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New Vibe Fills Old Sanctuary
by Nicolás Medina Mora Pérez | Jun 29, 2012 11:37 am
Posted to: Fair Haven, News From The Pews
While Catholics blocks away knelt in silence as the Host was raised, faithful at Fair Haven’s Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal stood up, raising their hands in worship.
“Hallelujah!” they shouted in Spanish over the loud pop quartet. “Blessed be the Lord!”
The Methodists had long ago left the building.
The adoration took place during the weekly Sunday morning service inside Iglesia de Dios, which inhabits a former Methodist house of worship.
Pastor Héctor Otero had just finished preaching a sermon about the Christian virtue of success—both spiritual and material—when the congregation exploded in effusive praise of God.
The sermon’s theme was apt, as the parish at 99 East Pearl St. in Fair Haven was celebrating the graduation of its younger members from high and middle schools across Greater New Haven.
The mostly Puerto Rican congregation acted, looked, and sounded very different from what it would have 30 years ago—and from many other Hispanic flocks in the neighborhood.
This past Sunday’s service began with music. It wasn’t the Gregorian chants that one would expect to hear inside the church’s airy neo-Gothic building. Instead of the lonely voices of monks there was a lively pop-rock group of electric guitars, bass, a full drum set, and an electric keyboard. The music, consisting mostly of optimistic ballads, would not have been out of place in a top 40 radio station.
“I’ll give you / The best of my life,” read the Spanish lyrics projected on a teleprompter above the pulpit, inviting the parish to clap and sing along. The atmosphere was not unlike that of a rock concert.
The seeming disconnect between sound and architecture is a perfect symbol of the historical transformations of the city’s religious community. The buildings of Fair Haven’s many churches tell a story of successive waves of immigration. As people from different parts of the world arrive in the city, the makeup of the congregations and the nature of their music changes—while the buildings remain the same.
The faithful at nearby Saint Rose of Lima, for example, are now predominantly from South and Central America. It was not always so. When the church was built in the early 20th century, Fair Haven was still an Italian enclave. The church was built to serve the needs of that community, which did not feel welcome at Saint Francis, the Irish Catholic parish on Ferry Street.
Then, as the Italian church-going population moved farther east during the mid-century flight to the suburbs, Saint Rose found itself in crisis. It almost went the way of Sacred Heart, the Hill Catholic parish that eventually had to close its doors. (Incidentally, Sacred Heart too had its beginnings as a Congregationalist house of worship.)
Saint Rose survived thanks to the wave of mostly Catholic Latin Americans who began coming to America in the 1960s. The Church began offering Spanish masses, the images of the Virgin of Montichiari were transfixed into representations of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Saint Rose reinvented itself as a new kind of immigrant church.
A similar story unfolded at the current site of the Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal. Nowhere is the transformation more poignant than in the sign that stands in front of the door. The old heading still reads “East Pearl United Methodist Church.” But the text below it now spells “Iglesia de Dios [P]entecostal M.I, Pastor Hector L. Otero.”
Pastor Otero founded the new church 18 months ago, after relocating with his wife to New Haven from Carolina, Puerto Rico. As with most of the former Spanish colonies in the Americas, the majority of the island’s population remains Catholic—but that picture is quickly changing. Censuses from all over the region suggest that Evangelical Protestantism is the fastest-growing religion in Latin America.
This evolution of the religious landscape is especially visible in Puerto Rico, where Pastor Otero’s denomination—the Pentecostal Church of God—is now the second largest group after the Roman Catholic Church, with over 100,000 members as of 2006.
“I’d say that our congregation is 75 percent Puerto Rican,” said Pastor Otero, “but we also have members from Venezuela, Ecuador, Mexico, and many other countries.”
These demographic changes an ocean away have resonated in New Haven, where Hispanic Protestant churches have skyrocketed in the last decade, especially over the past five years.
After the introductory music, the service was dedicated to the congregation’s younger members, many of whom just graduated from high school. Pastor Otero presented them with customized plaques congratulating them on their success, and encouraging them to keep on pursuing their goals.
Churches often serve as centers of cultural preservation, enabling the children of immigrant parents to stay in touch with their roots. Luis Cruz, for example, just graduated from Hamden High School and was one of the parishioners honored during the service. Cruz, who is 18 and plans to join “either the Air Force or the National Guard,” said that he “love[s] the connection with God” that he found at the church’s Youth Ministry.
Cruz speaks mostly English at home. The church is one of the few places left were he routinely hears and speaks Spanish.
“If it wasn’t for church, I’d probably have forgotten it,” Cruz said in an interview conducted in English after the service.
Similar concerns became apparent during the sermon itself, when an older woman asked a young girl in a whisper whether she understood what the pastor was saying.
Keeping the young in the church came sometimes prove a challenge. Dante Torres, another 18-year-old graduate from Hamden High, said he doesn’t usually come to services. His family convinced him to come this one time to receive the pastor’s blessing upon his graduation.
