Bilingual Pentecostals

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Jul 2 14:00:01 UTC 2003

>>From the New York Times, July 2, 2003

God's Word, Echoing in English


    He wouldn't want his father to hear him say so, but Getulio A. Cruz
prefers to listen to his dad, who is pastor of the Monte Sion Christian
Church on the Lower East Side, preach in English on Friday nights rather
than in Spanish on Sunday mornings. "My father really interacts with the
children on Friday nights; he goes right up to them," said Getulio, who is
14 and shares his father's name. "On Sundays, he stays up there in the
pulpit most of the time." But body language is not the only aspect of the
Rev. Getulio Cruz's delivery that his son is reacting to. He wouldn't want
his father to hear him say this either, but he is simply more comfortable
worshiping in English.

Getulio is far from alone.

Attendance at many Pentecostal churches in the New York metropolitan
region is dropping, church officials say, as more young people insist on
speaking English, despite maintaining an intense relationship to Hispanic
culture. As a result, Monte Sion and others are reversing the reason they
were founded in the 1950's, when large groups of people arriving from
Puerto Rico were eager to find religious services in their own language,
and are managing to survive, and even thrive, by giving English equal
billing. Taking that step has not always been easy. In some cases, the
English speakers have splintered off and formed a richer and more lively

But older worshipers, and the ruling body of the Pentecostal church, worry
about the loss of the language that had offered a safe harbor for
newcomers half a century ago. "It does create some problems," said the
Rev. Rafael Reyes, superintendent of the Spanish Eastern District
Assemblies of God, which encompasses 328 Pentecostal churches in 17
states. Monte Sion belongs to another Pentecostal group called the
Assembly of Christian Churches, which includes about 100 Spanish-speaking
or bilingual churches in its eastern district.

"The older people feel that everyone should converse in the Spanish
language," Mr. Reyes said, "and the younger people say they need to
understand what the pastor says." Mr. Reyes said that the conflict doesn't
stop at language. "When churches begin to establish an English focus, they
also adopt the culture and strategies that are so different from the
traditional way of doing things, that these churches eventually split."
Pentecostal churches have played an important role in New York's Latino
community because of their history and the way they reflect Latino

"The establishment of these churches in the early 1950's was in part the
result of a large migration of Puerto Ricans to New York and the
Northeast, and the fact that Catholic and other churches weren't
welcoming," said Flix Matos Rodrguez, director of the Center for Puerto
Rican Studies at Hunter College. The Pentecostal churches, often begun in
storefronts, combined the Hispanic language and culture with a religion
that had already been established on the island of Puerto Rico early in
the last century. Pentecostals are Christians, and many believe the
presence of the Holy Spirit is evident in the speaking in tongues.

The early Pentecostal churches in the New York region were focused on
delivering community services. "They developed a more indigenous
leadership," Dr. Matos Rodrguez said, "with pastors and leaders coming
from the community itself, rather than Irish or Italian priests." Today,
the churches individually reflect the character of their pastors.  Older
pastors, who themselves might speak only broken English, observe stricter
cultural rules, such as banning beards for men, and not allowing women to
wear pants.

But younger pastors are perfectly comfortable in English and Spanish. They
look at declining memberships and realize they need to do something.
"Here's my dilemma," said Pastor Cruz, 46, who was born in Brooklyn to
parents who came from Puerto Rico. "We want to minister in English but we
don't want to lose the people who speak only Spanish." A little over a
year ago, Pastor Cruz began experimenting with ways to bridge the language
and culture gap inside the yellow-brick former synagogue that houses Monte
Sion. He began by ministering in both Spanish and English on Sunday
mornings, but that stretched the service to well over two hours.

Then he began using a translator, but he found that some things were not
coming across the way he intended in the English translations. In January,
an all-English service was instituted on Friday nights.  Sundays were
returned to being exclusively in Spanish, with Bible classes in English
for teenagers so families could remain together. So far the experiment
seems to be working well and there's little fear of a split, in part
because the congregation consisting of only 40 members is so small. One of
them, Georgina Mercado, 79, speaks very little English. Still, she attends
services on both Sunday mornings and Friday nights. "I have my
grandchildren here so I come to learn a little English," she said.

But the concern within the church is really more far-ranging than
attendance at a particular service. "If people who speak only English are
coming to the church and they rise within the church, who is going to be a
leader 15 years down the road?" Pastor Cruz said. Not far from Monte Sion
on the Lower East Side is another Pentecostal church that is betting its
survival on English. The Primitive Christian Church on East Broadway now
attracts twice as many people to its Sunday afternoon service in English
as to its Sunday morning service in Spanish.

The morning service at Primitive follows the Pentecostal tradition of
singing and praying. The seats are filled with families of Puerto Rican
and Dominican descent, many consisting of several generations. But in the
afternoons, Hispanics, those of other European heritages, blacks, and a
few Asian-Americans come in for a service that sounds like a born-again
revival, with few links to Latin culture and no Spanish at all.

"In the mornings, there is still the typical Puerto Rican mindset of
thinking about going back to Puerto Rico," said the Rev. Marcos Rivera,
who was born in Puerto Rico but raised in New York and who ministers at
both services. "But during the English service, people feel they are
fulfilling their destinies here in New York. Their culture tends to be
Latino, especially in food, but they prefer to worship and sing in
English." Worshipers at the morning service call him Marquito, because
they all knew him growing up in the church. In the afternoons, he is
Pastor Marcos.

Mr. Rivera is certain that 15 years from now there will be two separate
church organizations sharing the building on East Broadway, two separately
incorporated congregations, one in English and one in Spanish. "Our
trajectory will be the same as in other cultures," he said. "The
difference will be that we're not tearing ourselves apart but rather
transforming ourselves into something new." The current influx of
Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico, Ecuador and other countries
presents yet another challenge.

The Rev. Frank Vega, pastor of the Fountain of Eternal Life Church in
Mount Kisco, N.Y., said that although his congregation has grown
tremendously since English services were introduced a little over a year
ago, part of the church will always remain Spanish. "Our church was
launched as a Spanish ministry, and that is still the strength of our
church," Pastor Vega said. "As Hispanics from Central and South America
come to this country, they will need this service. Spanish will be here to
help them transition themselves to English."

When he took over in 1993, only three people attended Sunday services that
were held at the United Methodist Church. Last summer, Fountain of Eternal
Life moved into the old Elks Club in Mount Kisco and now has about 450
members, including the Yankee outfielder Bernie Williams, who was born in
Puerto Rico and attends the English services. About 35 percent of
congregants attend the English services, Pastor Vega said.

"At this same time next year," he said, "it will be 50 percent."

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