Fueled by Latin Americans, Spain is Facing a Surge of Evangelicals

When Kent Albright, a Baptist pastor from the United States, came in Salamanca as a missionary in 1996, he was unprepared for the insults and threats he received, as well as the fines he received from the police for passing out Protestant flyers on the streets.

“There was a lot of social enmity – they’d never seen a Protestant in their lives,” Albright recalled, recalling one lady whispering, “Be fortunate we don’t hurl stones at you.”

He could never have dreamed that 25 years later, he would be pastoring a 120-member evangelical congregation and overseeing nearly a half-dozen other successful Protestant churches in the city’s northwest outskirts. The devotees also have a distinguishing feature: The majority of them are Latin American immigrants, with roughly 80% of Albright’s congregation being Latin American immigrants.

The figures reflect massive increases in the country’s migrant and evangelical populations in recent decades, resulting in significant shifts in how faith is practiced in a country long controlled by the Catholic church.

“The Bible declares that there are no nationalities or races. I don’t go about asking for passports on the street, and I don’t ask for passports at the church entrance.” Albright remarked. He is astounded that among his six pupils in a course he teaches for deacons is one from each of Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador.

Luis Perozo, a former police officer from Maracaibo, Venezuela, who came in Spain in February 2020 with his wife, Narbic Escalante, 35, and sought for asylum, is one of the newest members of his church.

Perozo works at a hotel’s laundry as the couple waits for their legal status to be established. His wife works at a senior home as a nurse.

“I was a devout Catholic all my life,” adds Escalante. “When I first arrived in Salamanca, I went into the church, looked around, and said hello, but they didn’t respond. I went to numerous churches and had no reaction.”

Perozo and Escalante went to Albright’s church immediately away; one of Perozo’s relatives had previously immigrated and was a member.

“The next day, Pastor Albright was assisting us in the search for a home, as well as appliances and utensils. “With his van, he transferred us,” Escalante explained.

Albright’s approach to pastoring, she said, was admirable, citing services with dynamic music and less stress on repeated prayer as examples.

She says, “I definitely feel better here than I did in the Catholic Church.” “It enables me to live more freely, with less restraints.”

She went to a Catholic priest before she and her husband were christened at Albright’s church. “If that makes you feel at ease with yourself, go,” he said, according to her. You haven’t done anything wrong.”

Other Latin American immigrants, according to Albright, have had similar reactions.

“They don’t feel that their difficulties are acknowledged” when they go to a Catholic church, he adds.

“Latinos in general want to be a part of worship,” he continued. “They must participate actively in the celebration.” To them, the Catholic church is immobile.”

Spain enjoyed an economic boom with the introduction of the euro currency two decades ago, which stimulated migration. There were 471,465 lawfully registered migrants in Spain in 2000; there are currently around 7.2 million.

Albright was so fascinated by the occurrence that he prepared a Ph.D. thesis on it at Salamanca University. He estimates that 20% of the migrants are evangelical Christians.

In 2018, the Observatory of Religious Pluralism of the Ministry of Justice estimated that 1.96 percent of Spain’s population, or over 900,000 persons, were Protestant. This is an increase from the 96,000 people that were counted in 1998.

The continuous rise of the Protestant population has been accompanied by a steady decline in the number of Catholics who attend church. According to the Sociological Research Center, a government-funded organization, 62 percent of Spaniards identify as Catholics, down from 85 percent in 2000 and 98 percent in 1975. Only approximately a third of those Catholics claim to be practicing their faith actively.

It’s a stunning change in a country where Catholicism has long been associated with near-absolute authority, from the long, sometimes terrible era of the Spanish Inquisition to Gen. Francisco Franco’s 36-year dictatorship in the twentieth century, which he dubbed “National-Catholic.”

More than 6,000 of Spain’s 23,000 Catholic parishes do not have a full-time priest. When a priest died or resigned, some churches had to shut or be merged with other churches staffed by traveling priests who minister to many parishes.

The church’s problems may be seen in the province of Zamora, which is located immediately north of Salamanca and has lost 16 percent of its population since 2000. There are just roughly 130 priests servicing 304 parishes.

The Rev. Francisco Ortega, one of the traveling priests, oversees six parishes and is attempting to adapt as the number of churchgoers continues to fall. He’s been active on YouTube since the epidemic began at the age of 40, and he’s now back on the streets attempting to keep up with his parishioners.

