De Jesus pastors the New Life Church in Chicago, helping to expand it from 120 members in 2000 to over 17,000 today on multiple campuses.
“In the Evangelical church, we find freedom to worship, and with Hispanics, it’s in us to be able to love people. Naturally, we just love people. We are hugging people,” De Jesus said.
Latinos make up the largest ethnic minority in the United States — 52 million, according to latest Census stats. The majority — two-thirds — are still traditionally Roman Catholic.
But there’s been a palpable shift from one generation to the next, with the newer ones being “born again.”
Evangelicals now number about 20 percent of the Latino population, according to the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
The change poses the greatest concern for the Catholic Church — though many are leaving for evangelical churches, the volume of Catholics had remained steady primarily through immigration from Mexico and Central American countries.
The irony is that many evangelical converts tend to more closely mirror Catholic teaching on issues like abortion and gay marriage.
“It’s an odd mixture where the Roman Catholic church is losing members but in so far as those members going to Pentecostal Evangelicals, they are in fact becoming more closely identified and more supportive of the Roman Catholic Church on these social issues,” said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion.
So what’s the difference?
It’s the relationship between worshiper and God that each denomination affords its respective followers, according to De Jesus.
“What I have seen, at least in my own experience, is this encounter with God that we didn’t experience in the Catholic Church,” he said. “A system that was so rigid and God seemed so far.”
With the election of Pope Francis, the first pope from Latin America, the Catholic Church is hoping to halt the exodus.
It’s definitely a step in the right direction, said De Jesus, but by itself it’s not likely to reverse the tide.
“We applaud the Pope and he is Hispanic. [But] people still want a relationship with God. And if the Catholic Church does not offer that, they will continue to see an exodus from their organizations to Protestants.”
The research seems to back up his conclusion.
“We are not picking up any trends of people returning to the Roman Catholic Church. If they don’t become Protestant or Pentecostal, they typically become un-affiliated,” said Lugo.