The back wall of the sanctuary of Iglesia Cristiana Pentecostal Church of Orlando in Pine Hills is lined with the flags of the Hispanic congregation: Puerto Rico, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Venezuela, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cuba, Haiti and Texas.
The flags speak to the spread of Pentecostalism throughout the world and, in particular, Latin nations. The Pentecostal faith, which holds that the miracles of the Bible are still happening today, is proliferating among Hispanics, many of whom are former Catholics.
"It's a combination of immigration in which a lot of Latinos are already Pentecostal and the conversion taking place in the Catholic Church among those converting to Pentecostalism," said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington.
Worldwide, Pentecostals represent one of the fastest-growing religious movements, fueled in part by the Hispanic brand of worship that is highly emotional, very intense and extremely personal, Lugo said.
"It's really evangelism on steroids," Lugo said. "This may well be the most dynamic religious movement in the world today in terms of growth and breadth and scope."
Central Florida is in the middle of the boom in Hispanic Pentecostal growth because of the influx of Puerto Ricans and immigrants from countries such as Nicaragua, Honduras and the Caribbean, where Pentecostalism has flourished for decades.
That growth is evident at Iglesia Cristiana, which began 23 years ago with seven families and now has 200, said René Eugenio Báez, the pastor. The Pine Hills church has started congregations in Clermont, Winter Garden, Haines City, DeLand, New Orleans and El Paso, Texas. It also has sponsored Pentecostal churches in Nicaragua, Honduras and Puerto Rico.
Pentecostal churches are largely independent and unaffiliated. They lack the structure, tradition and rituals of religious denominations such as Catholics, Baptists and other Protestant churches.
In Báez's church there is a schedule to the services — music, announcements, sermon, collection — but there are no prayers repeated every Sunday, the music is always different, and the service itself is dictated more by whim and instinct than established ritual.
"There isn't any pattern. There isn't a procedure. We don't believe in that," he said. "When you come to our church, you don't know what is going to happen. The experience will always be different."
Some of the Pentecostal growth has come at the expense of the Catholic Church. The majority of Hispanics in the U.S. are Catholic, but their numbers are expected to decline from 68percent in 2006 to 61percent by 2030, according to a study on how Latinos are transforming religion in the U.S. by the Pew Forum and the Pew Hispanic Center.
The study found that of those who converted to Pentecostalism, 43 percent had been Catholic.
Bishop Thomas Wenski of the Catholic Diocese of Orlando concedes the defections of Catholic Hispanics to Pentecostal churches but says many of those were Catholic more by culture than religious conviction. In some Latin American countries, where the influence of the church has waned, Hispanic Catholics are more open to seeking other religious experiences.
The challenge for the Catholic Church, Wenski said, is to give those cultural Catholics a meaningful religious experience as well. One way the church is doing that is to create small-group organizations of Hispanic Catholics that serve as cultural and religious support groups for immigrants and new arrivals.
"Here in Orlando, we are trying through these Hispanic groups and spiritual movements to evangelize the Hispanic so that his religion is not just one of culture, but conviction also," Wenski said.
Daisy Rodriquez said she left the Catholic Church for the greater freedom of religious expression within the Pentecostal faith. Rodriquez, who joined Báez's church four years ago, said she began experiencing faith healing and speaking in tongues while still a Catholic but felt ostracized by priests and other members of the church.
"I have beautiful experiences in the Catholic Church, but there were limits," said Rodriquez, 68, who is from Puerto Rico. "In the Pentecostal Church, I feel more freedom to perform what the Lord wants me to do."
Jeff Kunerth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5392.
What is Evangelism?
Evangelism involves spreading the Gospel to nonbelievers. In the United States, the majority of evangelicals are not Pentecostal. In many Latin American countries, most evangelicals are Pentecostal.
What is Pentecostalism?
Pentecostalism places an emphasis on a direct personal experience of God through the Holy Spirit, revealed through the speaking of tongues, faith healing, divine visions and miracles. Pentecostalism exists throughout the world but is strongest in Latin America.
What is the charismatic movement?
Within the Catholic Church, the charismatic movement incorporated elements of Pentecostalism including speaking in tongues, faith healing and visions. According to the Pew Center, 54 percent of Hispanic Catholics identify themselves as charismatics.
Hispanic religious affiliation in the U.S.
Mainline Protestant: 5%
Other Christian: 3%
Don't know: 1%
SOURCE: "Changing Faiths: Latinos and the Transformation of American Religion," a study by the Pew Hispanic Center and Pew Forum on Religion & Public LifeCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun