The Latino Pentecostals
Is Christianity facing a shift on the scale of the
Reformation? Theo professor Otto Maduro thinks
a group of churches in Newark holds the answer.
By Bruce Wallace
Photography by Peter Murphy
The Rev. Lourdes Cuevas is praying for a van. “This is what I said to the Lord at 6 in the morning from the sofa at my house,” she tells her congregation at Iglesia Torre Fuerte, the Pentecostal church she pastors in Newark, N.J.
“Lord, you know why this church is not full. It’s not full because I don’t have a van,” she says, her amplified voice drifting out the church’s open door at the corner of Verona and Woodside avenues and into the spring night. Cuevas has gone through two vans already as she works to grow her church. The second one gave out recently, and since then attendance has dwindled.
“How can I talk about bringing people to your feet?” she continues, her Spanish words running together as she grows excited. “They want to go to church, but they can’t get here because they don’t have transportation.” Her sermon rises to shouted crescendos and falls to a near-whisper, and is punctuated occasionally by the sounds of reggaetón coming from cars passing by outside.
For congregations like Cuevas’—Latino, many members new to the United States and subject to the whims of a fickle job market, shifting living conditions and unreliable public transportation—having a van is no small thing. As Otto Maduro, a professor of world Christianity, explains later: “For many Pentecostal congregations, the van is the main way the pastor has to gather the congregation, hold a service and then bring them back to their homes.”
Maduro has been studying Newark’s Latino Pentecostal community for nearly a decade, charting the ebb and flow of individual congregations, watching churches spring up and relocate and collecting oral histories from church members and leaders. And he has ridden in Pentecostal vans on more than one occasion. He describes one such trip that began at 5 p.m., when the pastor picked up the first passenger, and continued on through nearby Linden and Elizabeth, with passengers alternately singing coritos—the hymns of Latino Pentecostals—and filling each other in on what had happened that day. Two hours later, the van arrived at their church on Central Avenue in Newark to begin what would end up being a five-hour service. The van finally came to rest in front of the pastor’s house at 2 a.m. the following morning.
This service on wheels—and the willingness to minister to people wherever they are—does a lot to explain why Pentecostalism has spread rapidly in Newark. With the help of several fellow researchers, Maduro has hit the pavement, taking a walking census of Latino Pentecostal churches across the city, most of which are concentrated in the city’s North Ward. A survey he did in 2007 found about 75 Latino Pentecostal congregations, an increase of about 50 percent over an earlier census he took in 2001. Maduro estimates that about 2,000 of approximately 83,000 Latinos in the city worship in Pentecostal churches in Newark every day, with most congregations ranging in size from 20 to 40 people.
Central to Pentecostal belief and practice is the idea that the Holy Spirit regularly moves and acts in people’s lives. Many of the unique characteristics of Pentecostal services—among them spontaneous prayer, speaking in tongues, ecstatic collapse and long, improvised sermons—are manifestations of this belief. Maduro explains that, rather than being a new stage in Christianity’s evolution, adherents feel that Pentecostalism is a return to an earlier form of the religion. “It’s a reconstruction of Christianity in a simplified way—a way that is seen as more faithful to the spirit of early Christianity,” he says.
Maduro says he went into the Newark project with a basic question: Why are so many people converting from Catholicism to Pentecostalism? His question soon changed. “As soon as I started visiting Pentecostal churches in Newark, the question became: ‘Why don’t more people do this?’” he says. “These churches were much more agreeable, congenial, welcoming to Hispanics than most of the other Christian churches—Roman Catholic or mainstream Protestant. They had a warmer atmosphere where people felt at home.” One reason was that the pastors in these churches were from the same neighborhoods and socioeconomic backgrounds as the congregants, making them easier to approach and relate to. Maduro’s research has found that all Pentecostal services in Spanish in Newark are led by Latinos, while many Catholic Spanish-language services are not.
