Hispanic churches keep up culture Social life centers on congregations

September 13, 1993|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Staff Writer

The Hispanic people of Anne Arundel County are not one, but many, each with an identity and heritage. There are Puerto Ricans, Spaniards, Mexicans and people from almost every country in South and Central America.

Yet, in that diversity, there is a common bond.

"The things that keep us together are the language and the church," said Vicente Ortiz of Odenton. "These are the two links."

In the Latin American world, religion and culture are intertwined in such a way that it is often hard to distinguish between the two. Even those who are not church-going are often deeply religious.

Religious themes permeate life, from the names of towns, to the names of streets in the towns, to the festivals that go on in the streets. A picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus dominates many a Hispanic living room, often accompanied by a statue of Mary, the Mother of God.

It is natural that a bond as deep as religion would play an important role as Latin Americans moved into a new country. It is also natural that the church would become a refuge -- religious, psychological, social and cultural.

For most Hispanics, that church is Roman Catholic. In Anne ArundelCounty, the Communidad Hispana de San Jose has been the gathering place for Hispanic Catholics since it began 12 years ago at Fort Meade. The congregation, which numbers about 100 families, has gathered for Sunday Mass at St. Joseph Church in Odenton since 1986.

The Sunday Mass at the Communidad is imbued with a feeling of "la familia," the family.

Parishioners stay long after Mass is over to drink coffee, munch on cake and catch up with friends they don't see during the week. The community is the center of Hispanic life in the county.

Many Hispanic parents attend not just because they like to pray in Spanish, but also to bring their children for a cultural experience.

Robert and Christine Cortez of Gambrills said they were concerned that their 17-year-old daughter, Zelina, was losing touch with her roots. There are few Hispanics at Old Mill High School, where Zelina is a senior, and "even though we have Hispanic friends, we did not speak Spanish that much," said Mrs. Cortez.

"So now we bring her to this church to let her become aware of the culture and aware of the language," Mrs. Cortez said.

The community is led by two Amigonian order priests from Spain, the Rev. Modesto Navarro and the Rev. Guillermo Ferrer. It draws Hispanics not just from around the county, but also from Baltimore, Columbia and Ellicott City.

Having Spanish-speaking priests who live in the county and are constantly available is especially important. Before the two Amigonians came, a priest would come for Sunday Mass, but was not dedicated full-time to serving the Hispanic community. Now there are two priests ministering full-time to the Hispanic community. They understand the congregation's culture and traditions, their special religious devotions and needs.

"To me, it's important to have a priest available for all ministerial services," said Manuel Padilla, head of the parish council. "Whether it's visiting people in the hospital or at home, we have them serving us."

In addition to serving the community's spiritual needs, the parish attempts to keep Hispanic culture alive for the children by maintaining certain distinctive celebrations. The feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a favorite devotion of Mexicans, is celebrated with a special festive Mass. For Three Kings Day, the 12th day after Christmas, children perform in a skit. Three community members dress as the Magi and distribute gifts to the children.

Although the community celebrates Hispanic language and culture, Father Navarro insists that it does not want to alienate itself from the wider society.

"Our purpose is not to separate," he said. "Our own option is not for division -- the English here, the Spanish here -- but for full integration."

The Hispanic community also includes a small but growing following for the Pentecostal church, the Assemblies of God.

In Annapolis, the Iglesia Imanuel, or Emmanuel Church, is an Assembly of God congregation that meets in a space borrowed from the Annapolis Assembly of God, which they refer to as the "American congregation." The Hispanic congregation gathers three nights a week, Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday, at the church on Cedar Park Road, behind the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

Pastor Hector Guillermo Calixto wears no vestments during the services. He takes no money from the church, supporting his family by working as a mechanic.

The congregation is young. Many are men and women who appear to be in their early 20s. Most are fairly recent immigrants from Central America. "The church is like a shelter for them," said Marta Noguera, a resident of Severna Park and a native of Guatemala.

The service begins with hymns, accompanied by electric guitar and bass. The singing gains in intensity; some clap their hands over their heads, others wave their arms and sway to the music.

The music stops and the congregation begins to pray, individually, out loud. The voices start quietly, crescendo to almost a shout, then return to a quiet murmur.

A collection plate is passed at each service, for money that the congregation hopes one day will buy a plot of ground for their own church. Although the Annapolis Assembly of God has been hospitable and the Hispanic congregation is grateful, "we don't feel completely comfortable," the pastor said.

Mr. Calixto started with a congregation of 14 people. Now, he estimates there are 75 members. "For us, this church is a blessing," Mr. Calixto said. "Because without it we wouldn't have anything."

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