Chicago: Hispanic congregations adding English services to the mix

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Aug 30 17:20:37 UTC 2007

Article published Aug 25, 2007
*Hispanic congregations adding English services to the mix*

The Associated Press

CHICAGO – 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

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.

In some cases, the greater English emphasis has contributed to an emerging
phenomenon: evangelical Protestant megachurches drawing crowds in the
thousands that aren't white and suburban, but Hispanic and anchored in the
inner city. There are perhaps 15 or 20 Protestant megachurches in the U.S.
that are majority Hispanic, said Scott Thumma, who studies megachurches at
the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. But he predicted a
considerable increase in the next decade, particularly in states with large
Hispanic populations.

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."

"The definition of the United States as a great white Protestant nation is
really up for grabs, and churches are doing an excellent job of preserving
people's identity and at the same time helping them function in contemporary

The glue – the thing that allows churches like the Carpenter's House to
flourish as a multiethnic mosaic of Mexicans, Hondurans, Puerto Ricans,
Cubans and Colombians – has been the Spanish language. Yet as the children
of immigrants grow up, churches are recognizing that it's either bolster
Spanish with English or give up on the future.

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.

The Carpenter's House sits in a red-brick building just off a busy
intersection in Humboldt Park, a northside Chicago neighborhood that is
predominantly Hispanic but gentrifying.

The Rev. Isaias Mercado, the son of Puerto Rican musicians, grew up in the
neighborhood and founded the church four years ago in a Boys & Girls Club as
a place of worship primarily in Spanish. Raised in Pentecostal churches, he
began counseling at a methadone clinic and earned a master's in divinity and
a doctorate in ministry from Chicago's McCormick Theological Seminary, part
of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Church members proudly call their pastor "Dr. Mercado." To them, his
credentials speak to the church's emphasis on self-improvement, evidence
that anyone can "go to a different level," as Mercado says, with faith and
hard work.

Mercado, 40, added an English service three months ago, hoping the church
will become not only multicultural but multiracial, drawing blacks and
whites from the neighborhood.

He also said he was listening to market forces – the people wanted it.

"It speaks to the fact that there is this Latino culture that is already
having deep roots in North America," he said.

Walter Rubio was born and raised in Guatemala and moved to the United States
when he was 12, in awe of bologna and Doritos. Now raising his own family,
Rubio attends English services at the Carpenter's House.

"It's simple," said the 35-year-old construction worker. "My son and my
daughter, they lean more toward English. If they understand it better, they
get a better blessing."

Mercado acknowledges one risk to separate services in English and Spanish: a
house divided. To keep the communities from splintering, he holds a joint
bilingual service every three months.

Some second- and third-generation Latinos prefer Spanish as their language
of worship. When a group of young adults lingered after the Spanish service
at the Carpenter's House, their small talk was in English, not Spanish.

"We grew up going to Spanish services," said Abdiel Quiles, 28. "It just
feels like home."

About 70 people attend the English service, while more than 200 fill the
church for the Spanish one.

There was one vivid contrast in the services: fervency. Unlike the
relatively low-key English service, the Spanish worship ended with people
crowded in the front, lifting their hands up high, reaching for tissue boxes
as Mercado pressed his hands to foreheads and shouted prayers into a

Regardless of language, Mercado said later, "We need to keep that Latin way
of worship, that enthusiasm."

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

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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