Maduro also saw something quintessentially Latino in the Pentecostal services he observed. “In many cultures in Latin America there is a much more open attitude toward public expression of a wide range of emotions than is customary in white, middle-class America,” Maduro says. For newly arrived immigrants who find themselves in a new social context with different accepted norms, the church becomes one of the few places where they feel free to laugh and cry and shout and sing. This emotional expressivity is evident at many points during a Pentecostal service: in the tears that often accompany the spontaneous prayers of congregants as the service gets underway; in the impassioned testimonials of being saved by God from drugs, alcohol or depression that members stand and share with the congregation; in the exuberant spirit thrown into the singing of each corito.
The current climate that recent immigrants find themselves in—particularly as all immigrants come under increasing scrutiny in the wake of Sept. 11—can make the need for emotional release all the more acute, Maduro believes. “There are all of these raw emotions that come to the surface when one is in this very fragile, insecure situation of being an immigrant in a new land with a different language, with racism and so on. All of these emotions can be loudly, physically, explicitly expressed over and over again in Pentecostal services without anybody looking down on you,” he says.
Newark is hardly an isolated case—Maduro could repeat his research in any number of cities with large Latino populations. Pentecostalism is spreading rapidly, currently claiming close to 10 million Latinos living in the United States and over 150 million in Latin America—nearly 30 percent of the region’s total population. According to the World Christian Database, there are 500 million people practicing a Pentecostal type of faith worldwide—fully one quarter of Christians. The growth of the faith around the world, particularly in Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia, has led some researchers to suggest that we could be witnessing the most significant change in religious affiliation since the Protestant Reformation, a sentiment with which Maduro agrees.
Further, he points out, Pentecostalism’s spread is upending Christianity’s historical tendency to emanate from power centers in the more developed world—mostly in the Global North. “The Pentecostal missionary drive has been much more from below: from unstable, fragile, vulnerable congregations made of working-class or lower-than-working-class people doing missionary work across the globe, and moving from south to north,” Maduro says.
The roots of Latino Pentecostalism reach back to the beginning of the Pentecostal movement itself. Several Mexicans were present at the Azusa Street Revival—a gathering in Los Angeles in 1906 that lasted for three years and is considered the first Pentecostal meeting. By the 1930s there were active revivals in Latino communities across the United States, and missionaries fanned out from these early germinating grounds into the rest of Central and South America.
While Pentecostalism was spreading around the world, Maduro was growing up in a home ruled less completely by the Catholic faith than those around him. He was born in Venezuela in 1945 to a mother who was a quiet Catholic and a father who was an atheist. “I was an oddball in elementary school because I was the only one who didn’t have a religion,” Maduro says. Further complicating his religious lineage was the fact that Maduro’s father’s family was descended from Jews who had converted to Catholicism during a wave of anti-Semitism in Venezuela in the late 1800s. This unorthodox religious heritage brought Maduro to an intense embrace of Catholicism in his late teens and to an urge to study religious belief and practice that would lead to three advanced degrees in the philosophy and sociology of religion.
One issue was always at the center of Maduro’s personal and academic investigations of Christianity. “The deepest impact that Christianity made on me was the central concern of Jesus for the poor. This is what stayed with me even after I abandoned religion for four or five years, and that’s also what got me back into church,” he says. In the 1960s and ’70s, this focus led Maduro into Liberation Theology, a movement that sought to focus the church on social justice issues, chief among them the pervasive poverty in much of Central and South America.
The changing face of Christianity is the focus of Drew’s Center for Christianities in Global Contexts (CCGC), founded in 2007 with a three-year grant from the Henry Luce III Foundation. Elizabeth Tapia, CCGC’s director, says that the center’s goal is to “promote the study and reflection of how Christianity is being lived and practiced in different places in the world,” with a particular emphasis on how Christianity in the Global South is reshaping the faith. While the center—on whose advisory board Otto Maduro, professor of world Christianity, sits—is clearly a response to changes in Christianity in the world at large, Tapia notes that it also reflects shifts within the Christian community at Drew. “Through our students from Africa, Latin America and Asia, world Christianity has come to Drew,” she says.
