- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 29, 2010

The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church was in town this past weekend visiting a Hispanic congregation in Hyattsville.

San Mateo, also known as St. Matthew’s, is the largest - at 300 members - of the seven Spanish-speaking congregations in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. What the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori was looking at was the future of her denomination.

She said as much when I talked with her at the fiesta afterward. Membership in the mainline Protestant denominations is dropping like a stone - especially in the Episcopal Church, which is perilously close to dropping below the 2 million mark. The nation’s 68 million Catholics would be losing folks, too, she noted, were it not for immigration.

About 30 million of these Catholics - half of them younger than 25 - are Hispanic.

“Why do we have to speak their language?” an older woman asked me as we ate tamales and papusas on folding chairs in the parish hall. “People who came here years ago, they learned to speak English.”

Well, so they did - folks like my German grandfather who arrived in 1903. But the race for bodies to fill the pews has ramped up a bit since then and the mentality now is to rope them in with services in Spanish, Vietnamese, Hmong, Russian and other tongues. Hopefully, a generation from now, their English-speaking kids will stick around the church that was there for them.

Hispanics are a major force in the racially mixed area of northwestern Prince George’s County where San Mateo is located. The church also is conveniently close to a Metro station, allowing access to immigrants without cars. The numbers tell it all: The 10 a.m. Sunday service at the English-speaking St. Matthew’s draws about 60 people. The Spanish-language service at noon draws five times that.

Recognizing this inexorable trend, St. Matthew’s/San Mateo on May 16 will vote to merge vestries, budgets, bylaws, committees and other facets of parish life. It is one of only a few parishes in the country to do so.

More may follow. The fight is on for the numbers, and not only are Hispanics the future, they’re low-hanging fruit for the Protestants, Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses who are picking them off from the Catholic Church as fast as they can. A 2008 Pew Forum survey says 20 percent of all Hispanic Catholics migrate to Pentecostal and evangelical Protestant churches.

The Rev. Vidal Rivas, a former Catholic priest who pastors San Mateo, told me that a stunning 95 percent of his members are former Roman Catholics. They come for his preaching and its family-friendly parish hour after the service where everyone gets to relax at a potluck lunch and chat. A smaller church gives them easy access to a clergyman. The nearest Catholic church has one priest for 700 families.

And these Episcopalians aren’t shy about borrowing Catholic accouterments. During Saturday night’s service, people made frequent signs of the cross, referred to the service as a “Mass,” prayed the Catholic version of the Lord’s Prayer (Protestants add an extra sentence) and presented Bishop Jefferts Schori with a stole containing the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which I assume was a first for her.

And so the presiding bishop made it her job to celebrate the Eucharist in what Spanish she picked up during two weeks in Cuernavaca, because when you see who is in the ascendancy, it’s best to climb up the ladder with them.

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