McMINNVILLE, Ore.—The Latino family entered the church after worship started, hustling to a pew in the back. The two young boys sat between their parents, while the little girl, a big white bow adorning her hair, perched on her dad’s lap, giggling.
During the homily, while the Rev. Mike Walker preached in English about finding joy in Jesus Christ despite hardships, the father whispered in Spanish for his children to be quiet and hold still. The mother handed the boys books with a Spanish translation. She wanted them to follow along.
Two hours later at St. James Catholic Church, located 50 miles southwest of Portland in the heart of Oregon’s wine country, the pews were packed again, this time entirely with Latino families. Now, the hymns were upbeat — full drums, a boisterous choir, congregants moving their hips.
Walker invited children to the front. “Escuela mañana?” he asked. Did they have school the next day on Presidents Day? The crowd of elementary school children shook their heads shyly, then headed for the Sunday school classroom, while Walker addressed his congregation and preached the same homily — this time entirely in Spanish.
McMinnville is 72 percent white and 22 percent Latino, but St. James is majority Latino, a growing trend in the U.S. Catholic Church.
While leaders within the Catholic Church acknowledge that the institution has always been welcoming to immigrants, there’s more of an urgency than ever before to engage with Latinos, including in cities and towns that are overwhelmingly white.
Multiple studies over the last few years have shown a sharp decline in church attendance, and no religion has been hit harder than Catholicism. While 51 million American adults identify as Catholic according to the Pew Research Center, 13 percent of the U.S. population claim to be former Catholics — people who were raised in the faith but now identify as Protestants, religious “nones,” or members of another religion.
They’re leaving for a variety of reasons, but according to a 2010 Pew study, the sex abuse crisis that’s engulfed the church since the early 2000s has played a major role. Of former Catholics who have left, 27 percent said it was directly related to the clergy scandal and ensuing cover-up.
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Meanwhile, after a damning grand jury report released last summer uncovered 300 abusive priests in Pennsylvania, multiple other state attorneys general have opened their own cases. Hundreds of new victims are expected to come forward across the U.S.
Americans who attend church regularly are getting older, too. A 2016 study from the non-profit Public Religion Research Institute found that 39 percent of young adults (aged 18 through 29) are “religious unaffiliated.” That’s nearly quadrupled since 1986, when only 10 percent of young adults identified that way.
But as churches across the faith spectrum grapple with how to reach young adults, the Catholic Church already has a built-in group it can target for growth: Latinos. According to Gallup, while the Catholic Church has suffered from declining attendance in the U.S., the overall percentage of Catholics has held fairly steady, largely because of the nation’s ballooning Hispanic population.
Of the 51 million Catholics in America, 34 percent are Latino. That’s an uptick from 2007, when Latinos made up 29 percent of the church. Catholic leaders expect this number to keep growing in part because of continued birthrate and immigration trends: The U.S. Census projects that by 2045, the nation will be “minority white.”
“Latinos are the emerging majority in the Catholic Church,” says Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, assistant director for Hispanic ministry for the U.S. Catholic Church. “As Hispanic ministry goes, so goes the Catholic Church in the U.S. in the decades to come.”
Bringing Latinos into the church while they are young, church leaders say, is crucial to its future. The U.S. Catholic Church estimates nearly 2.7 million Hispanics participate in Spanish-speaking masses each week, and that doesn’t include the likely millions of Latino Catholics who attend English-language mass.
Merging disparate cultures
Anette Rodriguez, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Oregon in Eugene, drives two hours north almost every other weekend to attend church with her family at St. James.
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Rodriguez said she feels most comfortable speaking Spanglish, a hybrid of Spanish — which her parents speak exclusively — and English. But she’s not entirely comfortable in English-only situations. Attending an only-English-speaking church, for example, “just feels strange,” she said.
There are other parts of Hispanic culture that feel off for Rodriguez, who was born in the U.S. to Mexican parents. She did not, for example, have a quinceañera, the traditional Hispanic celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday. “It just felt like too much,” she says, adding that she has many Latino friends who “don’t even speak Spanish at home.”
For many children born in Latin America or to Latino parents, but raised in the United States, merging two competing cultures is a challenge. At school, they might speak English and debate the latest plots from “The Walking Dead”; at home they speak Spanish with older family members as Telemundo plays in the background. They prefer to hear the homily in English, but find comfort in Spanish prayer and worship songs. They’re looking for a place to fit in.
It’s a demographic the church wants to win over.
Armando Cervantes, director of youth and young adult ministry at the Diocese of Orange in Southern California, credits the Catholic Church for decades of work serving immigrant populations. For years, Cervantes says, the church acted as a bridge between Latino and Anglo culture because “it was a place of safety,” ensuring immigrants that though they were in a foreign land and might not understand the cultures, customs or language, they could feel welcome. It also helped introduce many to other U.S. institutions, like the school system and law enforcement.
“We did a really good job with the immigrant population,” Cervantes says. “‘Here, we’ll have Spanish masses, we’ll have English classes, we’ll make you feel very comfortable.’
