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Protestant Evangelism Booms on Catholic Continent

January 1, 1992

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) _ The first Christian missionaries in Argentina crossed the Andes on mules to preach the Gospel to Indians.

Five centuries later, Argentina’s official religion is Roman Catholicism, the dominant faith from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego. But attitudes are changing all over the continent, and evangelists are winning converts by the thousands.

Protestant evangelical churches claim up to 50 million members in Latin America. In Guatemala, an estimated 35 percent of churchgoers are evangelicals; in Chile and Nicaragua, about one in five; in Brazil, the largest Catholic country in the world, one in four.

A sign of the times was the Billy Graham crusade in November.

When he came to Argentina in 1962, about 240 evangelical churches participated, said Norman Mydske, the evangelist’s regional director. This time, about 2,000 took part.

In 1990, ″more than 50,000 new evangelical churches were begun in 20 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean,″ Mydske said, and ″I’d be surprised if the figure is not above that″ this year.

Pastors and converts say the evangelism fills ″empty spaces″ left by the Catholic Church.

Celia Garcia, 49, a schoolteacher and librarian, said she was baptized Catholic, received first Communion and married in the church, but ″never felt anything in the ceremonies.″

When she attended a Pentecostal service with a friend three years ago, ″immediately I felt something very special I had never felt before,″ she said.

″Someone explained to me that I felt the presence of Christ. It was because I had opened my heart, because I was ready to change my life.″

The Rev. Rene Padilla, a Baptist who is secretary of the Latin America Theological Fraternity, said the evangelical movement benefited from ″growing skepticism toward the Catholic Church as an institution.″

″I believe a lot of people feel let down and are looking for something else,″ he said. ″People don’t want impositions from above. They’re looking for a chance to participate, and if there is something that characterizes evangelical churches, it’s participation.″

The Rev. Osvaldo Musto of the Catholic relief group Caritas did not agree his church is overly hierarchical or lacks personal interaction, but acknowledged that participation is a strong point of the evangelicals.

″They encourage you to go before the congregation, talk, tell your experiences,″ he said. ″And they accompany you. There is an organization so people don’t feel alone.″

Musto expressed admiration for the way evangelists use mass communications.

″It’s hard to believe that, at this point in the 20th century, we Catholics don’t have a greater presence in the media,″ he said. ″This is a reproach I make to my own church, the Catholic Church.″

Graham’s crusade, for example, was held in a 76,000-seat soccer stadium. It was broadcast to 20 countries by satellite in Spanish, Portuguese and four Indian languages, and seen by an estimated 5 million people.

Evangelicals preach the same basic message in jungle clearings, city parks, slums and middle-class neighborhoods: People are separated from God by sin. They must renounce sin and accept God.

Before his conversion, said Fernando Galvan, a 35-year-old house painter, he would go out drinking and ″get into fights.″

″I was a person full of hate, full of rancor against the world,″ he said, but ″since I got to know the Gospel, the Lord took me out of all that anger, that aggressiveness. ... All that ended after I delivered myself to the Lord.″

Ms. Garcia, the schoolteacher, said: ″In other religions, to reach God you have to go through a man - a priest or a rabbi. It’s not that way in evangelicalism.″

A typical evangelical service focuses on problems that are human more than theological: unemployment, alcoholism, yearning for fulfillment.

″It’s a message that doesn’t have perplexities,″ said the Rev. Anibal Sicardi, a Methodist. ″People understand and accept the language.″

Latin America’s millions of poor are a fertile ground for evangelists. ″In general terms, they have been abandoned as much by the political parties as by the Catholic Church and the traditional Protestant churches,″ said Sicardi, director of the newsletter Prensa Ecumenica.

Liberals in the Catholic Church agree. Otto Maduro, a Venezuelan liberation theologian, links the decline of his church to its inability to address the needs of blacks, Indians and other groups at society’s margins.

″Those people have a far better chance of being esteemed and recognized as individuals in the evangelical churches than they do in the Catholic Church, which is highly centralized,″ Maduro said.

Instead of promising rewards after death, evangelicals work with politicians to improve social conditions.

The Latin American Union of Evangelicals in Politics, made up of 60 evangelicals from 16 countries, includes Carlos Garcia, second vice president of Peru; Jorge Martinez, El Salvador’s vice minister of the interior, and legislators in Brazil and Bolivia.

Evangelicals played a major role in Alberto Fujimori’s election as president of Peru.

Fujimori asked evangelical churches for help in collecting the 50,000 signatures needed to get on the ballot. They delivered half a million.

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