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Among the Evangélicos

For Republicans reaching out to immigrant groups, a glimmer of hope: Protestant Hispanics are genuine swing voters.

Mar 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 27 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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Family is the axis around which Iglesia Misionera spins. On the wall in the hallway outside the sanctuary is a portrait of Venzor with his own family, his wife of 30 years and their five children. Families here range from empty- nester couples to newlyweds. There are plenty of nuclear families, though it’s common to see mothers with children in tow, their husbands at home or absent entirely. “Most women come by themselves, asking for prayers that their husbands can come with them,” Venzor says. “I’m glad most of their husbands don’t prohibit them from coming to church.”

Venzor says most of the congregants at Iglesia Misionera either are U.S.-born or have green cards, but there are definitely “undocumented” immigrants who worship there, too. 

“We don’t check, we don’t ask, even though we know for a fact, you know,” he says. “They know the risk being here.”

On the busy highway in front of the church, a police car sits in the center turn lane, ready to direct traffic before and after services. For a time, illegal immigrants were at heightened risk here in Cobb County. In 2006, the county commission approved a request from the sheriff to join a federal program to crack down on immigrants working and residing here illegally. Venzor remembers police stopping members of his church for driving without licenses, which led to deportation when the offender was an illegal immigrant. He can think of several men who were deported, along with two or three entire families who had to return to their home countries. Venzor talks about the struggle his church faces, wanting to open its doors wide but still uphold the law and have good relationships with the community and local government officials. Police officers, he says, often stop by to ask for prayers. 

In the sanctuary, I find a seat on the right side, and an usher hands me a radio device and headphones. There’s a Puerto Rican kid sitting in the balcony with a microphone, who’ll translate the sermon into English for the benefit of the few members who don’t speak Spanish. Apart from the translator, church officials stick to Spanish in the sanctuary.  

 

“Buenos días,” members greet me before the service begins. “Bienvenidos.”

“Hello,” I respond. Most often, they smile and reply in English. 

“Welcome.” 

There are some adult members who are bilingual, but several are recent arrivals and speak primarily Spanish. Their children, born or raised in the United States, often know English better than they know their parents’ Spanish. One church member, Felix Mercado, says he worries about the youth drifting away from God, as he says he did as a young man after moving to the United States from Puerto Rico. Mercado says he rediscovered his faith later in life, but “kids today” are becoming “Americanized.” For the older crowd here, Americanization translates into a loss in faith. The language and cultural gaps are evident when eight young teenage boys sit in the pew in front of mine, chatting before (and during) the service in English. One of the ushers comes by several times to hush them—in English.

Sunday morning service begins with four long, rocking worship songs. A black female cantor belts out lyrics in Spanish, which are projected onto screens on either side of the stage. Behind her, an amplified band jams, the bass shaking the building. Members dance and sing, raising their hands in the air and shouting “¡Aleluya!” By the end of the medley, there aren’t a lot of dry eyes, with men and women alike availing themselves of the boxes of tissues found throughout the church. Members then spend a good 10 minutes shaking hands and hugging and saying hello. Some walk up and down every aisle, stretching across pews to greet everyone. Throughout Pastor Venzor’s 30-minute sermon, spontaneous amens and alleluias echo off the sanctuary walls. Near the end of the service, members lay hands on the unsaved, praying loudly and speaking in tongues. Venzor calls the Spanish style of worship “expressive.”

“If they want to dance, they dance,” he says. “Raise their hands, shout, whatever. We don’t say, ‘Don’t do that.’ ” Emotional expression is characteristic of Hispanic Christianity, across denominations, and it is a defining feature of Christian renewalism, a movement within evangelicalism. Renewalism emphasizes the daily intercession of the Holy Spirit in the lives of men, and the movement has gained a foothold among Hispanic Christians. In fact, 90 percent of Hispanic converts to evangelical Christianity say they made the commitment out of a “desire for a more direct, personal experience of God.” 

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