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Hispanic Catholics Celebrate Faith in Harmony
Worshipers Jam D.C. Armory for Weekend Revival

By Mary Otto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 19, 2006

Sister Olga Lucia Parado had the crowd of thousands moving. Long habit swaying to the beat of the drums, she belted out a lively cumbia and cried Aleluya !

And why not?

"God made the salsa," said Manuel Aviles, looking on yesterday at the swaying throngs in the D.C. Armory. "God made the merengue."

A vast, weekend-long revival and celebration of faith was expected to draw 10,000 Hispanic Catholics to the Washington region's second Encuentro Catolico to sing and pray, weep and dance.

Yesterday, there were rosaries and electric guitars, incense and drums, priests clapping and laborers forgetting their cares as the revival unfolded.

The excitement of the preachers and drummers seemed akin to evangelical and Pentecostal styles of worship that, in recent years, have attracted many Hispanics away from their 500-year-old Catholic traditions. But Catholics too have started to embrace a more charismatic approach, especially in places such as the metro area, where thanks to immigration, the Hispanic population is estimated at more than 575,000 -- although many believe the number is much higher.

It's not competition for souls, said the Rev. Jose Eugenio Hoyos, director of the Spanish Apostolate for the Diocese of Arlington.

"We can't compete for the love of God," he said. This style of worship is "an expression through music to show God is alive."

That is why Ecuadorean-born Ligia Pasquel said she came yesterday -- to bask in the music and the comfort of faith. Immigration can be lonely, said Pasquel, who lives in Silver Spring. Life as a house-cleaner can be hard.

Yet, she added, "God is all the time in my life."

"There is a lot of healing," agreed Jose Morris Gutierrez, a Salvadoran-born plumber, leading his 5-year-old daughter, Belen, by the hand.

He said many in the crowd are struggling.

"They live in a house with no heat, no hot water. They came here to feel better."

Despite the size of the event, expected to culminate late today with a Mass offered by 25 priests, the idea of the gathering started a full 15 years ago, when a handful of young Salvadorans started a prayer group in Falls Church.

"We started in a small, little room," said Aviles, one of the organizers. "Then we went to a gymnasium, to an auditorium." By last year, the event was a full-scale regional celebration, drawing 8,000 worshipers. This year's is expected to be even bigger.

The Encuentro , literally "the encounter," involves members from scores of area parishes, volunteers, musicians and visitors from throughout Latin America.

"God brought us here," said Aviles, amid the crowd of faithful; mothers and fathers cradling infants, grandmothers and grandfathers, teenage girls and boys.

It is no accident that the young people come out. Over the years, Aviles and others have made a point of offering music and messages that would appeal to them.

Aviles, who came from El Salvador at 11, said he understands the difficulties that some teenagers face in adjusting to their new lives -- the loneliness that can draw them to gangs and drugs, for instance.

Faith can serve as the antidote, he said.

"It can bring you back to the right path," he said. "The right path is not a church or a temple. The moment you love yourself, you love others. If you love others, you love God."

Luis Gomez, 17, stood at the edge of the crowd. He said he was grateful to be there. Born in El Salvador, the high school senior who lives in Dale City said his faith is helping to keep him out of trouble.

"If I didn't come to church," he said quietly, "I'd probably be in a gang."

Meanwhile, amid the music, Hoyos was collecting his thoughts before addressing the crowd. He would speak of Jesus the immigrant, of social justice, of the love that can bind all people.

Then, as the drums rattled, the tall man in the Roman collar smiled and began to dance.

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