Yearning for Words of Tolerance

Wanda Gonzalez, 12, left, and Melissa Serrano, 11, carry candles in a procession during Encuentro Catolico, a day-long religious festival for Latino Catholics sponsored by local churches.
Wanda Gonzalez, 12, left, and Melissa Serrano, 11, carry candles in a procession during Encuentro Catolico, a day-long religious festival for Latino Catholics sponsored by local churches. (Bill O'Leary -- The Washington Post)

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By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 10, 2008

When Pope Benedict XVI comes to Washington next month, he will set foot in a Roman Catholic community that is now one-third Hispanic. It is a vibrant and fast-growing segment of the regional church whose members overflow Spanish-language Masses and high-energy revival shows but who often say they feel socially isolated and harassed under local and national laws.

Their hopes for the visit of El Papa widely echo those expressed by Lilian Castillo, a housecleaner from El Salvador and mother of three who is a regular worshiper at St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring.

"Our community is facing persecution and poverty. People are being deported, even members of our own church," said Castillo, 46. "I hope the pope can be a bridge to bring together Americans of all ages and races and levels. He is coming to bless all of us, and I hope everyone will be listening."

In addition to spiritual reinforcement, Hispanic church members and leaders in the metropolitan region are looking for moral and political support from the pontiff. They hope his visit to the nation's capital, as lawmakers continue struggling with immigration reform and the presidential race unfolds, will include a message of tolerance and inclusion toward immigrants.

The number of Hispanics among area Catholics has steadily surged in recent years; church officials estimate there are 400,000 in parishes in the District, Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland.

Yet parish leaders express frustration that this growth has not led to a parallel expansion in Hispanics' influence or integration in the greater Catholic community, let alone in the society beyond.

Many churches offer Masses in both English and Spanish, and a few are experimenting with bilingual services, but language and cultural barriers often divide congregations. In some cases, the immigration debate has further split Hispanic and non-Hispanic worshipers, especially in suburbs that have dealt with such acrimonious issues as day-laborer centers and police helping to enforce immigration laws.

"We had to struggle for 10 years to be able to hold a Spanish Mass here," said Dan Masa, an immigrant from Peru who assists at communion at St. Joseph's Church in Herndon. The parish had virtually no Hispanics once, but now more than 1,000 people pour into the Spanish Mass on Sunday afternoons. "Some of the [people] still look at us funny, but we are all children of God," he said.

Still, the sheer number of Hispanics has changed the nature of Catholic worship in the region, from the booming market for frilly First Communion dresses to the rising popularity of charismatic spectacles like "Encuentro Catolico," a sold-out stage show at the D.C. Armory this past weekend. On Saturday, a series of electrifying preachers from Latin America had 5,000 people dancing, singing, praying, hugging and weeping in the bleachers.

Many in the audience were immigrants from Central America; some mentioned their problems with immigration papers, family separations, addictions to alcohol, mortgage defaults and other woes. But by the time "Father Chelo" finished his mesmerizing, musical call to faith, the audience was humming with happiness.

The mix of worship and entertainment is also aimed at competing with evangelical Christian sects that have attracted many former Catholics by holding small services in Latino communities, often with live music, promises of help for social problems and an informal style that seems more personal than a vast, echoing cathedral.

"I used to hate the church," said Antonio Hernandez, 36, a laborer from Guatemala who wore a wooden cross around his neck and sang along with every bouncy hymn. "I drank a lot, and I almost lost my marriage. But finally God called me back." Hernandez said he was eager for the pope's visit: "This is like a family, and he is like a father to us."


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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