tampabay.com

A breach of faith

Older generations mourn as young Hispanics turn away from the Catholic Church.

By SHERRI DAY, Times Staff Writer
Published January 29, 2008


TAMPA - Aida Aviles' heart aches. Her 1-year-old grandson Elijah has not yet been baptized. And two of her granddaughters will never don white dresses and veils for their first communions. 

In some ways, Aviles says, it's the desecration of her dream.

The 52-year-old grandmother of five comes from a long line of die-hard Roman Catholics. But a few years ago, her daughter left to worship in a nondenominational Protestant congregation. And Aviles' son also has embraced the Protestant church.

The moves upset the spiritual balance in the heavily Catholic family, an extended clan of more than 100 that draws its roots from Puerto Rico.

Family members step lightly to avoid accusatory discussions about differences in their faiths even as they try to visit each other's churches and share in special celebrations.

"I wish they were still Catholic, that they would go to Sunday Mass with me, that they would be with us all the time," said Aviles, who attends Incarnation Catholic Church in northwest Tampa.

It is a spiritual tug-of-war that is playing out around the country as more Hispanics break with Catholicism in favor of Pentecostal and evangelical churches. Studies show that foreign-born Hispanics are more likely to remain Catholic, but conversion picks up among those born in the United States.

Her mom is open-minded about her conversion, said Flormarie Sanchez, 34. "If the Protestant church is where we found Christ, and that's where we want to serve, she's okay with that."

Still, Sanchez knows her mother hurts.

A generational break

Aviles moved to the mainland United States from Puerto Rico when she was a toddler. The fifth child in a family of 11, she was raised by strict Catholic parents - Miguel and Florentina Santos - who worked to grow the Hispanic Catholic community on Chicago's South Side. Today, the Santos children remain steadfastly Catholic.

But to their shock, many of their children have embraced other faiths. One of Aviles' sisters has an antagonistic relationship with her now-Protestant progeny. In another branch of the family, a niece divorced her Pentecostal husband. Among other things, the couple fought over bringing a crucifix into their home, family members said. Relations with Jehovah's Witnesses in the clan also have made family celebrations awkward. Witnesses do not celebrate birthdays or observe holidays they believe have pagan origins or nationalist roots.

In the midst of all this, Maria Rodriguez, Aviles' oldest sister, has worked hard to keep her grown children Catholic.

She recognizes the attraction of spirited Protestant worship services and currently leads the Hispanic charismatic renewal in the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg.

Catholic churches around the country are encouraging charismatic prayer ministries featuring practices traditionally associated with Pentecostals such as healings, laying hands and speaking in tongues.

The effort has become a lifeline to reach family and friends who might abandon the faith."I do whatever it takes to keep them at home," said Rodriguez, 57, a lay minister. "I say 'home' because it's like losing a family member when they leave the Catholic Church."

Aviles also attends the lively weeknight Charismatic Catholic services, but Sunday Mass remains a respected tradition for the sisters.

Aviles dons her best clothes, a dress or a slacks and a jacket. She looks forward to taking communion and the comforting rituals. Each Sunday, she says, a new homily and gospel reading provides spice to the service.

"I feel that's where I met the Lord," Aviles said.

In the middle

As a little girl, Flormarie Sanchez completed each of the sacraments in the Catholic Church with great joy. In 1995, she married a Protestant man in a Catholic wedding.

Aviles worried her grandchildren would not be raised Catholic, a concern the newlyweds quickly batted down.

Sanchez baptized her daughters, Alyssa, 8, and Destiny, 4, Catholic. She also encouraged them to learn the Our Father prayer and took them to Mass on Easter.

But Sanchez grew tired of straddling the fence, attending church both with her husband and her mother. She began to see the Catholic Mass as a predictable, uninspiring ritual. And she could not escape feeling called to worship with her family in the Protestant church.

"To me, it's like the Catholic in me is going away," said Sanchez, who lives in Odessa.

These days, she no longer prays the rosary at family gatherings or asks the Virgin Mary or the saints to intercede for her. She has no religious statues in her home.

Two years ago, Sanchez found a nondenominational church that cemented her transformation. At Calvary Chapel Worship Center in New Port Richey, the Sanchez family melds into the ethnically diverse congregationof young families, singles and baby boomers.

A recent Sunday service features the blaring sounds of a rock band and 50-member choir. The congregation launches into a half-hour of songs as lyrics scroll on electronic screens flanking the stage.

"Grace so amazing so true. Shout it. Let the people sing. Something so powerful should shake the whole wide world. Make it loud! Make it louder still!"

One woman dances down the aisle with her daughter. Others sit sipping coffee bought in the church's lobby.

The pastor, dressed in jeans and an Oxford shirt, bounds to the stage. He sprinkles his sermon with pop culture references and jokes. He touches on the role of fathers, discipline in families and secret sin.

"Have you ever watched that commercial on TV, 'Las Vegas, it all stays here?'" the pastor asks. Hands shoot up all over the room. "How many of you know that whatever you do in the dark, whatever you do in Las Vegas, doesn't stay there? It goes to the throne of God. ... How come all of you stopped praising? Have you been to Las Vegas?"

Sanchez takes copious notes. Her husband follows along with a well-worn Bible.

The relaxed atmosphere - Sanchez wears jeans and flip flops - is part of what keeps her coming back, she says.

"It's not so strict," she said. "It's not the same routine all the time."

It is the very antithesis of how her mother attends church.

Treading softly

Increasingly, it seems Baby Elijah is unlikely to have a Catholic baptism.

Catholics believe it cleanses a baby of original sin, but many Baptists, Pentecostals and evangelicals theologically oppose baptizing babies. Instead, they christen or dedicate them and allow children to reach their own faith decision once they're old enough to understand the commitment.

Elijah was dedicated at Calvary Chapel, a process that generally does not involve water.

Aviles mourns that her grandson will never have copadres, Catholic godparents assigned to safeguard his spiritual health.

But she has learned to compromise. "I'd rather have them in a church where they're praising the Lord than not having them in a church at all," Aviles said.

She and her sisters have taken care not to isolate their offspring. Their family is like a tree, they say, with many branches.

"Our kids or some family members have branched off to a different direction," Rodriguez said. "But the trunk is Catholic. They have left the church. But the roots, they'll always be Catholic."

Their children see the split as more definitive.

"I feel this is where I belong," Sanchez saidof her new church. "Before, I was still kind of confused. Now, for sure, I know."

Sherri Day can be reached at sday@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

Reasons for change

Nearly one-fifth of all Latinos in America have converted from one religion to another or to secularism. Half of Hispanic evangelicals are converts, with more than 43 percent of them tracing their roots to the Catholic Church. Puerto Ricans, like the Sanchez family, make up the highest percentage of evangelicals among U.S. Hispanics. Here are some of the reasons cited for converting:

83 percent Desire for a more direct, personal experience of God.

35 percent Inspiration of a certain pastor.

26 percent Deep personal crisis.

14 percent A marriage.

Sources: Changing Faiths: Latinos and the Transformation of American Religion, Pew Research Center