SALAMANCA, Spain (AP) — When Kent Albright, a Baptist pastor from the United States, arrived as a missionary to Spain in 1996, he was unprepared for the insults and threats, or the fines from the police for handing out Protestant leaflets on the streets of Salamanca.
“Social animosity was big — they had never seen a Protestant in their life,” said Albright, recalling one woman who whispered, “Be thankful we don’t throw stones at you.”
He couldn’t have imagined that 25 years later, he would be pastoring an evangelical congregation of 120 and count about two dozen other thriving Protestant churches in the northwestern city. And there’s a distinctive feature to the worshippers: Most are not Spanish-born — they’re immigrants from Latin America, including about 80% of Albright’s congregation.
The numbers reflect huge surges in Spain’s migrant population and evangelical population in recent decades, profoundly changing how faith is practiced in a country long dominated by the Catholic church.
One of the newest members of Albright’s congregation is Luis Perozo, 31, a former police officer from Venezuela who arrived in Spain in February 2020 and applied for asylum with his wife, Narbic Escalante, 35.
While the couple wait for their status to be resolved, Perozo works in a hotel laundry. His wife does nursing in a retirement home.
“I was a lifelong Catholic,” says Escalante. “When I arrived in Salamanca, I entered the church, looked everywhere, said hello, and they ignored me. I went to several churches — I felt absolutely nothing.”
Perozo and Escalante soon visited Albright´s church; one of Perozo´s uncles had emigrated earlier and was already a member.
Escalante commended Albright’s approach to pastoring, including services with lively music and less emphasis on repetitive prayer.
“I definitely feel better here than in the Catholic Church,” she says. “It allows me to live more freely, with less inhibitions.”
With the arrival of the euro currency two decades ago, Spain experienced a boom that fueled migration. In 2000, there were 471,465 legally registered migrants in Spain; there are now about 7.2 million.
Albright was so intrigued that he wrote a Ph.D. thesis about the phenomenon, estimating that 20% of the migrants are evangelicals.
The last official census conducted by the Justice Ministry’s Observatory of Religious Pluralism found 1.96% of Spain’s population was Protestant in 2018 — more than 900,000 people. That’s up from 96,000 tallied in 1998.
The steady growth of the Protestant population coincides with a steady drop in the number of churchgoing Catholics. According to the Sociological Research Center, a public institute, 62% of Spaniards define themselves as Catholics, down from 85% in 2000.
It’s a striking development in a country where Catholicism, for centuries, was identified with near-absolute power — from the long, often brutal era of the Spanish Inquisition to the 36-year dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, who called his regime National-Catholic, in the 20th century.
Of the 23,000 Catholic parishes in Spain at present, more than 6,000 have no full-time priest. Some churches had to be grouped together and served by traveling priests who minister to multiple parishes.
The church’s challenges are evident in the province of Zamora, just north of Salamanca, which has lost 16% of its population since 2000. There are 304 parishes and only about 130 priests.
One of the traveling priests, the Rev. Francisco Ortega, manages six parishes — trying to adapt as the number of churchgoers steadily declines.
It’s a hectic agenda, but Ortega recently received some help — Rev. Edgardo Rivera, a 42-year-old missionary from El Salvador, joined him in November. It’s a reversal of the pattern several centuries ago, when hundreds of Catholic missionaries embarked for Latin America from Spain.
Overall, about 10% of the Catholic priests now serving in Spain were born elsewhere. The influx is welcome, given that the average age for a priest in Spain today is about 65.
Rivera and Ortega strive to be good teammates. While Ortega blessed parishioners during one recent celebration, Rivera managed the church’s sound system via Bluetooth and changed the music tracks and volume from his phone.
The next day, after Sunday Mass, Rivera organized a gathering at the community center where he officiated. The official church building, 300 years old, is falling down; gifts from parishioners will be needed to supplement the diocese’s repair budget.
He then headed to the village bar with some of the parishioners, ordering a glass of white wine.
He couldn’t imagine drinking a beer at a bar in his Salvadoran hometown after Mass. “But if this is where people gather and how people socialize here, this is where I have to be too.”
But the momentum — in terms of church attendance and energy — is going in the other direction, toward the burgeoning ranks of Pentecostal and other evangelical congregations.
Many of those congregations rent space in industrial buildings on the outskirts of cities and towns – often filling them with zealous worshippers even as many centuries-old Catholic churches empty out.
One such Pentecostal venue in Salamanca recently hosted a rite of passage for Melanie Villalobos to celebrate her turning 13.
Two of Melanie’s friends escorted her in a slow dance to a wall where a video was projected. There, her father appeared from Venezuela, wishing her a happy transition into adolescence. Onlookers from Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Brazil, seated at tables, were moved to tears.
Pastor Nedyt Lescano, 62, who came from Argentina in 2000, was mostly silent during the ceremony, but invited everyone to meet again for Sunday worship.
In Lescano’s services, there’s a moving moment when she asks for help in paying the rent for the premises, along with other expenses, and the faithful, one by one, put an envelope in a cloth bag.
“Unlike the Catholic church, we don’t receive any subsidies. We do it all by our own efforts here,” Lescano says.
Indeed, Spain’s Catholic church — though no longer recognized as the official national faith — received 301 million euros (about $340 million) in 2020 under an agreement with the government. Spain’s evangelicals — though now accounting for more than 4,500 registered places of worship — received a symbolic 462,000 euros (about $523,000).
Lescano often feels like a psychologist for those flocking to the makeshift church.
“Immigrants feel lonely and isolated, in a strange country, and here they receive love and hugs,” she said. “Here they come and share, take pounds of weight and anxiety off their bodies and minds.”
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