They’re in a new country, working a new job and living a new life, but for the Latin American immigrants who come to the United States every year, going to church doesn’t have to be any different from worshipping back home.
Churches across the nation are actively pursuing clergy from Honduras to Argentina to meet the demands of an ever-growing number of Hispanic parishioners.
Some Roman Catholic dioceses send recruiters to Latin America to bring priests or seminarians to the United States. The Episcopal Church, through its Central and South American Province, 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.
The reasons go beyond merely finding someone to conduct Spanish-language services. Churches also want to connect with congregants on a cultural level, and Latin American clergy can tailor services to immigrants from specific countries.
“I was an immigrant myself,” said Pastor Hector Llanes, a native of El Salvador who leads a Baptist church in Phoenix. “I have a great deal of sympathy for immigrants, and even though there are cultural differences between Mexicans, Central Americans and South Americans, there is a way in which we feel part of the same community.
“We talk about the same things — the customs, the food, soccer,” he added. “It’s just a natural bond.”
Making a connection is vital, said Edwin Hernandez, program director of the Center for the Study of Latino Religion at the University of Notre Dame.
“It’s about the nuances of cultural identity that immediately create a bonding that can never be replicated by anybody else,” he said. “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.”
‘Really reaching to your heart’
The recruitment wasn’t necessarily needed in the past. When waves of Polish, German, and Irish immigrants were coming to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries, for example, their Catholic priests followed them.
That’s not happening anymore. Churches now need to actively seek out clergy and seminarians, said Bill D’Antonio, a retired sociologist who has taught at the University of Connecticut and at The Catholic University of America.
According to recent estimates by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, in Washington, D.C., Hispanics comprise a third of all Catholics and 6 percent of evangelical Protestants in the United States.
The group predicts a continued rapid growth of Hispanic Christians, 68 percent of whom are Roman Catholic and 15 percent of whom are born-again or evangelical Protestants.
With the growth, coupled with a competition for congregants among Christian faiths, church leaders realize they can’t afford to fail to meet the needs of Hispanic believers.
Veronica Raya, an immigrant from Mexico City living in New York City, said she switched churches several years ago because she didn’t feel a cultural connection with her previous pastor, who was born in the United States and spoke Spanish as a second language.
“It makes you feel more like you are in a strange country and you cannot bring your own customs and worship like you’re used to,” she said.
Raya said she now feels more fulfilled at St. Gregory the Great on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where the priest is from the Dominican Republic.
“They’re really reaching to your heart,” she said. “It’s more to our style, our culture than the American culture.”
‘An abundance of vocations in those countries’
But some religious leaders warn against over-reliance on foreign clerics at a time when the ranks of U.S. priests are shrinking.
Monsignor Edward Burns, executive director for vocations and priestly formation at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said it’s important that young men attend American seminaries and get ordained in the United States.
“You have to wonder why we would not want to support priestly vocations coming from our own parishes,” he said. “Are we so wrapped up that we say, ’Let somebody else do it for us,’ and think that would be OK?
“Our brothers and sisters in South America have a real need for priests,” he added. “The impact of fewer priests impacts them more than us.”
The Rev. James Lobacz, vocations director at the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which recruits Latin American priests and seminarians, said the diocese only sends recruiters to Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela, which have a higher number of vocations than other Latin American countries.
“I do not feel that we are so-called raiding dioceses,” Lobacz said. “There is an abundance of vocations in those countries. That’s very different from going to a bishop and saying, ’Give me some priests.”’
‘A feeling of tenderness, a feeling of love’
Unlike some Catholic dioceses, the Episcopal Church doesn’t send anyone to Latin America to recruit priests, said the Very Rev. James Lemler, director of mission at the church.
He said U.S. dioceses do partner with dioceses in Latin American countries to try to train clergy, and to provide a path for priests who want to come to the United States.
“We are very strategic about the growth of Latino congregations and have a number that are growing, and we’re planting new ones all the time,” he said.
Roger Oldham, a spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, said each church has its own method of finding Latin American ministers, but that in general, they rely on word of mouth.
“Someone from a local church may go to Mexico, Nicaragua or Honduras on a mission, and they may meet a local indigenous pastor and have that knowledge in the back of their mind when they need someone,” he said.
Or, he said, it could be as simple as a church calling around to existing congregations and asking if they know someone who would fit their U.S. church.
Aidee Cardenas de Garcia, who came to the United States from Sinaloa five years ago, said going to her Baptist church in north Phoenix is like going home.
“The language, and coming from the same country and being able to share 100 percent with everyone, it’s like a feeling of tenderness, a feeling of love,” she said in Spanish. “I feel complete.”