In Latin America, a Religious Turf War

Times Staff Writer

Latecomers have to hunt for a seat at the First Baptist Church of Copacabana. By 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, the pews are full, the drummers and guitarists warmed up, and the faithful are ready to meet God.

“Thanks be to your name,” the pastor prays earnestly, his brow furrowed. “Be among us.”

A chorus of amens bursts from the congregation. Some members have their hands raised. Onstage, young men and women in T-shirts and jeans launch into a ballad-like hymn of devotion, kicking off an hour and a half of often joyous, sometimes contemplative worship.


So begins one of thousands of weekly services in Protestant churches across Brazil. Although this largely tropical nation has more Roman Catholics than any other country in the world, it is witnessing a boom in evangelical Protestantism that could dramatically alter the religious landscape in the next 20 years.

Across Latin America, home to nearly half the world’s Catholics, believers are increasingly abandoning the Vatican’s brand of Christianity in favor of the evangelical variety, a trend that will pose one of the biggest challenges for the next pope.

“The Reformation finally arrived in Latin America, four centuries after starting in Europe,” said Dean Brackley, a professor of theology at the Jesuit-run Central American University in San Salvador.

For Catholicism to stay relevant, analysts say, cardinals now gathered in Rome to elect a successor to Pope John Paul II must pick someone ready to grapple with the concerns of folks like Carlos Eduardo Valente de Abreu, half a world away.

“I didn’t feel very welcome in the Catholic Church,” said Valente, 31, an information technology consultant in Rio de Janeiro. “I couldn’t agree with what they preached -- the images of Christ suffering. Also, I didn’t feel much sincerity.”

What he found at First Baptist in Copacabana was a strong sense of community in a disorienting world. Experts say that is a major draw of evangelical churches, especially among migrants.


Many converts are attracted to the pop-style music and dynamic liturgies, which are more suited to contemporary tastes than is the traditional Catholic Mass. Others cherish teachings that emphasize a direct, personal relationship with God and, sometimes, the promise of material reward for spiritual rectitude.

Add to these elements the evangelical movement’s proselytizing zeal, its savvy use of mass media and a nimble ability to set up shop in storefronts, schools and living rooms, and the result has been spectacular growth over the last 25 years, in spite of John Paul’s frequent trips to Latin America to shore up the faith.

In countries where Catholics once accounted for more than 90% of the population, evangelicals now constitute a significant religious minority, sometimes with social and political clout beyond their numbers.

In Chile, Honduras and Brazil, for example, about 15% of the population describes itself as evangelical Protestant. The figure rises to 22% in El Salvador; in Guatemala, it’s 25%. In Mexico’s southern Chiapas state, local press reports estimate the evangelical population to be 36% of adults.

Paraguay, albeit still overwhelmingly Catholic, now has its first evangelical president, Nicanor Duarte Frutos. President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia made news when he tried reaching out to evangelicals, who now make up about 10% of the country’s population.

“This is about a global phenomenon,” said Father Francisco Nino, editor of the Catholic newspaper El Catolicismo in Bogota. “The other religious movements constitute a challenge for the action of the church. We can’t ignore the growth of the non-Catholic movements.”

Evangelical Christianity began making major inroads in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s, a turbulent period of civil war and political polarization that affected the Catholic Church as well. The clergy was riven by political divisions, with some clerics supporting leftist rebels and others favoring right-wing governments.

In war-torn Nicaragua, conservative Christian relief agencies and evangelical missionaries preaching a fervent anti-communist gospel were a regular presence at camps of the right-wing Contra militia along the Nicaraguan-Honduran border. American televangelist Pat Robertson was among the Contra movement’s most active promoters.

In other places, evangelical groups billed themselves as a haven from the tumult.

“The people don’t want a polemic,” said Edgardo Bertrand, pastor of one of El Salvador’s largest evangelical churches. “They want God.”

Many of Bertrand’s flock at the Christian Jerusalem Embassy in San Salvador are converts weary of the political activism that roiled the Catholic Church in past decades. Evangelicals say their emphasis is on personal transformation through faith, not social or political organizing.

“We can distribute food, but our objective is for people to get to know God. Both rich and poor need Christ,” said Geovane Dias, first vice president of the First Baptist Church of Copacabana. “To take care of the poor is not our most important mission, like it is with the Catholic Church.... For us our No. 1 priority is to serve Christ.”

Members of his congregation -- men and women, young and old -- often speak of experiencing God in emotional terms. Crying at Sunday services is not uncommon.

