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Counting the believers

Organized religion appears to be booming in Pinellas County, but a closer looks shows that maybe half don't attend an organized service.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 5, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- In Pinellas County, as in the nation, most people believe in God, a higher power or at least something that exists beyond their earthly world.

But a surprising number -- maybe half -- don't regularly attend church or synagogue or mosque or any other organized place of worship. And as Pinellas itself changes, what people believe and how they worship is changing as well.

On the surface, organized religion appears to be booming in Pinellas. St. Petersburg's 18th Avenue S has so many tiny churches that its colloquial name is "Church Street." The county's Muslim population is growing and is no longer rooted primarily in the African American community. The Jewish population is increasing as well.

The Roman Catholic church is building and expanding schools to accommodate its burgeoning following and has organized several missions to serve new ethnic groups. And evangelical churches increasingly are bringing in growing and enthusiastic congregations, with Pinellas Community in St. Petersburg, Calvary Baptist and Countryside Christian Center in Clearwater and Calvary Chapel in Pinellas Park among the notable examples.

That said, determining exactly how many Pinellas County residents are affiliated with a particular religious group is not simple. Some organizations jealously guard details of their membership, while the accuracy of others cannot be guaranteed. But some solid numbers are available. Here is a sampling of data compiled by a few of the area's religious groups:

The Diocese of St. Petersburg reports that there are 116,584 registered Roman Catholics in Pinellas.

There are an estimated 35,000 Southern Baptists in Pinellas and west Pasco counties, with the majority in Pinellas.

The Diocese of Southwest Florida records about 10,000 Episcopalians in the county, with about 4,300 in church on an average Sunday. (The diocese's St. Bartholomew's church is the oldest church in South Pinellas and the second oldest in the county.)

The Jewish Federation of Pinellas County reports that there are 25,000 Jews in Pinellas "and counting."

The African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church has about 5,000 members in the county, with the majority in St. Petersburg.

Islamic leaders say there are an estimated 10,000 Muslims in Pinellas.

The number of United Methodists in the St. Petersburg District, which covers Pinellas and Pasco counties, is more than 38,000. Most live in Pinellas.

The county has 8,000 residents who belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has 6,330 members.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) reports 9,526 members in Pinellas.

According to the American Religion Data Archive, the lone record of religious affiliation by county nationwide, two-thirds of Pinellas County's 921,482 residents fall into a category designated "unclaimed" religious affiliation.

As dramatic as that might sound, several groups, including Jehovah's Witnesses and historically African American denominations, did not participate in the count, which was published last fall.

The data still are important, says Jack Marcum, a member of the small professional group -- the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies -- responsible for its compilation.

"Even though we don't get everybody, it's the closest anybody has come to doing a census of religious bodies," he said of the report that is done every 10 years.

"We piggy-backed on the fact that a lot of groups already keep these records."

On the other hand, said Marcum, an associate for survey research with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), many organizations have no system for keeping tabs on their members. From among those who do, Marcum and his fellow statisticians were able to assemble data about religious bodies in Pinellas County. Some of that follows:

The Church of the Nazarene has 1,902 members in the county.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has 2,241 members.

There are 683 members of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A. (The group, which originated in the North and split from Southern Baptists over slavery, is much smaller than the Southern Baptist Convention and generally is theologically and socially less conservative.)

The Assemblies of God churches have 8,574 members.

There are 615 Unitarian-Universalists.

There are 7,275 Greek Orthodox. (The Rev. George Patides of St. Stefanos in St. Petersburg, who conducted a membership survey a few years ago, believes that number is low.)

The number of Seventh-Day Adventists is 1,940.

There is no count of Jains, Hindus or Coptic Orthodox Christians, though the report states that each had one house of worship during the last count, which was done in 1990.

A closer look at Pinellas County's Muslim community shows growth and increased diversity. Imam Haitham Barazanji, head of the Islamic Society of Pinellas County, said 10,000 is a "rough estimate" for Muslims in the area.

"We haven't conducted any scientific survey per se," he said, explaining that data are compiled from attendance at the area's mosques, from marriages performed, contributions, counseling sessions and other types of participation.

The community has certainly changed, he said. During the 1960s and early 1970s, the southern Pinellas Muslim community was made up mostly of African-Americans in St. Petersburg. Albanian and Turkish Muslims had settled in the Dunedin area in the 1960s and still make it their home, he said. Today Pinellas County's Muslim community consists of people of different races, American citizens as well as immigrants and international students, Barazanji said. Most of the new Muslims in the area are from the Middle East and Asia, he added.

Growth also is occurring through the conversion of white American women, who have become interested in the faith since Sept. 11, 2001, said Ahmed Bedier, who is in charge of outreach for the Pinellas society. The conversions reflect a national trend, Bedier said.

From his Jacksonville office, Bishop John Hurst Adams, senior bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, spoke of another trend.

"Once upon a time," he said, "the black community was without much diversity and everyone belonged to a church."

In recent years, though, Adams said, "There have been some modest gains in the black community by the Muslim movement and the Bahai movement."

