Hispanic churches increase Growing faith: As Baltimore's Hispanic community has grown, so has the number of Pentecostal churches in East Baltimore.

August 30, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

On a sultry weeknight in Upper Fells Point, melodic waves of prayer uttered in Spanish -- insistent, urgent -- spill out of a storefront church on Eastern Avenue.

It is the sound of worship at Iglesia Pentecostal Dios es Amor -- God Is Love Pentecostal Church.

The tiny sanctuary, which opened last month, is the latest in a rising number of Hispanic Pentecostal churches in East Baltimore. A sign of the growing Hispanic community, at least eight Pentecostal churches serve Baltimore's Hispanics, with congregations ranging in size from a few dozen to a few hundred.

"At one time, there were just a few of us," said the Rev. Angel Nunez, senior pastor of the Spanish Christian Center in Highlandtown, which was founded in 1981 and is perhaps Baltimore's oldest Hispanic Pentecostal congregation. "What is happening is [the Latino population] in Baltimore is growing. And because it's growing, there is a spiritual need also."

According to the 1996 U.S. Census estimate, Baltimore had 8,220 Hispanic residents, but community leaders consider that a vast undercount.

"Before, it was just St. Michael's Church, which is Catholic [and the designated Hispanic parish], so people went there," said the Rev. Sebastian Tirado, pastor of the Iglesia de Dios de Baltimore (Baltimore Church of God). "Because there were not many churches around, there really was no alternative. Now with more churches, people are beginning to come to Pentecostal services."

Two of the largest churches, the Spanish Christian Center and the Iglesia Pentecostal de Evangelizacion Misionera (Evangelical Missionary Pentecostal Church), are long-standing institutions whose pastors have emerged as civic leaders.

The Spanish Christian Center, which was founded in 1981, has about 400 members, including former Orioles baseball player Leo Gomez (when he's not playing ball in Japan). After bouncing around Highlandtown, the church in 1994 bought and converted a bowling alley into a sanctuary, Sunday school classrooms, and a kitchen and meeting hall.

On South Broadway, in the heart of the Latino commercial district of markets and restaurants, the Rev. Daniel Santos bought a former adult movie theater from the city for $1 in 1994. Members used their talents to renovate the interior of the Iglesia Pentecostal de Evangelizacion Misionera, where about 200 people worship on a typical Sunday.

At the front of the sanctuary is a mural of a river flowing through a tropical paradise. In front of the mural is a working fountain and pool for immersion baptisms.

"We've fixed this place penny by penny," Santos said.

But most of the churches are much smaller. The Iglesia Pentecostal Dios es Amor, which is part of a worldwide Pentecostal church based in Sao Paulo, Brazil, has about 40 regular members. Before moving to Eastern Avenue, its members met in a home in Glen Burnie. "It seemed that the situation there was very tranquil," said its pastor, the Rev. Hamilton da Silva. "So we moved to this area, where there is delinquency, alcoholics and prostitution. Then, by means of the Gospel, we are able to transform them."

The Rev. Inocencio Claudio, pastor of Iglesia Cristiana Canaan (Canaan Christian Church), started his congregation on Oct. 4, 1991, in the living room of his O'Donnell Heights home. Seven people attended that first service: Claudio, his wife, three of their daughters, their son, "and one brother in the faith." For two weeks, it was the same seven people.

"After that, they started coming," he said. They outgrew the living room, rented space in a church on E. Lombard St., and four years ago moved to the basement of Wesley United Methodist Church at Pratt Street and S. Highland Avenue. The membership has waxed and waned, from a high of 40 to about 25 at present. "You know how the Latino people are," Claudio said. "Many move back and forth" between the United States and their countries of origin.

Big or small, the one thing that unites the churches is their style of worship. Pentecostal Christians believe the power of the Holy Spirit is manifested in individual believers through spiritual "gifts" such as speaking in tongues, revelations from God and healing powers.

Pentecostalism is an American-born movement that started January 1, 1901, at the Bethel Bible College in Topeka, Kan., and spread throughout the United States through revivals at places like the 1906 Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles.

In recent years, Pentecostalism has seen tremendous growth among Hispanics, in this country and in Latin America, thanks to years of missionary efforts. Studies show that approximately 18 percent of Hispanics in the United States are Protestant, and the majority of those are Pentecostals.

In the Assemblies of God, the nation's largest Pentecostal denomination, "Hispanics have grown over 100 percent in the last 10 years," said the Rev. James Plata, president of the San Antonio-based Latin American Bible Institute.

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