When Fabiola Briones entered a Pentecostal church for the first time, she was in crisis, recently divorced and bitter from abuse she suffered as a child. A Mexican-American Catholic, she had never seen anyone fall to the ground while praising God or speak in tongues, which is common at Pentecostal services.
But she liked the church and she went back. On an Easter Sunday two months later, she was transformed.
"A hand went inside of me, and I felt God was pulling out roots," she said from the pew of a Pentecostal service here last week. "I know now that they were the roots of bitterness. I forgave my ex-husband, and I was healed from the abuse."
Briones is one of thousands of Latino immigrants who have left behind the ritual and perceived formality of the Roman Catholic Church for the personal experiences and boisterous services of Pentecostalism. The mass migration of Latinos to charismatic Christian movements, such as Pentecostalism, is more than a religious transformation. It also could have strong political ramifications.
Shift in faith could benefit Republicans
Democrats once counted on lockstep support from Latino voters, but the GOP has been making inroads, and analysts say that Latino voters who switch religion tend to be more conservative.
National surveys show that Latino Catholics are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates than Republicans. The reverse is true for Latino evangelicals, including Pentecostals.
"Because Latinos, both Catholic and Protestant, tend to have strong family values, they're much more morally conservative overall," said Edwin Hernandez, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Religion at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. "But the Pentecostals and evangelicals are much more conservative than the Catholic Latinos are."
Thirty years ago, about 90 percent of Latinos in the United States were Catholic, sociologists estimate. Today that number is about 70 percent, and it remains steady only because of high birth rates and new immigrants filling the pews. Most other Latino Americans -- 9.5 million of them -- are Protestant, usually Pentecostal or another evangelical denomination. Their numbers are fed by the conversion of second- and third-generation immigrants, whose families become more likely to convert the longer they are in the United States.
It began with ‘a great shaking’
The Pentecostal movement was sparked in Los Angeles on April 12, 1906, when William J. Seymour preached a sermon for a small group of followers and was so overcome that he spoke a strange babbling language. Seymour taught that the Holy Spirit could enter into anyone, giving the believer power to heal others and communicate directly with God. He told followers that "end times" were near and that God would soon "do a great shaking," said Anthea Butler, an assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester, N.Y., at an academic panel on Pentecostalism here.
Six days after that sermon, the San Francisco earthquake struck. African Americans, whites, men and women flocked to a month-long series of meetings. One of the hallmarks of the Pentecostal movement from the beginning was evangelism. Enthusiastic believers spread across the globe.
Today, Pentecostalism has between 250 million and 500 million adherents, most of them in developing nations such as Brazil, China, the Philippines and Nigeria. It is the fastest-growing Christian movement in the world. Thirty years ago, Pentecostals or similar charismatic groups represented 6 percent of all Christians; today that figure is 25 percent, according to the World Christian Encyclopedia.
More than 31,000 Pentecostals visited Los Angeles last week to commemorate the centennial of the movement's beginning here.
Latinos cite tangible benefits
Researchers have found that Latinos have been drawn in by aggressive proselytizing and the practical help small Pentecostal churches offer. Protestant evangelicals were twice as likely as Catholics to say that their church has helped them or a family member get a job, or provided money, housing, food or clothing, according to a recent survey of hundreds of churchgoers in Chicago.
"It's not that the Catholic Church does not serve the needs," Hernandez said. But "Catholic parishes in large cities are connected to these large bureaucratic social service organizations. . . . It suggests that one of the ways people are brought in is, if you help somebody get a job, that's a connection people make. It's a personal relationship they establish."
As a part of Pentecostal services, church members are urged repeatedly to greet one another, lay hands on one other, call out and communicate directly with God as they feel moved to do so. At a memorial service last week, believers wept and embraced one another in the aisles.
For Catholics used to less demonstrative services, the experience can be overwhelming.
"In the Catholic Church, they teach you the word of God, but it's a different type of language that's not understandable to the people," said Marcos Roman of Santa Ana, Calif. Roman converted from Catholicism to Pentecostalism 16 years ago. He attended a Spanish-language rally at the Los Angeles Convention Center with his wife, two daughters, sister-in-law and her husband. "This is the word of God."
Latinos who move to Pentecostal churches usually take their children. According to research by Notre Dame's Latino religion center, 15 percent of first-generation Latino immigrants to the United States are Protestant. By the third generation, that number climbs to 29 percent.
The trend has not gone unnoticed by the Catholic Church. "I think that the evangelicals and Pentecostals, among other groups, were doing something that was very important: They were reaching out," said Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, associate director of the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "They were being missionary. The Catholic Church was not doing that as intentionally as it needed to."
During the past 20 years, the Catholic Church has increased the number of Masses said in Spanish, and encouraged the spread of apostolic movements, which feature small-group worship and music to create community within larger parishes, Aguilera-Titus said.
But Notre Dame's Hernandez said the defections continue. The Catholic Church has had some success in reaching out to its Latino adherents, he said. "But whether that has reversed the tide? No. Absolutely not."