While Liberation Theology grabbed the attention of many among the Roman Catholic intelligentsia, many poor Latinos were gravitating toward Pentecostalism. Further north, it was estimated that by the late 1980s, 60,000 Latinos in the United States were converting annually from Catholicism to Pentecostalism. This tendency of Latin America’s poor to gravitate toward Pentecostalism was what first put the movement on Maduro’s radar. Like many others at the time, though, he first viewed the rise of Pentecostalism with skepticism—thinking it insular and suspecting that it was being dangled by right-wing powers, often with backing from the United States, to distract the populace from the grimness of their living conditions.
For Maduro, this suspicion first began to break down in 1985 when a Pentecostal church in Venezuela’s interior invited him to speak at a panel discussion of Liberation Theology. Not only did the church’s willingness to hear from a scholar from outside the community not jibe with his notions of Pentecostalism, but what he discovered during his visit shocked him. “I discovered that Pentecostalism is as varied as Christianity in general,” he says. “I realized how little I knew about Pentecostalism—that Pentecostalism is so much more complex than the negative image I had before.”
Throughout the 1990s, Maduro’s teaching would increasingly bring him into contact with Pentecostal students. When it came time for a yearlong sabbatical in 1999, he saw an opportunity to study Pentecostalism in depth. He first considered returning to Venezuela to do his research, but then Karen Brown, a colleague at Drew’s Theological School, invited him to study Pentecostals in Newark as part of a larger project she was organizing on the city.
Two years ago, Maduro began to focus more on collecting life stories from members and leaders of the churches, using funds from the Henry Luce III Foundation. After finding that as many as 15 percent of the Latino Pentecostal churches in Newark have female pastors, he’s been particularly interested in learning more about these women, and hopes eventually to write a book on the subject. So far he has done in-depth interviews with 11 of these female pastors, among them the Rev. Lourdes Cuevas.
Cuevas, who moved to Newark from her native Puerto Rico in 1978, took over preaching from her husband when he became ill, and has been leading Iglesia Torre Fuerte since 2002. Torre Fuerte, like most of the Latino Pentecostal congregations in Newark, is in a state of constant change. Cuevas recently started inviting people from a nearby homeless shelter to her church, and the congregation grew a bit. Around the same time, a group of congregants followed jobs to Hawaii, and the church’s numbers slid once more.
And then there’s the issue of the van. In her sermon, she talks about one she saw at a nearby auto-body shop. When the vehicle’s owner pointed out all the wear on it, Cuevas replied, “That’s not important to me, I only need it to run around the area looking forhermanitos,” literally, little brothers. Motioning first to the wall on her left, then to the one on her right, she declares, “We will fill the church from here to there with the van!”
A few weeks later, a man who had stopped drinking alcohol after years of abuse started attending services at Torre Fuerte. When Cuevas discovered that he was a car mechanic, she took him out to look at the church’s old van, sitting on a nearby street since it had broken down. In short order, it was up and running again, and the newest member of the congregation refused to take any money for the labor. He and Cuevas both agreed that it was the Lord’s work.
Bruce Wallace is a freelance writer and a producer at WYPR, Baltimore’s NPR affiliate. The changing face of Christianity is the focus of Drew’s Center for Christianities in Global Contexts (CCGC), founded in 2007 with a three-year grant from the Henry Luce III Foundation. Elizabeth Tapia, CCGC’s director, says that the center’s goal is to “promote the study and reflection of how Christianity is being lived and practiced in different places in the world,” with a particular emphasis on how Christianity in the Global South is reshaping the faith. While the center—on whose advisory board Otto Maduro, professor of world Christianity, sits—is clearly a response to changes in Christianity in the world at large, Tapia notes that it also reflects shifts within the Christian community at Drew. “Through our students from Africa, Latin America and Asia, world Christianity has come to Drew,” she says.
—Drew Magazine, Fall 2008