For a few hours, the parish hall at St. Anthony Catholic Church captured the flavor of Mexico as Hispanic members celebrated Cinco de Mayo a day early.
Red, white and green decorations - the colors of the Mexican flag - filled the room. Steaming pans held rice, beans, chicken and tostadas. Even the Rev. Jerry Woodman traded his vestments for the unbleached cotton garments of a field worker.
Founded generations ago as a church that ministered to Italian immigrants, St. Anthony’s now includes hundreds of Hispanics, 80 percent from the Mexican city of Guadalajara.
The demographic shift at the Renton church is not unusual. Mass is said in Spanish in 33 Catholic churches in Western Washington, including St. Anthony. The Most Rev. Carlos Sevilla became the Northwest’s first Hispanic Catholic bishop in February when he was appointed spiritual leader of the Catholic diocese of Yakima, now about 60 percent Hispanic.
Some Protestant denominations, ranging from the mainline Episcopal church to more evangelical Pentecostal churches, are also reaching out to Hispanics.
“In some respects, the future of the Episcopal church apart from our natural constituency - white, middle-class Anglos - really lies in Hispanics,” said Bishop Z.K. Sanford “Sandy” Hampton of the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia.
Some churches take a step further by combining spiritual ministry with practical help to Hispanics, particularly to new immigrants and those looking for work.
“We need to take care of the needs of people. If you’re not helping people, it’s no good,” said Pastor Manuel Cabral, a Puerto Rican who conducts services in Spanish at eight Seventh-day Adventist churches from Bellingham to Lacey.
Since he started four years ago, total attendance at those churches has doubled to 800 members from “all over Latin America, South America, Central America, the Caribbean Islands,” Cabral said. About 80 worshipers are at his main church in Bellevue.
State demographers say the Hispanic population rose 57.4 percent from 1990 to 1996, second only to the 59.2 percent growth rate of Asian-Pacific Islanders. With their population at about 338,000, Hispanics are the second-largest minority group in Washington (Asian-Pacific Islanders are slightly ahead with a population of about 343,000).
Those demographic shifts were a reason for the celebration of Cinco de Mayo at St. Anthony Church. Cinco de Mayo, May 5, commemorates the Battle of Puebla in 1862, when the smaller Mexican army turned back French invaders.
Celebration organizers wanted to share their cultural heritage with non-Hispanics at St. Anthony’s by serving a home-cooked Mexican meal and wearing festive clothes.
But the meal also was a fund-raiser to send Hispanic and Anglo youths to Yakima to do community service projects for the elderly and needy. “One of our efforts is to blend, so (non-Hispanic) people will know we are kind, loving people, just as they are,” said Carmen Larson, a Mexico City native who helped organize the St. Anthony event.
Not everyone is so understanding. There are some who say the way to help Hispanics is to “just teach ‘em English,” a solution that’s too simplistic, said Woodman, pastor to the Hispanics at St. Anthony.
Sevilla, the new Yakima bishop and the son of Mexican immigrants, said finding a way for Hispanics in the United States to reconcile their faith without losing their culture has been “an ongoing challenge since the first immigrants came here.”
More than 1,000 Hispanics attend the two Spanish-language weekend Masses at Holy Family Church in White Center, a sevenfold increase from the early 1980s, the Rev. Phil Bloom said. “It’s a very youthful population. Last year I did over 100 (infant) baptisms and only one Hispanic funeral,” he said.
Like parents everywhere, his Hispanic parishioners - especially new immigrants - sometimes struggle with child-rearing. “I try to help them to understand our society and to raise kids in it,” Bloom said.
At St. Anthony, the outreach includes prayer and Bible study groups led by Hispanics. Guadalajara native Luz Ramirez heads a group that prays for physical and spiritual healing. “The Lord is working in the Spanish community,” Ramirez said. “It’s not us.”
Protestant denominations often discover that their Hispanic members are former Catholics. About 80 Central and South Americans attend services at Mission Hispana of Grace, a Conservative Baptist church in White Center.
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