Looking to bigger Latino presence


WHEN MAYOR Martin O'Malley outlined a vision this month for Baltimore in 2010 in which "our Hispanic/Latino population rivals that of Washington, D.C.," the Rev. Angel Nunez had a one-word reaction.

"Yes!" Nunez said in a stage whisper.

Nunez, who was on hand to give the benediction at O'Malley's State of the City address, is the pastor of the Bilingual Christian Church, or Iglesia Cristiana Bilingue, in Highlandtown.

The story of Nunez's congregation reflects the kind of growth -- and optimism -- that the mayor hopes to build on in increasing the number of Hispanics in the city.

Founded in 1981 as the Spanish Christian Church, the congregation had 32 members who worshipped in a rented rowhouse on North Fairmont Avenue when Nunez became senior pastor 13 years ago.

Then in the mid-1990s, the Pentecostal church bought a bowling alley and a store at Eastern Avenue and South Eaton Street and converted them into a sanctuary and offices.

Now, the church is preparing to move into even larger quarters: It has a contract to buy the Teamsters Assembly Hall on Erdman Avenue, which has room for 1,000 congregants in an auditorium and another 200 in a meeting room.

The former number is one that Nunez sees his congregation reaching in the future; the latter, a number that has been reached.

"We're breaking the 200 mark now," Nunez said recently. "A solid 200. We have other people who come in once a month -- I don't count them. I'm not going to bulk up the numbers. I'm tired of people saying, 'I've got 500 members,' and you walk in and there are 50 people in the church."

The sixfold increase in membership in Nunez's church in little more than a decade is the kind of growth the city would like to see in the Hispanic population as a whole.

According to the Census Bureau, the city's Hispanic population stood at 11,061 in 2000, or 1.7 percent of the city's population, although Nunez and other community leaders consider that number to be a vast undercount. In 1990, the city had 7,602 Hispanics, or about 1 percent of the population.

By contrast, Washington had 44,953 Hispanics in 2000, or 7.9 percent of the city's population, according to census figures.

The city could also draw inspiration from Montgomery County, which had 100,604 Hispanics in the last census, or Prince George's County, with 57,057.

A report last fall, commissioned by the Abell Foundation, said attracting large numbers of immigrants -- from foreign countries or from other cities -- was going to be the key to reversing Baltimore's half-century decline of population.

In mentioning the Hispanic community in his vision for a future Baltimore, O'Malley was heeding one of the report's recommendations: "Crucially, a Mayor who supports bringing immigrants to revitalize Baltimore's neighborhoods is a key asset."

Nunez, 47, a self-described "New York Rican," a second-generation Puerto Rican from New York, sees the influx of Latinos accelerating.

"The growth of the Latino community is picking up," said Nunez, who began offering services in English and Spanish seven years ago to reflect the melting-pot nature of his church membership. "People are wanting to come from all over. I'm seeing Mexican Indians. They're here."

The church's planned move to Erdman Avenue is a "good thing" not only for the congregation but for the Latino community that is expanding from its traditional base along Eastern Avenue in Southeast Baltimore to nearby Armistead Gardens, said Jose Ruiz, the mayor's Hispanic liaison. "More people are coming in," he said. "Quite a few are buying houses."

If the church's purchase of Teamsters hall reflects the growth of the city's Hispanic community, it also mirrors the shrinking of the truckers union.

Teamsters Local 557 has 1,100 members, down from about 6,000 a quarter of a century ago, said local President William Alexander.

The union has been trying since 1996 to sell the building, which is assessed at $505,000 and sits on 1.8 acres. "The building's close to 50 years old, and the upkeep's high," said Alexander, who added that the union plans to lease office space.

The church is seeking financing for the purchase but plans to raise most of the money by selling its two buildings and hopes to close on the deal May 1, Nunez said.

The church has hoisted a banner announcing its move and posted pictures in its sanctuary of past, present and future locations: Where We Were/Donde Estabamos, Where We Are/Donde Estamos, Where We Are Going/Donde Vamos.

The Teamsters hall will need extensive repairs, but church members are prepared to undertake them, Nunez said.

Besides "room for growth," he said, "We want to open a teen center. We want a school of ministry. We're going to have a creative arts school."

"We're excited about the future," Nunez added.

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