Mercedes Montano spied her next target just inside a clothing store on Columbia Road. "Hermano," she said sweetly, handing the man a flier in Spanish that asked, "Who is this Jesus?" He examined it and eyed Montano stonily from beneath his low-slung baseball cap. What group, he wanted to know, was she with?
"Catolica," Montano, a Bolivian immigrant, answered cheerfully. He asked more questions, and she responded, eager to conquer his skepticism. He finally smiled, signaling her success.
"He didn't believe I'm a Catholic," Montano, 48, said later. "It's very unusual that a Catholic goes door-to-door and person to person talking of Jesus Christ and how much He loves us all."
Unusual it used to be. But concerned about the loss of traditionally Catholic Latinos to Protestant evangelical and Pentecostal churches that energetically proselytize for new members, more Catholics have decided to respond in kind.
Montano was among about 200 Catholic Latinos from local parishes who fanned out in heavily Latino neighborhoods of Northwest Washington last weekend in an evangelization effort sponsored by the Archdiocese of Washington.
Wearing T-shirts bearing a color picture of Jesus and using maps to find their assigned streets, they set out two by two to knock on doors, visit shops and greet passersby. They were armed with posters and fliers inviting people to the Catholic Festival of Faith, an all-day event of music, drama, speeches and films about the church that was held yesterday at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church.
"If we don't go to them and invite them . . . other brothers and sisters from fundamentalist congregations will go to them, and they will follow them," said the Rev. Jose I. Somoza, the Cuban-born pastor of Our Lady Queen of the Americas Parish. "Many of them are hungry for the spiritual support of God, and they will go to the first one who knocks on their door."
This was the second year of the evangelization drive, the brainstorm of Martha Fernandez-Sardina, director of the archdiocese's Office for Evangelization and a 37-year-old immigrant from the Dominican Republic.
When Catholics do home visits, "most people think it's unusual, because usually they see Seventh-day Adventists and Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses doing it," said Fernandez-Sardina. "However, it's become, over the last 10 to 15 years, a growing trend among Roman Catholics. . . . We don't do it as regularly [as others]. But we do it."
Largely because of immigration, Latinos make up 30 percent to 38 percent of American Catholics, a larger percentage than ever. This composition is reflected in the Washington archdiocese, where 170,000 of the 510,000 Catholics are of Hispanic descent.
However, increasing numbers of U.S.-born Latinos are becoming Protestant, according to a poll by the California-based Tomas Rivera Policy Institute. Religious leaders also agree that evangelical and Pentecostal churches have made significant inroads among Catholics in Latin America and Central America, as well as in the United States.
Pope John Paul II has publicly complained about the robust proselytism of these churches, and in March he urged Latin American bishops to develop a better pastoral response to it. U.S. bishops said in a report last year that among their challenges was "addressing the issue of proselytism by religious groups . . . affecting Hispanics in more than 50 percent of dioceses," a fourfold increase from 1990.
Part of the local church response has been to reach out more aggressively to Latinos, especially newer immigrants who may be here illegally.
"We find that because of the legal status of the Hispanics . . . many times they will not come to the church. It's an institution. It's big," said Ronaldo Cruz, executive director of the Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. "They want to go, but sometimes they have to be invited. And we sometimes have to reach out and welcome them. I think that's part of what the archdiocese is trying to do."
Fernandez-Sardina said her outreach is not "a reactionary evangelization" to Protestants' proselytizing. "Of course, sheep stealing is something no church likes, and we Catholics don't like it," she said, but the effort was "prompted actually by our desire to follow the example of Christ. . . . We Hispanics need to let our Hispanic brothers and sisters know that we care about them."
Yesterday's faith festival drew hundreds of Latinos to hear music, watch skits, listen to testimony by Catholics and meet priests. Originally scheduled for Meridian Hill Park, the event was moved to nearby Sacred Heart because of the weather.
"I'm going to come to church more often," said Nelsy Alvarez, 27, a Honduran, as a band warmed up with a foot-tapping merengue. She said she is Catholic but hadn't attended Mass in recent weeks.
Before setting out last weekend, the Latino evangelizers attended a workshop in a classroom at Queen of the Americas Parish. Fernandez-Sardina gave them a pep talk and practical tips about "how to share the message of God's love in a respectful, caring manner."
The evangelizers were given pamphlets listing 26 Catholic churches with Spanish-speaking staff or clergy members. Somoza explained that "the target population" of the outreach was non-practicing Catholics. "We are not trying to proselytize. If they say, 'We are Jehovah's Witnesses or evangelicals,' then we just greet them. But we won't try to tell them, 'Come back to the true church.' . . . We won't attack any sect, any church, anybody."
The evangelizers left the church for Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights about noon under a dark sky and drizzling clouds.
Montano, who lives in Arlington and has a background in public relations, was paired with Felipe Jesus, a 25-year-old construction worker from El Salvador. It was the first time they had met. Neither had done street outreach before.
"I'm a little nervous, of course," Montano admitted. "But I know the spirit is with me and is going to help me."
At Biltmore and Columbia, they approached three men. One wore a Carlos Santana T-shirt and was sitting under a tree. He took a flier and listened cordially to Montano and Jesus talk up the event.
But one of his friends, an older man, flicked the flier away. "I don't want this," he said.
As the rain intensified, Montano and Jesus pressed on. They taped a poster to a bus stop shelter. Inside Tienda Izalco, which specializes in Salvadoran food, Montano cornered the manager and got permission to put a poster in his front window.
Stymied by locked entrances at most big apartment buildings, the pair had better luck at the row houses on Euclid Street. At one, a woman in pajamas holding onto a black-and-white dog, came to the door. "I'm not Catholic," she told them, but she took the flier.
Around the corner, at a building on Champlain Street, a man was about to light a cigarette on the stoop. "This is a transition home for recovering addicts," he told the pair as he read the flier. "I'll tell all the guys. I know some of the guys will be there. Like me. I know I'll be there. As a matter of fact, I'm going to put this up on the bulletin board." He disappeared back into the house.
Later that afternoon, the rain-soaked evangelizers regrouped at Queen of the Americas. Most of them reported good responses.
"Many people responded positively," said District resident Imelda Ortiz, 42. "I could feel the presence of God. It was very peaceful. Even North Americans were happy and kind."
Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.