 percent for the third generation and higher.

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Just a few blocks away, in leased space at Roberto Clemente High School, another predominantly Latino Pentecostal church that started small entered the megachurch ranks after switching to English as its dominant language.

The change at New Life Covenant church was instigated by the Rev. Wilfredo DeJesus, who inherited the pulpit from his father-in-law and is more comfortable preaching in English, said administrative associate pastor Rico Altiery.

A decade after attendance hit a plateau at 150, the Assemblies of God church with outreach to drug addicts, prostitutes and gang members draws 4,000 per week to four services—three in English and one in Spanish, Altiery said.

“The numbers don’t lie,” he said. “Since we changed to predominantly English, the church has blown up. But we also have to keep perspective. It’s one factor, but I think it has to do more with what we do as a church.”

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