“But we haven’t done a good job with millennials. Now kids are looking around saying, “I don’t speak Spanish well, but I don’t fit in in an English-only experience and I’m not a first-generation immigrant either — do I have a place in this church, or are you forcing me to make a choice of assimilate or be an immigrant?’”
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When she was in high school, a surprised Rodriguez quizzed her friends on why they didn’t attend church regularly. They explained that sports and other activities were scheduled for the weekend and soon, church became an afterthought.
Asked if the sex abuse scandal shaped her or her friends’ feelings about the church, Rodriguez explains that “of course we see the news and talk about it, but I know that I feel comfortable, because I always attend church with my family.” There’s strength, and safety, in numbers. And while she’s heartbroken for all the victims, she said she views the scandal as separate from her individual faith and belief in Jesus.
In Rome this week, Pope Francis — who has repeatedly called for the U.S. government to welcome immigrants and is the first-ever Latino pope — is meeting more than 150 bishops from around the world to discuss the clergy sex abuse crisis and the Vatican’s response to it.
Aguilera-Titus, the director of Hispanic ministry in the U.S., says in his conversations with Latino members across the country, rank-and-file Catholics have expressed concern about the crisis, rather than outrage or despair.
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Still, he acknowledges, “because Latinos are the emerging majority in the Catholic Church, how Latinos respond to this will be key for the future — and we know that.”
‘How can I be a voice?’
When she looked around Our Lady of the Americas Catholic Church in Des Moines, Iowa, three years ago, its pews packed with Spanish-speakers, Jessica Maciel Hernandez, then 24, had a startling thought: there was no one her age, or with her skin color, trying to connect with other millennials.
“I kept thinking, we have more than one young adult, how come I’m not seeing them? Why aren’t people talking to us and asking what we think?” recalled Maciel Hernandez. “I thought, how could I be a voice for those people?”
Our Lady of the Americas is 98 percent Latino, while Des Moines is 67 percent white.
Now 27, Maciel Hernandez left a job in science to work as the coordinator of Hispanic youth and adult ministry at the Diocese of Des Moines. Through her position, she regularly reaches out to Latinos, a process the church at large has emphasized, as well.
Five times throughout history, the Catholic Church has gone through what it calls the Encuentro, a four-year process focused on finding ways the U.S. Catholic Church can better serve and respond to its Latino population. (Directly translated, encuentro means “encounter,” but church leaders say the word “gathering” is more accurate.) Currently the church is in the middle of V Encuentro, or its “fifth encounter.”
Two years ago, individual parishes started surveying church-goers and community members, trying to get a feel for the role church and faith play in their lives. Eventually that survey expanded to dioceses and regional centers, ultimately culminating in a national meeting last September in Texas.
The survey found that young Hispanic Catholics ages 18 through 39 overwhelmingly asked the same question: “What is my identity and where do I fit?”
“The bottom line is, many Latinos in the church feel more comfortable in the dominant culture of the United States,” says Lily Morales, Hispanic ministry coordinator at the Diocese of Austin, Texas, a city that is 35 percent Latino. “In our dioceses, 65 percent are Latino. This number cannot be ignored. If we don’t give them leadership opportunities, the church is going to look very different in 10 years.”
On the ground, church leaders see progress.
“In the past, there’s been a tendency within the Catholic Church for Spanish-speaking people to be an afterthought,” says Walker, the priest at the McMinnville parish in Oregon. He noted that many positions of leadership throughout U.S. Catholicism are held by older white men. “But I see it changing,” he adds.
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Walker studied marketing at Southern Oregon University, and often takes a business approach when trying to problem solve in his parish. While attending seminary from 1992 through 1999, Walker decided that if at least half the Catholic Church worldwide is Spanish-speaking — Latin America makes up the bulk of the global church — he’d better be able to communicate with them.
So he enrolled in Spanish classes, participated in an immersion program in Guadalajara, Mexico, and now holds four masses a week, two in English and two in Spanish at St. James, which totals about 2,000 members.
At his previous parish in southern Oregon, Shepherd of the Valley — where he served for 11 years and which he fondly described as “basically a converted fruit stand” because the building was so small and rundown — Walker also focused on growing Hispanic church attendance, even though Central Point, Oregon, is 83 percent white.
He committed to hiring more bi-lingual staff, and devised a new youth group strategy. Hispanic teens, he says, were intimidated to come to youth group, because it was dominated by Anglos. So he suggested starting another youth group for Latinos only, held on a different night.
“It blew up,” he says.
Soon, the Latino group was so big and so fun, they started to invite the Anglo kids to the “cool” group. Eventually, a few Latino students suggested merging the two, so everyone could hang out together. By the time he left, the Latino population had grown from roughly 150 members to more than 1,000.
It will take more efforts like that to maintain and grow the ranks of the U.S. Catholic Church, leaders say.
Morales, who works in the Austin Diocese, recalls telling her family back home in Mexico about her job with the church. They couldn’t believe someone like her — a young, female, undocumented immigrant from Mexico working under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action Childhood Arrival program — would play such a critical leadership role.
“They didn’t ask for proof, but when I told them about the work I do they were like, “YOU help the bishops make decisions?’” Morales says. “They were impressed, because even though we share the same faith, the leadership in Mexico is very different.”