- The Washington Times - Friday, January 24, 2003

Hispanics trail other ethnic groups in training clergy for religious institutions, a process or career path that in the past has usually helped immigrants assimilate and gain social mobility.
Most Hispanics are Catholics, and their growth into the nation's largest minority has swelled parish sizes, particularly in the Southwest. But few are becoming priests.
On the other hand, while more-evangelistic denominations can recruit potential Hispanic clergy, they still have difficulties with training candidates and integrating them into the religious mainstream.
"We don't have any problem getting people interested in ministry," said the Rev. Esdras Betancourt, a Pentecostal minister. "Our main problem is getting money to train them."
Mr. Betancourt, who is chairman of a Hispanic commission for the National Association of Evangelicals, said evangelicals hope their clergy will improve their ability to bring many of the small Hispanic churches into the mainstream of society.
The Rev. Edwin Hernandez, a Protestant and sociologist who heads the Center for the Study of Latino Religion at the University of Notre Dame, said Hispanic seminarians and clergy are "dramatically underrepresented" in accredited theological schools.
"Wherever there is a Latino presence in the institution, students get attracted to be trained in ministry," he said. "A better-educated clergy will bridge the immigrants with the mainstream."
The nation's churches, according to research on minorities and immigration, often have been a gateway for social connections, training, work ethic and social mobility. And Hispanic leaders are mindful of that, as the nation's 37 million Hispanics were named this week as the largest minority by the Census Bureau.
But while Hispanics make up about one-third of the nation's 65 million Roman Catholics, they are just 3.6 percent of U.S. Catholic clergy.
Meanwhile, at the 244 affiliates of the Association of Theological Schools, there are four times more black students a total of 7,462 and more than twice as many Asians as Hispanic students. The total of black and Asian faculty at seminaries also outnumbers Hispanic professors.
According to the most recently available census data on occupations, there is about one Hispanic cleric for every 3,000 Hispanic residents far lower than the ratio for the populace as a whole.
The obstacles to training more clergy resemble those in other areas of immigrant life, such as language, funding, illegal status and cultural barriers, according to interviews.
"It is easier to get somebody from Mexico [to study for the priesthood] than to get somebody who has been here since he was nine years old, is now 17, but entered the country illegally" and fears deportation, said the Rev. Miguel Solorzano, pastor of St. Philip of Jesus Church in Houston.
Father Solorzano, spokesman for the National Association of Hispanic Priests, said the goal is to recruit American-born Hispanics as clergy.
"Immigrants from Mexico are not thinking of entering seminary," he said. "They are thinking of the American dream, like work, make some money, help their relatives."
But the tide is turning, given the large number of Bible institutes that are cropping up, new Catholic movements seeking priests and lay leaders, and chances for higher education for Hispanics.
"While it looks like a bleak picture, there are some bright spots," Mr. Hernandez said. "Some institutions are aggressively recruiting Latinos."
Of the 9,400 lay Catholics in the United States now studying for certificates in theology and church work to help at parishes, about 60 percent are Hispanic, according to recent surveys.
Father Solorzano said that a new movement of monthly conferences called the "neo-catechumenal way" is interesting Hispanic high schoolers in college seminary study.
Also, national projects such as the Hispanic Theological Initiative, which has Pew Trust funding and offices at Princeton Theological Seminary, hope to train the best and brightest Hispanics to lead church institutions.
Beside sheer numbers, Hispanics also add excitement to American church life, which bodes well for ministry recruitment, Mr. Betancourt said.
"Hispanics are spicing up the church," he said. "They are the salsa picante of the church. Salsa picante is outselling ketchup."


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