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Episcopal Church Courts Latinos

Chris Lehman


PORTLAND - In Oregon, the number of Latino Episcopalians has increased more than five-fold over the past decade. Church leaders say the influx is, in part, because the denomination's worship services look and sound familiar to Hispanics raised in the Catholic Church. But Northwest Episcopal Churches are luring Latinos with a focused marketing campaign.

The 10 o'clock high mass at Saints Peter and Paul Episcopal Church in Portland, Oregon probably sounds a lot like it did when the congregation was founded nearly a century ago.

Father Kurt Neilson leads the liturgy, as he has for the past 17 years. He says attendance at the two morning services has been relatively flat. The real growth is in the afternoon.

A few years ago Saints Peter and Paul added a weekly Spanish language mass, or misa. The English-speaking members of the congregation wanted to reach out to the growing number of Latinos in this working class neighborhood. Neilson says the new service took off quickly.

"These are folks who are very unselfconscious about inviting one another to church," he says.

Neilson leads the Spanish language service too. He says many of the people who attend are former Catholics. So is Neilson. He went to a Catholic seminary before joining the Episcopal Church nearly 30 years ago. And he thinks that might be helping him connect to the Latino members in his congregation.

"I can still, if you will, speak a fluent Roman Catholic," Neilson says. "Not that we're misrepresenting ourselves. We're very clear, this is the Episcopal Church. I tell them I have a wife and children."

Married priests aren't the only major difference. Episcopalians have been making headlines for their increasingly liberal stance on social issues such as same-sex marriage. But that isn't necessarily why Latinos are flocking to Episcopal churches in Oregon and elsewhere.

For Jorge Chavez, it was as simple as moving into a new neighborhood and finding a nearby church that felt familiar.

"To me, church is a church," he says. "It's still the same God, same beliefs. So for me it's basically no difference."

In fact, the broader Episcopal Church itself notes that the similarity to Catholic services is one of the selling points for Latinos.

Here in Oregon, Hispanics now make up about six percent of the Episcopal Church. A denomination-wide outreach plan notes that Hispanics represent a huge growth potential. The plan outlines strategies to reach Latinos, including focusing efforts on first and second generation women, who the church calls "gatekeepers."

"We need to have that intentionality," says Roberto Arciniega, head of Latino ministries for the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon.

He says the outreach is about staying vital and relevant in a multicultural society. And it's a shift in how his church views Latinos.

"We have the tendency to stereotype," Arciniega says. "Many times we said, 'oh poor Latinos, they are coming here because they don't have anything to eat in their country. So let's give them a hand-out, let's give them something.'"

Arciniega says now, Latino outreach is about inviting people to stay and be a part of the congregation.

In Oregon, the efforts are paying off. Ten years ago, there were just 150 Latino Episcopalians. Now, there are more than 800. But nationally, according to the Pew Research Center, just five percent of all Hispanics attend a mainline Protestant church. The vast majority are Roman Catholic.

Back at Saints Peter and Paul in Portland, Steve Hiscoe munches on a snack during a coffee hour between the English and Spanish language services. The conversation around us is entirely in English. Nobody from the Spanish service has showed up early to socialize. Hiscoe says that's not unusual.

"We had a barbeque here on the lawn a month or so ago. Both congregations came, but the Latinos mostly sat with the Latinos, and the English sat with the Anglos."

So there's still some bridge-building to do. For his part, Hiscoe says he's learning Spanish.

On the Web:

Episcopal Church Latino/Hispanic ministries:

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network