That Hamden High graduates attended the ceremony highlights another peculiarity of Pastor Otero’s congregation. Whereas most of Fair Haven’s Hispanic churches serve their immediate neighborhoods, Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal attracts a congregation with many suburban members, some hailing from places as far as New Britain, half an hour away by car.
Pastor Otero’s congregation tend to be wealthier than their peers at nearby churches.
“Our congregation is mostly middle class,” said Pastor Otero. “But we also have many members of more humble means.”
This economic difference is in part explained by the parish’s demographics. Although they still face many economic challenges, Puerto Ricans tend to be wealthier than more recent immigrants from other parts of Latin America.
Much as Mexicans and Ecuadorean immigrants now do, the early members of New Haven’s Puerto Rican community came to the city in search of entry-level jobs, then in agriculture and manufacturing. Through the years, many have successfully climbed the economic ladder—to the point that they can afford to drive to Fair Haven from the suburbs every Sunday.
The Gospel of Success
After honoring the students, Pastor Otero began to preach this week’s sermon. His words, which had a strong motivational flavor, reflected the aspirations and desires of his congregation of upwardly-mobile middle-class Latinos. Whereas Saint Rose’s Father Manship often ends mass by reminding the undocumented members of his flock what to do in case immigration gives them trouble, Pastor Otero spoke about his dream of owning his own house.
He focused on a passage from Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews, which deals with the need to focus on fulfilling God’s work.
“And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith,” reads the passage in the New International Standard Version of the Bible. “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Pastor Otero interpreted the passage to mean that success is a Christian virtue, just like charity or forgiveness.
“Success is a word that has become too secular,” he said in Spanish. “People often speak of success in business, in politics, even in sports. But we don’t hear very often of Christian success—perhaps because the word has a connotation of vanity, of a lack of spirituality. But the biblical passage I just read to you is about success.”
The Pastor went on to explain that the triumphs of believers are all in the end for the greater glory of God, who wants his chosen people to win in every race.
“God designed us to be successful!” the preacher exclaimed.
He then went on to say that “all human life is based around motivation,” and that the faithful should find that motivation in God and employ it to achieve whatever it is they want to achieve.
He invoked four biblical characters as examples.
“Like David, you must be brave. Like Paul, you must be determined. Like Moses, you must be self-motivated. And like Jesus, you must be persevering,” he said, his voice growing louder over a crescendo of instrumental rock music. Congregants occasionally interrupted him with shouts of approval.
Pastor Otero then explained that the success of which he spoke could be material as well as spiritual. He gave as an example his own aspiration to own a house, and said that God gave him the necessary strength to fight that battle.
“Keep your eyes on the prize,” he said to the congregation. “Whether it is a college degree or a house, always think of the reward. Do you think Jesus died for nothing? No, he wanted the joy of success—the reward of knowing that he had saved us.”
After the sermon, the service closed with more music. The congregation then gathered in the church’s back room to share cake and soda with the newly graduated students.
A young woman named Yolanda Resto approached the pastor. She had recently arrived from Puerto Rico; this was her first time in the church. She said that she’d been looking for a parish for a while, and that she was very happy to have found Pastor Otero.
“What we had in Puerto Rico,” she said in Spanish, smiling, “that is exactly what we have here.”
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A nicely written article, albeit some snarky comments about Methodist and traditional Catholic masses. One can’t help but notice that services here are almost always practically empty, as indicated by the pictures in the article.
Maybe the author should have paid more attention to the sermon and the tenet of Christianity…treat others as you would be treated, and don’t pass judgment. Somewhat hypocritical, don’t you think???
Hi! This is the author of the article. I just want to say that I have nothing against Catholics, Methodists, or any other denominations. Click on the link on “Santa Rosa de Lima” in this article to read a piece I wrote about that parish.
Thanks for reading, and glad you liked the writing.
Wow. Just WOW… The pastor preached a sermon on “the Christian virtue of success”?? What exactly does that mean? That the unsuccessful are not virtuous? Did Jesus say “Blessed are the successful”? I guess I’m working with an outdated translation of the Bible or something.
Success is NOT a Christian virtue, folks. If it were, then how the %*^&@# does Jesus die on a cross?
And while we’re at it: Nothing against Luis Cruz, the young man interviewed in this story; obviously he seems like a good kid. But I wonder: How has his “Christian” formation at Iglesia de Dios informed his decision to join the National Guard, where he’ll be trained to kill on command and then sent to some village full of “unsuccessfuls” in Afghanistan? Has the good pastor managed to prepare him for the crisis of conscience that may well await him there?
I gotta tell ya, there is a very smelly underside to religion when it gets mixed with capitalist ethics and imperialist morality. Jesus went to the Cross resisting such heresies…