A future of faith and cyberspace

April 05, 1996|By Richard Rodriguez

EAST PALO ALTO, Calif. -- It's a weekday night in the Silicon Valley. Within a tiny Protestant church, the language of prayer is Spanish with a Mexican accent; the sounds of joy, bird-like warblings, belong to evangelical Protestantism. The church is the northern edge of a new Protestant reformation.

Outside the doors of the Apostolic Assembly is the Bayshore Freeway, connecting San Francisco to San Jose. Across the freeway is wealthy Palo Alto, home of Stanford University. All along this stretch of freeway are exits to cyberspace, the greatest concentration of high-tech industry in the world.

This side of the freeway is East Palo Alto, a neighborhood still notorious for its despair and drive-by shootings. But East Palo Alto, like similar neighborhoods in America, is filling with immigrants, bringing new tongues. Next door to the Apostolic Assembly is the first Vietnamese Buddhist seminary west of the Rockies. Some nights Buddhist gongs mix over the parking lot with Spanish renditions of black Protestant hymns.

The news Americans tend to get from Latin America these days mainly concerns corruption and poverty: drug lords under arrest or at large; illegal immigration; pollution; monster cities.

The epic story of this half of the 20th century in Latin America is the conversion to Protestantism -- not main-line, high-church Protestantism, but low-church, evangelical Protestantism. It is spreading like fire. The rate of conversion in Latin America is such that demographers expect the continent to be Protestant in its majority, perhaps by the middle of next century.

A lovely irony

It is a lovely irony of history that at a time when many Americans, no longer Christian, are experimenting with forms of Native American spirituality, the Indians of Latin America are singing Protestant hymns. Spanish Catholicism -- the religion that has shaped Latin America, watered Latin America, nourished my own soul -- Latin Catholicism has traditionally stressed the tragic element within Christianity. Christ hangs on the cross with a particular pathos in Latin America. Now, some Easter joy is spreading through Sao Paolo, into the slums of Santiago, across Lima, Mexico City, through Los Angeles to East Palo Alto.

As in Europe several centuries ago, so today in Latin America, the rise of the city is matched by the rise of Protestant Christianity. Catholicism still thrives in the village, where faith is a communal event. But in the city, where people find themselves cut off from old ties, alone, Protestantism, stressing a one-to-one experience with Christ, finds converts.

Cocaine makes its way up from the South; the despair of American pop culture wends its way from the North. The freeway, after all, goes in both directions. But something else is going on, some rush of spirituality is coming from the South.

The Mormon Church could become in the next century predominantly Spanish speaking, such is the rate of conversion in Latin America. The American Catholic Church, for so long Irish in its temper, is now becoming Hispanic. (I know Catholic churches in California where the congregation sings now only in Spanish -- although many do not know the words exactly, everyone recognizes the lyrics.)

And then there are evangelical Protestant groups like Victory Outreach, working along the U.S. Mexican border with teen-agers. Victory Outreach today is sending missionaries from Tijuana to Paris to Frankfurt.

A humble, wooden church, the Apostolic Assembly in East Palo Alto is the daughter church of a congregation in Mexican Los Angeles formed earlier this century. For decades, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans have been gathering. One of its sponsor churches is an African-American Assembly. Over the altar is vision of heaven that looks very much like Lake Tahoe. But to look at the faces in the congregation -- so young! -- is to see what the future looks like in the Silicon Valley.

Even a visitor immediately senses a closeness here. It is as though the village has found itself, formed itself anew, alongside a freeway, not far from where other Americans are contemplating the infinity called cyberspace.

Richard Rodriguez, author of ''Days of Obligation,'' wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

Pub Date: 4/05/96

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