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Episcopal Church Woos Latinos To Congregations

Sep 11, 2012
Originally published on September 11, 2012 9:57 am

Latinos are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States, but only 5 percent of all Hispanics attend a mainline Protestant church. The vast majority are Roman Catholic.

For the Episcopal Church, those numbers are an opportunity.

The denomination is seeing fast-growing pockets of new Latino congregants. Episcopal churches in Nevada and Washington, D.C., are seeing considerably higher attendance from Latinos. In Oregon, there were only 150 Latino Episcopalians 20 years ago. Now, there are more than 800.

A denominationwide outreach plan notes that Hispanics represent a huge growth potential. The plan outlines strategies to reach Latinos, including focusing efforts on first- and second-generation women, whom the church calls "gatekeepers."

Roberto Arciniega, head of Latino ministries for the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon, says the outreach is about staying vital and relevant in a multicultural society, and it signals a shift in how his church views Latinos. Arciniega says Latino outreach is about inviting people to stay and be a part of the congregation.

"We need to have that intentionality," Arciniega says. "We have the tendency to stereotype. Many times we said, 'Oh, poor Latinos, they are coming here because they don't have anything to eat in their country. So let's give them a handout, let's give them something.' "

New Neighbors, New Congregants

Saints Peter and Paul Episcopal Church in Portland, Ore., added a weekly Spanish-language mass a few years ago because the English-speaking members of the congregation wanted to reach out to the growing number of Latinos in the church's working-class neighborhood.

Father Kurt Neilson, who has led the liturgy at the church for 17 years, says attendance at the two English-language morning services at the church has been relatively flat. But the afternoon services, conducted in Spanish, have seen huge growth.

Neilson, who also leads the Spanish-language mass, says the new service took off quickly.

"These are folks who are very unselfconscious about inviting one another to church," he says.

Neilson went to a Catholic seminary before joining the Episcopal Church nearly 30 years ago, and he says that might be helping him connect to the Latino members in his congregation who were raised in the Catholic Church.

"I can still, if you will, speak a fluent Roman Catholic," Neilson says. "Not that we're misrepresenting ourselves. We're very clear: This is the Episcopal Church. I tell them I have a wife and children."

Married priests aren't the only major difference Catholic-raised congregants will see at an Episcopal church. Episcopalians have been making headlines for their increasingly liberal stance on social issues such as same-sex marriage.

But that isn't necessarily why Latinos are flocking to Episcopal churches in Oregon and elsewhere. For Jorge Chavez, it was as simple as moving into a new neighborhood and finding a nearby church that felt familiar.

"To me, [a] church is a church. It's still the same God, same beliefs. So for me it's basically no difference," Chavez says.

In fact, the broader Episcopal Church itself notes that the similarity to Catholic services is one of the selling points for Latinos. In Oregon, Hispanics now make up about 6 percent of the Episcopal Church.

But while Latinos are piling into pews for the afternoon mass at Portland's Saints Peter and Paul, Spanish- and English-speaking congregations aren't necessarily unified. At a coffee hour between the morning and afternoon services in Portland, the conversation is all in English, because nobody from the Spanish service showed up early to socialize. Steve Hiscoe, munching a snack at the coffee hour, says that's not unusual.

"We had a barbeque here on the lawn a month or so ago," Hiscoe says. "Both congregations came, but the Latinos mostly sat with the Latinos, and the English sat with the Anglos."

Hiscoe says he's learning Spanish to help bridge the gap. He also plays guitar at the Spanish mass.

Copyright 2013 NWNews. To see more, visit http://www.nwnewsnetwork.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

People may think of Latinos as Catholics. But, of course, this giant group is far more complex than that. In Oregon, the numbers of Latino Episcopalians has increased more than five-fold over the past decade. The church is also seeing considerably higher Latino membership in Nevada and in Washington, D.C. Church leaders say the influx is, in part, because the denomination's worship services look and sound familiar to Hispanics who were raised in the Catholic Church.

But as the Northwest News Network's Chris Lehman reports, the Episcopal Church is also luring Latinos with a focused marketing campaign.

CHRIS LEHMAN, BYLINE: The 10 o'clock High Mass at Saints Peter and Paul Episcopal Church in Portland, Oregon, probably sounds a lot like it did when the congregation was founded nearly a century ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIPE ORGAN)

LEHMAN: Father Kurt Neilson leads the liturgy, as he has for the past 17 years. He says attendance at the two morning services has been relatively flat. The real growth is in the afternoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LEHMAN: A few years ago, Saints Peter and Paul added a weekly Spanish language Mass or Misa. The English-speaking members of the congregation wanted to reach out to the growing number of Latinos in this working-class neighborhood. Neilson says the new service took off quickly.

FATHER KURT NEILSON: These are folks who are very unselfconscious about inviting one another to church.

LEHMAN: Neilson leads the Spanish language service too. He says many of the people who attend are former Catholics, so is Neilson. He went to a Catholic seminary before joining the Episcopal Church nearly 30 years ago. And he thinks that might be helping him connect to the Latino members in his congregation.

NEILSON: I can still, if you will, speak a fluent Roman Catholic.

(LAUGHTER)

NEILSON: You know, not that we're misrepresenting ourselves. We're very clear, this is the Episcopal Church. I tell them that I have a wife and children.

LEHMAN: Married priests aren't the only major difference. Episcopalians have been making headlines for their increasingly liberal stance on social issues, such as same-sex marriage. But that isn't necessarily why Latinos are flocking to Episcopal churches in Oregon and elsewhere.

For Jorge Chavez, it was as simple as moving into a new neighborhood and finding a nearby church that felt familiar.

JORGE CHAVEZ: To me, church is a church. It's still the same God, same beliefs. So for me it's basically is no difference.

LEHMAN: In fact, the broader Episcopal Church itself notes that the similarity to Catholic services is one of the selling points for Latinos. Here in Oregon, Hispanics now make up about six percent of the Episcopal Church. A denomination-wide outreach plan notes that Hispanics represent a huge growth potential. The plan outlines strategies to reach Latinos, including focusing efforts on first and second generation women, who the church calls Gatekeepers.

ROBERTO ARCINIEGA: We need to have that intentionality.

LEHMAN: Roberto Arciniega is head of Latino Ministries for the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon. He says the outreach is about staying vital and relevant in a multicultural society. And it's a shift in how his church views Latinos.

ARCINIEGA: We have the tendency to stereotype. And many times we said, oh, poor Latinos. They, you know, they're coming here because they don't have anything to eat in their country. So let's give them a hand-out and let's give them something.

LEHMAN: Arciniega says now, Latino outreach is about inviting people to stay and be a part of the congregation. In Oregon, the efforts are paying off. Ten years ago, there were just 150 Latino Episcopalians. Now, there are more than 800. But nationally, according to the Pew Research Center, just five percent of all Hispanics attend a mainline Protestant church. The vast majority are Roman Catholic.

Back at Saints Peter and Paul in Portland, Steve Hiscoe munches on a snack during a coffee hour between the English and Spanish language services. The conversation around us is entirely in English. Nobody from the Spanish service has showed up early to socialize. Hiscoe says that's not unusual.

STEVE HISCOE: We had a barbeque here on the lawn a month or so ago. And both congregations came, but the Latinos mostly sat with the Latinos and the English sat with the Anglos.

LEHMAN: So there's still some bridge-building to do. For his part, Hiscoe says he's learning Spanish. And remember the music we heard earlier from the Spanish language Mass? That was Hiscoe on guitar.

For NPR News, I'm Chris Lehman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.