- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 20, 2004

The church that Hugo Arteaga built is bursting at its seams. Sitting on a small hill next to a Citgo gas station in Silver Spring, El Calvario church is so tightly packed that Mr. Arteaga can’t fit inside.Over the years, the pastor shuffled his office from room to smaller room, until no rooms were left. So he did what seemed obvious: Mr. Arteaga packed his bags and moved out.

His former office is now a supply closet. His new office is stuffed into the basement of his home, 20 minutes away in Laurel. But Mr. Arteaga’s loss is the Lord’s gain.

El Calvario isn’t the only church of its kind whose cup runneth over. Across the country, Hispanics are flocking to evangelical churches in steadily growing numbers, many of them abandoning their Catholic pasts to become, like Mr. Arteaga, born-again.

“They are growing gangbusters,” says John Mendez, director of Sobre Alas de Aguila, which has researched Hispanic-American churches. “It’s literally an explosion, the way they grow.”

By Mr. Mendez’s calculation, a Hispanic church opens its doors somewhere in the United States every hour. The churches represent a variety of denominations, but Mr. Mendez said the fastest-growing are evangelical, and among those, the fastest-growing churches are, like El Calvario, led and pastored by immigrants.

Among the converts is Joselito Perez.

Mr. Perez left the Dominican Republic in 1993 to escape poverty, the street life and, most of all, marijuana. But three years later, El Calvario’s pastor found him stoned, poor and jobless in America.

“He was a little bit, to be honest with you, he was a little bit different,” Mr. Arteaga says today. “His eyes and his mood — I knew he was on something.”

The pastor later learned that Mr. Perez was spending his mornings getting high and his evenings contemplating suicide. He had come to the United States in search of a better future, but all he found was the same hopelessness he had left in the Dominican Republic.

“Life for me before didn’t have no meaning,” Mr. Perez says.

But things would change. Mr. Arteaga helped him find employment, community and — after a five-year struggle — sobriety. Perhaps most important, belonging to El Calvario gave Mr. Perez’s life the meaning that had been missing.

“The church is like a hospital,” Mr. Arteaga says. “We help in every way we can.”

Like Hispanic churches across the country, most of the help at El Calvario is ministered informally, to whoever might walk in or — as in Mr. Perez’s case — whomever Mr. Arteaga might encounter.

That the downtrodden make up a substantial portion of El Calvario’s congregation is no surprise to Carlos Montes, 31, an immigrant whose mother turned to El Calvario when she came to the United States from El Salvador 20 years ago.

“You leave everything you ever lived for, everything you ever knew,” Mr. Montes explains. “And so, you need a crutch. You’ve got to feel fortified in some sort of a way, because relying on yourself — it just wasn’t enough.”

Mr. Montes’ mother tells the story differently.

By her account, Abelina Salinas came to El Calvario looking for change, and she stayed because where she found change she also found protection.

“This is very important because the children, they know Jesus,” she explains. “If my children know Jesus, there’s no drugs, no alcohol — because they know how to live His life. This is very important for children. You know how many boys and girls involved in prostitution, drugs — everything — because they don’t know Jesus?”

Perhaps even more than other parents, Mrs. Salinas has reason to worry about her children.

Hispanic youths in Montgomery County, where Mrs. Salinas’ children go to school, typically perform below average on standardized tests. Across the country, Hispanics are facing a high rate of teenage pregnancy. In the metropolitan Washington region, violent Hispanic street gangs are a growing problem.

The appeal of the Christian lifestyle is apparent even to those who don’t go to church.

“They save money, they don’t stay out late, they’re not on drugs,” says Jorge Gonzalez, 28, a Langley Park resident who says he is not a regular churchgoer. “It’s a change of life. You do better things when you go to church.”

As more Hispanics join evangelical churches, the nation’s largest minority group is becoming a little more American. Evangelical Protestantism is the fastest-growing religion in the United States, according to a 2000 study by the Hartford Seminary, the largest survey of American congregational behavior ever conducted.

The immigrant believers also may be becoming more conservative. Mr. Arteaga says he thinks that his congregation’s values and principles will lead them to support President Bush in the upcoming election.

But during services, the pastor stays away from politics.

A recent Sunday began with music. Guitars, keyboards, drums, a tambourine and three singers filled the church with Spanish hymns that echoed outside the building.

People stood in their seats, raising upturned palms into the air as they sang. “Damos honor a Ti” — we come to honor You.

A woman wearing a woven skirt let tears drip down her face. Two men in blue suits moved closer to the altar, balled their fists and danced. Mr. Perez, sitting in the first row with the other church elders, swayed back and forth, singing with his eyes closed.

“Porque no hay otro Dios, como Tu” — because there is no other God like You.

Eventually, the music stopped and the parishioners resumed their seats. The pastor announced his plans to accommodate increasing membership by offering two services every Sunday.

To illustrate the point, he asked the crowd to touch any empty seats remaining in the crowded room.

“Bless the person that is going to be in this chair,” he told them in Spanish.

“I’m a guy that, I’m never satisfied with the growth,” Mr. Arteaga explained later. “We have over a million Hispanics in the metropolitan area, and we have only 500 of these. I think we can reach more.”

“Very soon, by the end of next year, we will have 1,000 members or maybe more,” he said. “You can come back and see us.”

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