Latin Americans foster evangelism in Spain
SALAMANCA, Spain – When Kent Albright, a Baptist pastor from the United States, arrived as a missionary in Spain in 1996, he was not prepared for insults and threats, nor for fines from the police for distributing Protestant leaflets in the streets of Salamanca.
“The social animosity was great – they had never seen a Protestant in their life,” said Albright, recalling a woman who whispered, “Be thankful we weren’t throwing stones at you.”
He could not have imagined that 25 years later he would lead an evangelical congregation of 120 people and have about two dozen other flourishing Protestant churches in the northwest city. And there is a distinguishing characteristic of the faithful: most of them were not born in Spain – they are immigrants from Latin America, including about 80 percent of the Albright congregation.
The numbers reflect the huge increases in the migrant and evangelical population in Spain over the past decades, producing profound changes in the way the faith is practiced in a country long dominated by the Catholic Church.
“The Bible says there are no ethnicities, there are no races. I don’t go down to the streets to ask, nor do I ask for passports at the church door. Albright said. He marvels that in a course he teaches for deacons, his six students include one from Peru, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador.
One of the most recent members of his congregation is Luis Perozo, 31, a former policeman from Maracaibo, Venezuela, who arrived in Spain in February 2020 and applied for asylum with his wife, Narbic Escalante, 35. .
While the couple waits for their status to be resolved, Perozo works in a hotel laundry. His wife is nursing in a retirement home.
“I have been a Catholic my whole life,” says Escalante. “When I got to Salamanca, I walked into the church, looked around, said hello, and they ignored me. I have been to several churches – felt absolutely nothing.
Perozo and Escalante quickly visited Albright Church – one of Perozo’s uncles had emigrated earlier and was already a member.
“The next day Pastor Albright was helping us find a house, appliances and cooking utensils. He moved us with his van, ”said Escalante.
She praised Albright’s approach to ministering, including services with upbeat music and less emphasis on repetitive prayer.
“I really feel better here than in the Catholic Church,” she said. “It allows me to live more freely, with less inhibitions.”
Before she and her husband were baptized at Albright Church, she visited a Catholic priest. She remembers his response, “If this makes you feel at peace with yourself, go for it.” You do not commit any sin.
Albright sees similar reactions among other Latin American immigrants.
When they go to a Catholic church, he says, “they don’t feel their problems are understood.”
“Latinos generally have a desire to participate in worship,” he added. “They must have an active part in the celebration. The Catholic Church feels static for them.
More Protestants, Fewer Catholics
With the arrival of the euro two decades ago, Spain experienced an economic boom that fueled migration. In 2000, there were 471,465 legally registered migrants in Spain; there are now about 7.2 million.
Albright was so intrigued by this phenomenon that he wrote a doctorate. thesis on this subject at the University of Salamanca. He estimated that 20% of migrants are evangelical.
The last official census carried out by the Observatory of Religious Pluralism of the Ministry of Justice revealed that 1.96% of the Spanish population was Protestant in 2018, i.e. more than 900,000 people. This represents an increase from the 96,000 counted in 1998.
The steady growth of the Protestant population coincides with a steady decline in the number of practicing Catholics. According to the Sociological Research Center, a public institute, 62% of Spaniards define themselves as Catholics, up from 85% in 2000 and 98% in 1975. Only about a third of these Catholics say they actively practice the faith.
This is a striking development in a country where Catholicism, for centuries, has been identified with near absolute power – from the long and often brutal era of the Spanish Inquisition to the 36-year dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, who called his regime National-Catholic, in the twentieth century.
Of the 23,000 Catholic parishes in Spain today, more than 6,000 do not have a full-time priest. Some churches had to close when a priest died or retired, or were regrouped with other churches served by itinerant priests who serve multiple parishes.
The challenges of the church are evident in the province of Zamora, just north of Salamanca, which has lost 16% of its population since 2000. There are 304 parishes and only around 130 priests serve them.
One of the itinerant priests, Reverend Francisco Ortega, runs six parishes – trying to adjust as the number of worshipers steadily decreases. At 40, he’s been active on YouTube since the start of the pandemic and is now back on the streets trying to stay up to date with his parishioners.
