Building Respect for Latino Protestantism

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For years, Jesse Miranda, a Southern California Pentecostal minister, toiled quietly within the Latino Protestant movement.

But the confluence of two disparate forces--President Bush's faith-based initiatives proposal and the rise of Latino Protestantism--have pushed Miranda into the national spotlight.

Miranda, 63, who oversees a variety of Latino church issues from his offices at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, is winning respect for his ability to turn isolated Latino churches into a social force. For the Latino Protestant movement, fragmented and overshadowed by the Catholic Church, he is regarded as a godsend.

"He functions as the most widely recognized Latino evangelical in the U.S. today," said Gaston Espinosa, a professor at UC Santa Barbara who's working with Miranda on a landmark study about Latino churches in American life.

Latino Protestantism is attracting a growing number of members from Catholicism (which still includes 70% of the nation's 35 million Latinos). With nearly 8 million members, it is becoming an increasingly powerful force in American religion.

"We've been a sleeping giant, just off the radar screen," said Miranda, who has met with Presidents Bush, Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Reagan. "Religion is central to the Hispanic community," he said, and Latino Protestant churches--with better organization and funding--can be a major provider of social services to the Latino community.

His father was Catholic and his mother Methodist, but Miranda was drawn to an Assemblies of God church, part of a charismatic Pentecostal denomination of 1.6 million members, because it was the only congregation that "showed interest in our little barrio" in Albuquerque. "Church was the center of the community--socially, educationally and spiritually."

By 19, he was an ordained Assemblies of God minister and given his own 100-member church in a mountain village in New Mexico. He worked his way up the denominational career ladder to become the denomination's highest-ranking Latino. He currently serves as national executive elder, in charge of more than 3,000 churches.

He also went to school for 20 years on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, earning his high school diploma, a college degree and two master's degrees, and finally a doctorate.

In 1994, Miranda--a soft-spoken grandfather of eight with an infectious sense of humor--co-founded the National Alliance for Evangelical Ministries, known by its Spanish acronym AMEN. With Miranda as president, the group has become the largest Latino Protestant organization in the United States, encompassing 27 denominations with 10 million members in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico.

"He's given the Hispanic pastors what they needed," said Edgar Mohorko, senior pastor at Messiah Foursquare Church in Oxnard. "First, we needed to be united. Second, he showed us we can make a difference in our community through social evangelism."

Outside the Catholic Church, a lack of financial resources, among other factors, has prevented many Latino congregations from developing organized ministries to the needy, according to USC's Center for Religion & Civic Culture.

Miranda is pushing Latino pastors--many of whom have full-time jobs outside the ministry--and their churches to get ready to deliver services to their communities once they receive money through Bush's proposed faith-based initiatives. The initiatives would make it easier for religious groups to obtain federal funds for social service programs.

Bush has worked with Miranda on how to implement the initiatives, summoning him to the White House last month and to Austin, Texas, before the inauguration.

"[Miranda's] saying, 'If the door is open for us Latinos, let's be there and not be left behind this time,' " said Grace Dyrness, associate director of USC's Center for Religion & Civic Culture. "If we are going to take advantage of the opportunity, we need to build our capacity to deliver social services."

In the meantime, Miranda travels the country to convince evangelical pastors to pool their resources. He serves as director of the recently launched Center for Urban Studies and Ethnic Leadership at Vanguard University, which was established to help church leaders better serve needs of the Latino community.

"He's showed the churches not to be enclaves unto themselves but to reach out into the whole community," Dyrness said. "It's evident that they could get much more leverage out of their services if they organized more formally, and it would be a lesser drain on everyone."

This has already happened in Ventura County, where Miranda helped form an alliance of Latino pastors who are working to build a homeless shelter.

"His insights really woke me up," said Oxnard pastor Mohorko, who serves as vice president of the alliance.

Tougher than pulling evangelicals together is fixing the distrustful relationship between Latino Protestants and the Catholic Church. Catholic leaders worry that evangelicals are out to steal their sheep. And Latino Protestant pastors, many of them former Catholics, view Catholic theology as bordering on idolatry.

Miranda's philosophy is that all Latino churches can work together on common social issues without compromising their theological identity. He's made some initial progress, recently forming a partnership with the Catholic Church to conduct a three-year, $1.3-million study on Latino churches and public life funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"He's overcome the traditional suspicions and tensions of different evangelical groups" and of Catholics, said Harry P. Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute in Claremont. "He's cleared up a lot of stereotypes. He can rise above the fray."

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