When Kent Albright, a Baptist pastor from the United States, came as a missionary to Spain In 1996, he was unprepared for insults and threats, or fines from the police for handing out Protestant pamphlets on the streets of Salamanca.
“The social animosity was great: they had never seen a Protestant in their life,” Albright said, recalling a woman who whispered, “Give thanks we didn’t throw stones at you.”
He could not have imagined that 25 years later he would be the pastor of a 120-person evangelical congregation, counting about two dozen other thriving Protestant churches in the northwestern city of the country.
And there is a distinctive characteristic in the faithful: most of them were not born in Spain: they are immigrants from Latin America, including 80% of the Albright congregation.
The numbers reflect huge increases in Spain’s migrant population and evangelical population in recent decades, and produce profound changes in how the faith is practiced in a country dominated by the Catholic Church for a long time.
“The Bible says that there are no ethnic groups, there are no races. I don’t go down the street asking questions, nor do I ask for passports at the church door, ”Albright said. He marvels that in a course he teaches for deacons, his six students include one from Peru, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador.
One of the newest members of his congregation is Luis Perozo, 31, a former police officer from Maracaibo, Venezuela, who arrived in Spain in February 2020 and applied for asylum with his wife, Narbic Escalante, 35.
While the couple wait for their immigration status to be resolved, Perozo works in a hotel laundry. His wife is a nurse in a retirement home.
“I, a lifelong Catholic, says Escalante. “Upon arriving in Salamanca, I entered the church, looked everywhere, greeted, and they ignored me. I went to several different churches: I felt absolutely nothing ”.
Perozo and Escalante soon visited Albright Church; one of Perozo’s uncles had emigrated before and was already a member.
“The next day, Pastor Albright was helping us find a house, appliances, the kitchenware. He made the move for us with his van, ”Escalante said.
She praised Albright’s approach to pastoring, including services with upbeat music and a lesser emphasis on repetitive prayer.
“I definitely feel better here than in the Catholic Church,” she says. “It allows me to live more freely, with fewer inhibitions.”
Before she and her husband were baptized at the Albright church, she visited a Catholic priest. Remember that he replied: “If it makes you feel at peace, go away, you do not commit sin.”
Albright sees similar reactions among other Latin American immigrants. When they go to a Catholic church, “they don’t feel like they understand their problems,” he says.
“Latinos in general have a desire to participate in worship,” he added. “They need to take an active part in the celebration. The Catholic Church feels static for them ”.
New believers after migration
With the arrival of the euro two decades ago, Spain experienced an economic boom that fueled migration. In 2000, there were 471,465 legally registered migrants in Spain; now there are about 7.2 million.
Albright was so intrigued by this phenomenon that he wrote a doctoral thesis on it at the University of Salamanca. He estimated that 20% of the migrants are evangelicals.
The last official census carried out by the Observatory of Religious Pluralism of the Ministry of Justice found that 1.96% of the population of Spain was Protestant in 2018 – more than 900,000 people. That’s an increase from the 96,000 recorded in 1998.
The steady growth of the Protestant population coincides with a steady decline in the number of Catholics attending church. According to the Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas, a public institute, 62% of Spaniards define themselves as Catholic, a number less than 85% in 2000, and 98% in 1975. Only about a third of those Catholics he claims to actively practice his faith.
It is an astonishing development in a country where Catholicism, for centuries, was identified with almost absolute power: from the long and often brutal era of the Spanish Inquisition to the 36-year dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, who called national-Catholic to his regime, in the twentieth century.
Of the 23,000 Catholic parishes in Spain today, more than 6,000 do not have a full-time priest. Some churches had to close when a priest died or retired, or were grouped with other churches served by itinerant priests ministering in various parishes.
The Church’s challenges are evident in the province of Zamora, north of Salamanca, which has lost 16% of its population since 2000. There are 304 parishes and only about 130 priests who serve them.
One of the itinerant priests, Reverend Francisco Ortega, runs six parishes and tries to adapt as the number of parishioners steadily declines. In his 40s, he has been active on YouTube since the pandemic began, and is now back on the streets trying to keep up with his parishioners.
It’s a hectic schedule, but Ortega recently got some help: Father Edgardo Rivera, a 42-year-old missionary from El Salvador, joined him in November. It is the opposite of what happened several centuries ago, when hundreds of Catholic missionaries embarked for Latin America from Spain.
