March 31, 1994
Headline ............ Religion in the News
By JOSH LEMIEUX Associated Press Writer
HARLINGEN, Texas (AP) -- Carlos Ortiz, who preaches that the Bible is an operator's manual for better mileage in life, has outgrown two churches since he says a voice came to him while he was driving an 18-wheeler.
Now, the lively pastor of Faith Pleases God Church Corp. says he wants to add 4,000 seats to his 3,500-seat Pavilion of Faith, converted from an abandoned lumberyard on the western edge of town.
"Nobody is thinking big enough. Me, I've got nothing better to do than believe in God for these things," said Ortiz, 49, who mixes down-to-earth humor with preaching as easily as he switches from English to Spanish.
From tiny storefront temples to venues like Ortiz's warehouse-sized pavilion, a variety of Protestant evangelicals are winning over many Roman Catholic Hispanics in the United States and throughout Latin America.
"They spring up like mushrooms after a rain," said University of Texas-Brownsville anthropologist Tony Zavaleta, who specializes in faiths along the U.S.-Mexican border. "Alternative religions rise in populations that are poor and marginalized, politically and economically."
Fundamentalists, Pentecostals, Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses are among those finding fertile ground in poor, Catholic-rooted areas of the border and farther south. Zavaleta said spirit cults and folk healing are also on the rise.
Many ministers, like Ortiz, are not affiliated with a particular denomination.
"We didn't go to seminaries to learn the Bible," Ortiz said. "We had to trust the Holy Spirit to guide us, and in the guidance of the Holy Spirit we have been successful in sharing this truth."
Ortiz, who was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in Brooklyn, said he was a trucker when he joined the Pentecostal movement at an Assemblies of God church.
"This voice told me to give my life to God when I was driving the 18-wheeler on Interstate 81 in the state of Tennessee," he said.
He said he left the Assemblies of God to begin his own ministry in Harlingen, 10 miles from the Mexican border. He started a small church at a strip shopping center, then moved to a bigger place in the middle of town.
Today, with the help of seven associate ministers, he reaches out from the Pavilion of Faith with slang-filled sermons on local TV and radio programs.
The lure of a powerful speaker from another church often is only temporary for many Hispanics deeply rooted in [Roman] Catholicism, Zavaleta said.
"I question how many of these people keep a long-term affiliation with these churches," agreed Father Robert E. Maher, head of pastoral enrichment for the [Roman] Catholic Diocese of Brownsville.
The [Roman] Catholic Church is responding with an outreach movement of its own, said Sister Margarita Velez, head of evangelization for the Brownsville Diocese, a four-county area of extreme South Texas where four in five people are Catholic.
She said the diocese is beginning a program to train Catholics to go door-to-door in poor "colonia" neighborhoods where other faiths have been attracting followers.
"I'm sure that in some parishes we will start right away because there is a great need," she said.
The church, facing a shortage of priests, is slowly allowing lay people to perform more functions traditionally reserved for priests, especially in rural areas of Latin America.
"The Catholic Church means well, but the Catholic Church is such an incredibly large bureaucracy that it is sluggish," Zavaleta said.
Many Catholic priests in the United States have not been trained in the culture of Mexican-American parishioners, Maher conceded.
"One of the reasons the fundamentalists or the storefront churches are growing is they have been much more successful in making the Hispanics feel at home," Maher said.
Catholics may go to new churches during a personal crisis, but a high percentage of them maintain a Catholic identity, Zavaleta said.
In fact, the mixing of faiths is common throughout Latin America. Along the U.S.-Mexico border, many people with deep [Roman] Catholic roots believe in curanderos -- folk healers who use a variety of advise, herbs, home remedies and incantations to cure ailments and personal problems.
Maher said that in times of upheaval, mainstream Christian denominations as a whole -- not merely Catholics -- lose ground to more individualist faiths such as those espoused by non-denominational preachers.
"They are undertaking a sort of do-it-yourself form of Christianity, often with self-appointed leaders who do not have formal training," he said.
Though he doesn't question the sincerity of many of the non-denominational ministers, Maher said Christianity was showing "dangerous signs of fragmentism."
"Are they (mainstream churches) going to continue to yield membership and cultural force to non-denominational churches? I don't know the answer to that," Maher said.
Meanwhile, the doors at Faith Pleases God are open.
"This is a place of refuge whenever somebody is in trouble," Ortiz said. "To be a member of the church you need to come here twice. The second time you come here you are already a member."
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