Associated Press

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Many Catholic priests in the United States have not been trained in the culture of Mexican-American parishioners, Maher conceded.

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.

Though he doesn't question the sincerity of many of the non-denominational ministers, Maher said Christianity was showing "dangerous signs of fragmentism."