“Now it’s the other way around,” Rivera said. “Seeing the need for cures in Spain, I thought of offering myself. I don’t like easy things ”.
Overall, about 10% of the Catholic priests now serving in Spain were born elsewhere. The influx is welcome, given that the average age of a priest in Spain today is around 65.
How difficult is this for Rivera? “I am a missionary priest in a place that is not my culture. I have to learn, ”he said.
He and Ortega strive to be good teammates. As Ortega blessed parishioners during a recent celebration, Rivera operated the church’s sound system via Bluetooth and changed music tracks and volume from his mobile phone.
Both have gone to dance with some neighbors of Morales del Vino, a small town where Ortega is the parish priest, and they won praise from one of the partygoers, the lawyer Juan Manuel Pedrón, 23 years old.
“If the church wants to offer us support, be normal, it has to be with us, with the young people, and do the same as us,” says Pedrón.
His girlfriend, Tania Rey, 27, was on her first visit to Morales del Vino. “In my town, the figure of the priest revolves around elderly women. It shocks me a lot to see these two priests like this, ”he said.
She and Pedrón joked with Rivera: they said that he dances better than them.
The next day, after Sunday Mass, Rivera organized a meeting at the community center where he officiated. The official 300-year-old church building collapses.
“The church walls are caving in, the roof is in danger. We have to see what strategy we follow to repair it, ”he says, explaining that gifts from parishioners will be needed to supplement the diocese’s repair budget.
The group then goes to the village bar; Rivera orders a glass of chilled white wine and sits down with some of the parishioners.
His challenges are varied, he says. “I have to see how I ask for help to repair the church … and get used to coming to the bar.”
He couldn’t imagine drinking a beer in a bar in his Salvadoran hometown after mass. “But if this is where people gather and socialize here, this is also where I have to be.”
Other evangelical congregations
But for the moment, the momentum – in terms of church attendance and energy – is in the other direction, toward the growing ranks of Pentecostals and other evangelical congregations.
Many of those congregations rent space in industrial buildings on the outskirts of cities and towns – often filling them with enthusiastic devotees even as great century-old Catholic churches empty.
One of those Pentecostal locations in Salamanca is neighboring a large carpentry shop and another evangelical church. On a recent Friday night, it hosted a rite of passage for Melanie Villalobos to celebrate her 13th birthday.
Two of Melanie’s friends escorted her in a slow dance to a wall where a video was being projected. His father appeared there from Venezuela, wishing him a happy transition to adolescence. The spectators seated at the tables – from Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Brazil – were moved to tears.
Pastor Nedyt Lescano, 62, who arrived from Argentina in 2000, was mostly silent during the ceremony, but invited everyone to meet again on Sunday morning.
Among those who greeted the faithful was Roberto Siqueira, a 32-year-old Brazilian who works in a cheese factory on the outskirts of Salamanca. On Sundays, he plays guitar and sings in a Christian rock band that performs dance-inducing songs in the Pentecostal church.
“This life is worth very little and the relationship with God is worth everything,” says the lyrics of a song.
It’s a bit like karaoke. The lyrics are projected on the wall, people sing, gesture and turn to the beat. Some appear in a trance, others scream with excitement.
About 50 people are present and trying to comply with the social distancing restrictions of the new coronavirus.
Lescano doesn’t say much during the ceremony: He lets the faithful testify about the challenges they faced and the prayers that were answered.
In Lescano’s services, there is a moving moment in which he asks for help to pay the rent of the premises and other expenses, and the faithful, one by one, place an envelope in a cloth bag.
“Unlike the Catholic Church, we do not receive grants. We do it all by lungs, ”says Lescano.
In fact, the Catholic Church in Spain – although it is no longer recognized as the official national faith – received 301 million euros (about US $ 340 million) in 2020 under an agreement with the government. Evangelicals in Spain – who now have more than 4,500 registered places of worship – received a token amount of 462,000 euros (about US $ 523,000).
Lescano often feels like a psychologist as well as a pastor to those who flock to the makeshift church.
“Immigrants feel alone and isolated in a strange country and here they receive hugs and love,” she said. “Here they come to share and they take off tons of weight that they carry on the body and mind.”
Ricardo is a renowned author and journalist, known for his exceptional writing on top-news stories. He currently works as a writer at the 247 News Agency, where he is known for his ability to deliver breaking news and insightful analysis on the most pressing issues of the day.