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How Latino congregations across Utah County try to bring spiritual influence to younger generations

From the Latinos in Utah County series

From Catholics, to Latter-day Saints, and Seventh-day Adventists to a host of Christian denominations, church is as important as air to breathe for many in the Latino community.

“I live my life around it,” said Ninette Cruz. “It is who I am.”

Cruz, 20, is originally from Mexico and moved to the United States as a small child. Cruz grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and is a third-generation Adventist.

In a 2014 Pew Institute survey, Latino immigrants who say their current religion is different from their childhood religion often say that change occurred after moving to the United States.

According to the Pew Institute, among all Utah Christians, 7% are immigrants and 7% second generation. By the third and additional generations, 85% of Hispanic immigrants in Utah are Christian. On a national level, about one in four Latinos are leaving Catholicism and moving toward other Christian religions.

Local pastors, bishops and priests are well aware of what the polls and surveys show with regards to youth leaving their respective religions, which is why congregation leaders are seeking for more ways to make worship relevant. While adults tend to worship as they have, either in this country or their home country, the youth are looking for something more.

“The younger generation don’t want to hear about God, they want to experience him,” said Pastor Oscar Guerrero of Iglesia Emmanuel Assembly of God in Provo. “Young people are told about God, but unless they experience (God) it’s hard to attach to religion. ... We are very aware of that need in the younger generation.”

Some Utah County churches are working to give younger Latino generations a personal connection to God they are seeking.

Pastor Scott McKinney of the Orem Centerpoint Church, a nondenominational Christian church, said young Latinos are seeking a cultural change as well as religious change.

“They want to be raised Anglo,” McKinney said. “Their parents speak Spanish and are pulled back to that culture. The children have a pull to the Anglo culture.”

McKinney says his church provides youth programs and two worship services. One is considered a more traditional service, but the other often features gospel rock bands, multimedia presentations and more.

From Catholics, to Latter-day Saints and Seventh-day Adventists, keeping youth and their families spiritually involved is an ongoing ministry.

Catholicism

“Today, fewer than half of Hispanics under 30 are Catholic, compared with about two-thirds of those ages 50 and older,” according to the Pew survey. At the same time, Catholics under age 50 are much more likely to be Latino than those ages 50 and older.

Father Gustavo Adolfo Vidal Hernandez was assigned to St. Francis of Assisi in Orem on Aug. 1, effectively becoming the spiritual guide to more than 6,000 families. He believes that more than 60% of them are Latino.

Vidal, 53, is from Zarzal, Colombia. His parents were faithful Catholics and his mother attended Mass every day until she no longer could.

He knew his calling was to the Roman Catholic Church when he was 14. He was ordained June 28, 1997, at the Cathedral of the Madelaine in Salt Lake City.

Even with the years of study in the seminary, it was his mother who first taught him the importance of attending Mass. It is the same with many area Latino families. The church is embedded in their everyday life, culture and faith.

While Vidal hopes that families who pray and attend Mass together stay together in Catholicism, he recognizes the need for more youth-oriented activities and programs to keep them attached to the church. St. Francis just held a retreat for young people earlier this month with 150 kids from ages 7 to 13 attending.

“In January we will start a youth Mass on Fridays,” Vidal said. He said he is trying to reach not only millennials, but also the teenagers and younger children.

“Mass is a big part of us. This is how we celebrate our faith. It is important,” Vidal said. “This church is home for us. People feel they can experience their culture and spiritually celebrate.”

Vidal said he’s concerned for the younger generations, but also sees very strong Latino families at St. Francis.

Deacon Vicente Vasquez found his faith at St. Francis. He was orphaned at an early age in Zacatecas, Mexico, and lived from house to house. He had only one year of official schooling and church was not a part of his life.

“I didn’t know anything about my church,” Vasquez said.

One Sunday, he attended Mass and saw two women helping with the Communion. Women officiating was something he had not seen before and he became interested in his church.

“Mass is the center of our religion,” Vasquez said. “I feel like I got involved with Christ. He is the center of my life. Without Christ, I am nothing.”

Vasquez realized after seeing the changes in those who could officiate in serving Communion that he didn’t know anything about his religion, but he also learned he could be just like those helping the priests and that is what he wanted.

Vasquez said attending Mass has also helped him learn to read and write. Vasquez retired from being a professional house painter nine years ago and says all he wants to do is dedicate his whole life to the church.

St. Peter’s Parish in American Fork has a congregation of about 60% Latino, according to the Rev. Ariel F. Durian, who has been there less than two months.

In those two months, he has found the members very faithful and eager to serve.

“You ask them and they come — in force,” Durian said. “They are doing great for our community.”

While still a small congregation, Durian said now that they have brought back Spanish Mass, he has seen an increase in attendance.