“People have an emptiness, needs that sometimes they don’t even know,” Dias said.

“When a person discovers Christ, it is not only rational but also mystical. If you have Jesus, life won’t be a bed of roses, but there will be someone to guide you.”

Political conflict has not been so bloody in Brazil as in other parts of Latin America. But social disruption has nonetheless fueled the growth of evangelical sects, whose membership has more than tripled over the past quarter-century.

During that time, Brazil has experienced an intense internal migration. Waves of mostly poor residents, desperate for work, have moved to northwestern and north-central Brazil, along the edges of the Amazon jungle, to take advantage of a boom in agricultural production. Others have crowded into the squalid slums of cities along the eastern coastline, such as Recife and Rio.

In both the farming frontier and metropolitan shantytowns, governmental and other civic institutions are weak or virtually absent.

“The state is not keeping abreast of this process. Neither is the Catholic Church. They can’t assign new priests as quickly to the places where the population is growing,” said Cesar Romero Jacob, a social studies professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio. “The evangelical groups get there faster, and by getting there faster, they harvest all these people.”

A study by Jacob and colleagues two years ago, sponsored in part by the Brazilian Catholic Church in an attempt to understand where and why its numbers were dropping, found that the growth of evangelical sects such as the Assemblies of God and the charismatic Universal Church of the Kingdom of God had been most explosive in these areas.

Migrants bereft of family, friends and the trappings of their former communities are eager to tap into the social and spiritual networks the evangelical churches provide through weekly services, Bible study and other activities. Sermons promising self-improvement and personal fulfillment through God and upright behavior -- no drinking, no smoking -- are also appealing.

The churches operate out of ordinary locations such as storefronts, and use strong marketing and word-of-mouth proselytizing. They train new pastors quickly, sometimes within a few months, compared with the years of seminary studies required of Catholic priests.

“The evangelical churches are faster, more agile, whereas the Catholic Church is more bureaucratic,” Jacob said.

Some sects have also turned to the media to spread their gospel. One recent estimate in Brazil said that evangelical denominations owned 58 radio stations in 16 states, or more than half. The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, perhaps Brazil’s fastest-growing, owns two national TV networks and puts out a weekly newsletter read by 1.5 million people.

Between 1980 and 2000, the most active years of John Paul’s papacy, the number of evangelical Protestants shot up from 6.6% of Brazil’s population to 15.6%.

Although there are well over 100 million Catholics, their percentage of the population declined from 89% to 74%.

“In 20 years, the Catholic Church lost more [members] than it had in the history of Brazil” up to that point, Jacob said. Without a campaign to turn the tide, Catholics could drop to less than 60% of the population by the end of this decade, he estimated.

In other Latin American countries, heavy internal migration has created similar circumstances, notably in Guatemala. But there, experts say, Catholics appear to have succeeded in arresting, if not reversing, the growth of evangelicalism by fighting fire with fire. The Catholic Church now operates radio stations and libraries, just as evangelical sects do. It has also encouraged greater participation among lay members in the liturgy and in church activities.

And although he could not single-handedly stop evangelical growth, John Paul, on a 2002 trip to Guatemala, helped rally the faithful.

“You have to remember that the Catholic Church has historical weight. Historically, it has been the church,” said Marco Antonio Barahona, head of the Assn. for Research and Social Studies in Guatemala City, a think tank. The pope’s visit “was a key ingredient in the resurgence of spiritual hope among Catholic believers that coincided with the strategy of allowing more participation in liturgical activities.”

Being involved in the life of the church appealed to Valente, the Rio information technology consultant, when he decided to try the First Baptist Church of Copacabana a month ago.

A baptized but not a practicing Catholic, Valente now attends Sunday morning and evening services at the Baptist church, as well as a Bible class before the 10:30 a.m. service. He goes to choir practice Mondays and shows up for Wednesday evening “praise” sessions.

Converts like Valente have helped First Baptist nearly double in size -- to about 650 members -- in the past six or seven years, said Dias, the church’s first vice president. Congregants are encouraged to spread the word.

Hoping they’ll notice how he’s changed, Valente is eager to get the rest of his family to join him.

“I was very anxious, a very nervous person, and now I’m much calmer,” he said.

“I’ve always felt God was inside me.”


Times staff writers Andres D’Alessandro in Buenos Aires, Reed Johnson in Mexico City and Chris Kraul and Alexander Renderos in San Salvador, and special correspondent Rachel Van Dongen in Bogota, contributed to this report.