Christianity, however, still remains the dominant religion among African-Americans in Pinellas. Though historically African-American churches did not participate in the latest American Religion Data Archive project, its 1990 report estimated that there were 19,670 black Baptists in the county. Some of the largest African-American congregations in Pinellas are in St. Petersburg, among them Bethel Community Baptist, Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist and Bethel Metropolitan Baptist. Bethel AME Church is the city's oldest African-American church.

Bishop Adam's assessment of the growth of Islam among African-Americans is corroborated by D. Michael Lindsay, consultant for religion and culture to the Gallup Institute. Islam, he said, is growing modestly among young, college educated, non-white males.

"Islam in this country remains largely an ethnic phenomenon. It has not attracted a large number of non-ethnic members," he said.

"There's been some reports that the number of Muslims has overtaken the number of Jews in this country, but there is absolutely no data to back that up."

In Pinellas, the Jewish population continues to grow, wooed by the very attractions that have brought others -- mild weather, housing and business opportunities, said Bonnie Friedman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Pinellas County.

Based on an assessment done eight years ago, there are 25,000 Jews in Pinellas County "and counting," she said.

The count is based on the number of subscribers to the Jewish Press, a biweekly publication, affiliation with temples and synagogues and participation in various Jewish organizations and programs, she said.

"I think, not a while ago, it was very hard to live here 'Jewishly,' though a lot of people did," Mrs. Friedman said.

"Now, there are kosher facilities, there are good schools, everything that anyone would look for, plus wonderful weather."

In addition, she said, there are 11 places of worship, the Golda Meir Jewish Center, Menorah Manor, Menorah Center, Gulf Coast Jewish Services, the Pinellas County Jewish Day School, the Florida Holocaust Museum and Hillel.

Christians in Pinellas County increasingly are focusing on outreach programs to Hispanic, Southeast Asian, Haitian and other new residents.

Three Catholic missions, Mercy of God Polish Mission and the Martyrs of Vietnam Pastoral Mission in St. Petersburg and St. Casimir Lithuanian Mission on St. Pete Beach serve some of these new, growing communities.

Besides, the Diocese of St. Petersburg offers Masses in Tongan, Ukrainian, French, Italian, Spanish and other languages. The Tongan Mass is offered at Church of the Transfiguration in St. Petersburg, while the French Mass is said at St. Mary Our Lady of Grace, also in St. Petersburg.

The St. Petersburg District of the United Methodist Church, which covers Pinellas and Pasco counties, will start a new African-American mission in St. Petersburg's Childs Park neighborhood in June. In Clearwater, a new Hispanic mission recently took over the former High Point United Methodist Church. The High Point church, closed last spring because of dwindling membership, reopened on Jan. 1 for the Hispanic congregation. About 125 people attend the church weekly, district superintendent Kevin James said.

The local branch of the historically white Southern Baptist denomination has outreach efforts to the area's growing Haitian population.

The Rev. Ed Gilman, director of the Suncoast Baptist Association, said Pinellas County's Southern Baptist churches are fairly representative of area residents.

"Obviously, they are mostly Anglo. We have two Haitian and 12 African-American churches," he said.

The Haitian churches are Eglise Baptiste Nouvelle Jerusalem and Eglise Baptiste du Tabernacle in St. Petersburg. The county's Southern Baptist churches also serve Hispanic, Laotian, Chinese, Russian, Ukrainian and Korean residents.

Inner-city evangelism is important to the denomination, Gilman said, adding that Southside Tabernacle in St. Petersburg and Mount Carmel in Clearwater are particularly active in those efforts.

The denomination is growing countywide, Gilman said.

"We're starting new churches all the time. Because the area is so saturated, they are starting in warehouses, schools . . . ," he said.

First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks, Calvary of Clearwater, First Baptist of St. Petersburg and First Baptist of New Port Richey are among the county's largest Southern Baptist churches, he said.

Nonetheless, the denomination believes its mission is far from complete in Pinellas County.

"We've been told in the church in the past year that about 75 percent of the people don't attend church," Gilman said.

To Lindsay, the Gallup Institute consultant, that figure seems high. He said recent Gallup polls show that about 55 percent of the nation's population consider themselves to be religious. An additional 39 percent consider themselves spiritual, but not religious, he said, and "are not necessarily tethered to a community."

While many Americans might not attend a place of worship regularly, Gallup polls show a surge of interest in spiritual matters, said Lindsay, co-author of The Gallup Guide: Reality Check for 21st Century Churches.

"Probably one of the most dramatic things of the Gallup poll in 1994 was a question, 'Do you feel the need to experience spiritual growth in your life?' That was the first time that question had been asked," Lindsay said.

Fifty-eight percent of those polled answered yes.

When pollsters asked the question again in late 1998, the answer jumped to 82 percent "and that number has held since then," Lindsay said.

He said the nation's interest in spirituality has been fueled by scandals that reached the White House and by the prosperity of the 1990s. Prosperity gave Americans more time to be introspective, Lindsay said, and increased their appetite for religious literature. Credit for this greater interest in spiritual matters also should go to talk show host Oprah Winfrey and the Internet, Lindsay said. The latter, he said, has given Americans a world view of religion.

-- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

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