- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2008

ALDIE, Va. (AP) — At a clapboard church in this Northern Virginia town, a small group gathers to rrrroll their R’s and add diversity to their resumes.

They’re members of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia — clergy, seminary students and diocesan employees learning liturgical Spanish. Their goal is to conduct a church service for Hispanics who are considering religions outside their traditional Roman Catholic faith.

“There’s a growing recognition of the interests and the presence of Latino people,” said the Rev. David Colin Jones, who oversees four Hispanic congregations in Northern Virginia.

Congregations of many mainline denominations are shrinking because of demographic changes in neighborhoods that their churches once anchored, researchers say.

The Virginia diocese isn’t dwindling, but Mr. Jones said officials hope to expand its reach to the Shenandoah Valley, with its strong population of Spanish-speaking migrant workers, and to the southern part of Alexandria and areas of Richmond.

For now, Mr. Jones said, many congregations simply accommodate Spanish speakers when they can.

Rebecca Gibson, a member of Christ Episcopal Church in Winchester and a former high school Spanish teacher, led the four-week liturgical course in Aldie. She stressed the intricacies of Spanish pronunciation.

“We’re going to want to say it like we do in English, but we have to make sure the pronunciation is right — kahn-fairrr-may-see-own,” she enunciated. Around the room, a few students tried sounding out the Spanish version of “Confirmation,” a commitment rite.

Mastery of the alliteration and pace of Spanish pronunciation is especially challenging for clergy, who help immigrants retain their spirituality.

Mispronunciations can result in hard feelings. For example, chopping off the last three words of “Soy pastor de la iglesia” transforms from “I’m a pastor of the church” to “I’m a sheepherder.”

“If a Spanish-speaking person comes to church and hears somebody trying, but not really knowing what they’re doing, that’s not going to make them very welcome,” Mrs. Gibson said.

The students already have one advantage: Episcopal priests use the “Book of Common Prayer,” a sort of color-by-numbers guide to leading services.

Mainline Protestant groups have been losing congregants for years and are looking to new groups to fill emptying pews, said Dave Travis, who tracks church growth trends with the Leadership Network, in Dallas.

Mr. Travis said one in five of the churches with which he works have Spanish-language worship services.

A survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that more than two-thirds of Hispanics identify as Roman Catholics, but many others are trying charismatic and evangelical faiths.

“The single most important reason they tell us is the desire for a closer relationship with God,” said Luis Lugo, a Cuban-American who thinks Hispanics are drawn to the more jubilant traditions in those churches.

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