The Church of Jesus Christ

of Latter-day Saints

Though the Catholic Church is commonly thought of as the church of Latinos for generations, Utah County’s heavily dominated religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, provides several Spanish-speaking congregations to choose from, including ones specifically for young adults.

According to church statistics, there are 39 Spanish speaking wards or branches (congregations) in Utah County. The idea is not segregation but for some, it is a better way to worship, according to church leaders. At least one ward is set apart for young single Latino adults.

“Most Latter-day Saint church services in Utah are conducted in English, however, some non-English speakers participate more fully and better understand church teachings when they worship and socialize in congregations taught in their native language,” said Elder Walter F. Gonzalez, General Authority Seventy. “We believe that people learn about the Savior and His gospel more fully when they learn it in the language of their heart. In the words of the Book of Mormon (LDS scripture), God speaks unto men according to their language and unto their understanding.”

Church President Russell M. Nelson’s recent trip through Central and South America showed the level of dedication and activity with respect to the church’s members of Latin America. But does that dedication and activity remain as immigrants come to the U.S.?

“We welcome our Latino members with open arms and appreciate the many contributions in service and leadership they bring to our wards and communities,” Gonzalez said. “The gospel is the same anywhere in the world and strengthens the testimonies and faith of members everywhere.”

Elder Jorge Eduardo Torres Becerra, Area Seventy added, “We have been pleased to see the role the gospel of Jesus Christ plays in the lives of our Latino members. They are dedicated and honorable. We see evidence of their devotion and faith. The gospel is helping them do more and become better.”

As Latinos continue to come to the U.S. and Utah County, it is a hope of the LDS Church that they can grow spiritually in their new home. The Pew research survey shows that among LDS members in Utah, 7% are Latino while 88% are white. For Latinos that number is up from 4% in a 2007 Pew study.

“We’re happy to see our Latino members flourish in this country and enjoy the blessings of the gospel,” Becerra said. “They serve in leadership positions and strengthen the wards and communities where they live.”

Becerra added that, “Part of that growth is showcased in church initiatives and programs designed to strengthen these members, such as the Latino Cultural program ‘Luz de las Naciones’ that for more than 15 years has highlighted the richness and diversity of our members.”

To help with this growth, and to facilitate the adaptation to a different culture with a different language, the church offers several resources to cope with these challenges which stem from such circumstances, according to Gonzalez.

“For instance, English lessons, how to get a job, or how to manage finances, as well as others. We welcome all members — and nonmembers — to our meetinghouses for more information about these resources and to learn more about our beliefs,” Gonzalez said.

Seventh-day Adventists

Utah County’s Seventh-day Adventist congregation has gone through a complete change over from being mostly white families to mostly Latino over the past decade after a Latino congregation had internal problems and families sought to join with the Provo congregation.

Ninette Cruz is one of the translators who helps with Sabbath worship service translation. It is fulfilling for her, she said. But behind that smile, she and others in the church are concerned about the political unrest surrounding immigrants and the Dreamers; those children born in other countries but who came here as infants and are currently protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Cruz is a Dreamer and said she has great hope, but is having to find most of it in her church and belief in God.

The Provo congregation consists of people from 30 different countries and six different languages, according to local church records. Their typical Sabbath service has about 150 in attendance and that fluctuates, according to church numbers.

Ricardo Ruiz, 16, said he knows people who say they are spiritual and don’t believe they need the church. He knows it’s difficult for youth his age to stay in church and he wants to minister to them.

“It’s good to be spiritual and know,” Ruiz said. “But (attending) church gets you more engaged with God, and you can learn more about Him.”

Some church-attending youth say they feel like they have it better than some of their friends who do not attend.

Arturo added that he believes youth will become better as they develop a relationship with Christ.

“Attending church is a good way to growing a spiritual life,” said Arturos Vasquez, a 15-year-old Adventist. “You have better success following Christ and what your parents have taught.”

But Arturo said it’s also difficult to practice his faith in Utah County, considering the culture heavily influenced by the LDS Church.

“School activities and parties are held Friday and Saturday. It’s really hard,” Arturo said. “I have to go to church and my friends say I’m not fair. It is difficult.”

Utah County clergy are hoping the youth will learn like Arturo said, that “without Christ I am nothing.” Whether through retreats, special meetings, activities, Spanish speaking congregations or Mass, congregations and their members are trying to draw the youth back into the fold.

“It’s difficult for kids to stay in church here, in the U.S. and in the world, Satan controls the world,” Ricardo said. “We feel like church is not interesting or engaging. But its still good to be spiritual and know God.”

Daily Herald reporter Genelle Pugmire can be contacted at gpugmire@heraldextra.com, (801) 344-2910, Twitter @gpugmire.

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