The Battle for Latino Souls; Pentecostal Churches Are Using Savvy Marketing to Attract Traditionally Catholic Hispanics. A Holy Struggle in Chicago

Article excerpt

Byline: Arian Campo-Flores

Five years ago, Esperanza Hincapie had sunk into a pit of despondency. With a daughter in prison for murder, she contemplated swallowing a mouthful of pills to blot out her heartache. Then four Hispanic ladies from Rebano Companerismo Cristiano--a Pentecostal church in the Humboldt Park area of Chicago--came to visit her. They encircled Hincapie--a lifelong Roman Catholic from Colombia--laid hands on her and prayed. "I felt a tremendous chill," she recalls. "I began to cry and cry, and released everything." The following Sunday, one of the women drove her to Rebano, where Hincapie, 52, converted and permanently joined the flock. At her Catholic church, she says, "I always left feeling empty." At her new one, "I felt something beautiful--the presence of the Lord."

It was another successful conversion for Rebano, one of dozens of churches--including Lutheran, Jehovah's Witness and Seventh-day Adventist--that crowd the gritty streets of Hispanic-rich Humboldt Park and vie for Latino souls. Their ground battle offers a granular view of a broader struggle taking place nationwide. Forty million strong and deeply religious, Hispanics are traditionally Catholic. But, research shows, the longer they are in the United States, the more open they are to other faiths. While 72 percent of first-generation Hispanics are Catholic, according to one study, that figure drops to 52 percent by the third generation--a trend that has long troubled the Catholic hierarchy. Latinos remain the Catholic church's fastest-growing ethnic bloc, but they are also one of the fastest-growing segments among Mormons, Methodists and most other denominations. The result: all faiths are courting Hispanics with a marketing savvy more often associated with corporate America. These churches "have plans to grow, and they're aggressive," says Edwin Hernandez of the University of Notre Dame. "The competition is rampant."

That's especially true among Pentecostals. With their cathartic, music-filled worship style and aggressive proselytizing, they've made deep inroads in Hispanic communities. Of the 610 Latino churches that Hernandez and a research team have mapped in Chicago (as part of an ongoing study of how the churches attract and retain congregants), 202 are Pentecostal, compared with 119 that are Roman Catholic, though the latter are much bigger on average. In Humboldt Park-- a neighborhood filled with Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Central Americans--Pentecostal churches abound in rich variety, from storefront outfits with strict codes governing dress and behavior, to warehouse operations with more lenient approaches. While the leaders tolerate one another, rivalries simmer close to the surface. From her perch at the tiny Iglesia de Dios Peniel, Pastor America Garcia eyes Rebano down the street--where female congregants might sport tight pants and belly rings--with suspicion. The place is rife with "libertinism," she says. "When people leave, they go to orgies, to movies, to dances!" Rebano's Lynette Santiago has heard all this before. …