It’s a busy schedule, but Ortega has recently received some help – Reverend Edgardo Rivera, a 42-year-old missionary from El Salvador, joined him in November. This is a reversal of the pattern of several centuries ago, when hundreds of Catholic missionaries embarked for Latin America from Spain.
“Now it’s the other way around,” Rivera said. “I saw the need for priests in Spain and I thought of offering myself. I never liked easy things.
Overall, around 10% of Catholic priests who currently serve in Spain were born elsewhere. The influx is welcome, given that the average age of a priest in Spain today is around 65.
How difficult is it for Rivera? “I am a missionary priest who proclaims the Gospel in a place that is not my culture,” he said. “I have to learn.”
He and Ortega strive to be good teammates. While Ortega blessed parishioners at a recent celebration, Rivera managed the church’s audio system via Bluetooth and changed the music tracks and volume on her phone.
They both went dancing with locals from Morales del Vino, a small town of which Ortega is the parish priest, winning praise from one of the revelers, 23-year-old lawyer Juan Manuel Pedrón.
“If the church wants to support us, it must be normal, it must be with us, with the young people and do what we do,” says Pedrón.
His girlfriend, Tania Rey, 27, was on her first visit to Morales del Vino.
“In my town, the parish priest walks with old ladies,” she said. “I am very shocked to see these two priests like this.”
She and Pedrón teased Rivera, saying he danced better than them.
The next day, after Sunday mass, Rivera organized a rally at the community center where he officiated. The official 300-year-old church building is collapsing.
“The walls of the church are collapsing inward, the roof is in danger. We have to see what the repair strategy is, ”he said, explaining that donations from parishioners will be needed to supplement the diocese’s repair budget.
The group then goes to the village bar; Rivera orders a glass of chilled white wine and sits down with some parishioners.
His challenges are varied, he says. “I have to see how to ask for help fixing the church … and get used to coming to the bar.”
He couldn’t imagine drinking a beer in a bar in his native Salvadoran hometown after mass. “But if this is where people come together and how people socialize here, this is where I need to be, too.”
An evangelical impulse
But the momentum – in terms of church attendance and energy – goes the other way, to the burgeoning ranks of Pentecostals and other evangelical congregations.
Many of these congregations rent space in industrial buildings on the outskirts of towns and villages – often filling them with zealous worshipers even as many large, century-old Catholic churches empty.
One of these Pentecostal places in Salamanca has for neighbors a large carpentry workshop and another evangelical church. On a recent Friday night, he hosted a rite of passage for Melanie Villalobos to celebrate her 13th birthday.
Two of her friends escorted her in a slow dance to a wall where a video was shown. There, her father appeared from Venezuela, wishing her a happy transition into adolescence. Onlookers from Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Brazil, seated at tables, were moved to tears.
Pastor Nedyt Lescano, 62, who came from Argentina in 2000, remained silent during the ceremony but invited everyone to meet on Sunday morning.
Among those who welcomed the faithful was Roberto Siqueira, 32, a Brazilian who works in a cheese factory on the outskirts of Salamanca. On Sundays, he plays guitar and sings in a Christian rock band that performs songs leading to dance in the Pentecostal church.
“This life is worth very little and the relationship with God is worth everything,” says one of the words.
It’s a bit like karaoke. The lyrics are projected on the wall, people sing, gesturing and spinning to the beat. Some seem to be in a trance, others are screaming with emotion.
About 50 people are on site, trying to comply with coronavirus social distancing restrictions.
Lescano doesn’t say much during the ceremony, leaving the faithful to testify of the challenges they faced and the prayers that were answered.
In Lescano’s wards there is an emotional moment when she asks for help paying the rent for the premises, as well as other expenses, and the faithful, one by one, put an envelope in a canvas bag.
“Unlike the Catholic Church, we don’t receive any grants. We are doing all of this by our own efforts here, ”says Lescano.
Indeed, the Catholic Church of Spain – although no longer recognized as the official national faith – received 301 million euros (roughly $ 340 million) in 2020 as part of an agreement with the government. Spanish evangelicals – although they now represent more than 4,500 registered places of worship – received the symbolic sum of 462,000 euros (approximately $ 523,000).
Lescano often feels like a psychologist, as well as a pastor, to those who flock to the makeshift church.
“Immigrants feel lonely and isolated, in a foreign land, and here they receive love and hugs,” she said. “Here they come and share, take pounds of weight and anxiety off their body and mind. “
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