It’s a busy schedule, but Ortega recently enlisted the support of Rev. Edgardo Rivera, a 42-year-old El Salvadorian missionary who arrived in November. It’s a 180-degree turn from few centuries ago, when hundreds of Catholic missionaries left Spain for Latin America.

Rivera explained, “Now it’s the other way around.” “I observed a need for priests in Spain and decided to volunteer.” “Easy things have never appealed to me.”

In all, around 10% of the Catholic priests now ministering in Spain were born outside of the country. Given that the average age of a priest in Spain is now about 65, the influx is good.

How difficult is it for Rivera? “I’m a missionary priest proclaiming the Gospel in a culture that isn’t my own,” he explained. “I need to study.”

He and Ortega make an effort to work well together. Rivera operated the church’s sound system through Bluetooth and altered the music tracks and level from his phone while Ortega blessed parishioners during a recent celebration.

They’ve both gone dancing with several people of Morales del Vino, a little hamlet where Ortega is the parish priest, and one of the revelers, 23-year-old lawyer Juan Manuel Pedrón, has praised their efforts.

“If the church wants to assist us, it needs to be normal,” Pedrón adds. “It has to be with us, with the young people, and do what we do.”

Tania Rey, his 27-year-old girlfriend, was visiting Morales del Vino for the first time.

“The priest in my town circulates among old people,” she explained. “I am astounded to see these two priests in such a state.”

Rivera was mocked by her and Pedrón, who said he danced better than they did.

Rivera scheduled a meeting at the community center the next day after Sunday Mass, which he presided. The formal church structure, which is 300 years old, is deteriorating.

“The church’s walls are collapsing inward, and the roof is in jeopardy.” We need to figure out what the repair approach is,” he adds, adding that parishioner contributions will be needed to boost the diocese’s repair budget.

Rivera orders a glass of chilled white wine and sits with some of the parishioners while the party proceeds to the village tavern.

He claims that his challenges are diverse. “I need to figure out how to obtain help repairing the church… and get acclimated to going to the bar.”

After Mass, he couldn’t picture enjoying a beer in a pub in his Salvadorean birthplace. “However, if here is where people congregate and interact, then this is where I must be as well.”

However, in terms of church attendance and energy, the current trend is in the other direction, toward the growing numbers of Pentecostal and other evangelical groups.

Many of these congregations rent space in industrial buildings on the fringes of cities and towns, frequently filling them with devout worshippers as massive, centuries-old Catholic churches close.

A major carpentry company and another evangelical church are located next to a Pentecostal church in Salamanca. It hosted a rite of passage for Melanie Villalobos to celebrate her 13th birthday on a recent Friday night.

Melanie was brought to a wall where a video was shown by two of her pals in a slow dance. Her father, who had flown in from Venezuela, greeted her and wished her a joyful passage into adolescence. At the tables, onlookers from Honduras, the Dominican Republic, and Brazil were brought to tears.

Pastor Nedyt Lescano, 62, an Argentine immigrant who arrived in the United States in 2000, remained relatively mute during the service but urged everyone to reconvene on Sunday morning.

Roberto Siqueira, 32, a Brazilian who works at a cheese factory on the outskirts of Salamanca, was among those welcoming the devout. On Sundays, he plays guitar and sings in a Christian rock band in the Pentecostal church, where they perform dance-inducing music.

One of the lines reads, “This life is worth very little, but the connection with God is worth everything.”

It’s similar to karaoke. People sing along with the lyrics shown on the wall, waving and gyrating to the beat. Some appear to be in a trance, while others cry out in pain.

Around 50 individuals are there, attempting to adhere to coronavirus social-distancing guidelines.

During the event, Lescano stays silent, allowing attendees to tell about obstacles they’ve endured and prayers that have been answered.

During one of Lescano’s services, she requests for assistance in paying the rent for the buildings, as well as other expenditures, and the faithful, one by one, place an envelope in a cotton bag.

“Unlike the Catholic church, we are not supported financially.” “Here, we do everything on our own,” Lescano explains.

In fact, following an arrangement with the government, Spain’s Catholic church got 301 million euros (about $340 million) in 2020, despite the fact that it is no longer recognized as the official national faith. Evangelicals in Spain earned a symbolic 462,000 euros (about $523,000) despite having over 4,500 registered houses of worship.

For those going to the improvised church, Lescano frequently feels like a psychotherapist as much as a preacher.

“Immigrants feel lonely and alienated in a strange nation,” she explained, “and here they receive love and embraces.” “They come here to share, to lose pounds and to relieve worry from their bodies and brains.”

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