U.S. Churches Fuel Hispanic Faith Boom with Native Leaders

Hispanic churches across the nation are offering their Spanish-speaking members the same worship experience in the United States as they had back home.

Churches of various denominations are recruiting clergy from overseas to tailor services to the ever-growing number of immigrants on a language and cultural level.

"It's about the nuances of cultural identity that immediately create a boding that can never be replicated by anybody else," said Edwin Hernandez, program director of the Center for the Study of Latino Religion at the University of Notre Dame, according to The Associated Press. "The cultural identification and bonding that occur when a person of the same background is leading them, serving them and overall providing spiritual leadership is a big draw, and it sustains people's faith."

For most Latinos across all the major religious traditions, the practice of religion is distinctively ethnic, according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life earlier this year. Two-thirds of Latino worshipers attend churches with Latino clergy, services in Spanish and heavily Latino congregations. Moreover, Hispanic-oriented worship is also prevalent among native-born and English-speaking Latinos, with nearly half saying they attend ethnic churches, the study revealed.

The Pew Forum also predicts a continued rapid growth of Hispanic Christians, presenting a huge opportunity for church growth for the various Christian denominations.

To provide Latino-oriented worship experiences to the fastest growing population in the United States, some Roman Catholic dioceses send recruiters to Latin America to bring in priests or seminarians; The Episcopal Church has a direct connection to Latin Americans who want to serve here; and Southern Baptist churches rely on word of mouth to find Latin American ministers, according to AP.

Some see drawbacks to relying on foreign clergy.

Noting the shrinking ranks of U.S. priests and the importance of ordaining priests in the United States, Monsignor Edward Burns, executive director for vocations and priestly formation at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told AP, "You have to wonder why we would not want to support priestly vocations coming from our own parishes. Are we so wrapped up that we say, 'Let somebody else do it for us,' and think that would be OK?"

He further pointed out the need for priests in South America and that fewer priests impacts the Latin countries more than the United States.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee only sends recruiters to countries that have a higher number of vocations, such as Mexico and Venezuela, compared to other Latin American countries, said the archdiocese's vocations director, the Rev. James Lobacz.

Veronica Raya, an immigrant from Mexico City living in New York City, didn't feel a cultural connection with her previous pastor, who spoke Spanish as a second language. She switched churches and now attends St. Gregory the Great where the priest is from the Dominican Republic.

"They're really reaching to your heart," she said, according to AP. "It's more to our style, our culture than the American culture."

More than two-thirds of Hispanics (68 percent) identify themselves as Roman Catholics, according to The Pew Forum; 15 percent is made up of born-again or evangelical Protestants, and 8 percent of Latinos do not identify with any religion.

Churches on Saturday kicked off the Hispanic Heritage Month celebration, acknowledging the contribution of the Hispanic community along with the challenges in growing ministry among the Latino population.