Latinos Are Filling Episcopalian Ranks
First Hispanic Parish Coming to Falls Church
By Elaine Rivera
Washington Post Staff Writer
It is a chilly Sunday morning at Iglesia de San Jose, a makeshift Hispanic Episcopal church in Arlington, and two guitarists begin the service by strumming the song "Flor y Canto."
Above them, small, colorful flags representing Spanish-speaking countries hang from the wall, and as the musicians play, the flags flutter, as if the joyous notes floating up from the guitars are touching them.
Every seat is filled, and people continue to stream in. Before the song is finished, the church is standing room only. It is the second and last service of the day, and the Rev. Jesus Reyes, the church's pastor, attests that every service is overflowing with Hispanic immigrants. The building, an annex to St. George's Episcopal Church, seats about 300, not nearly enough room for the burgeoning congregation.
The overflowing pews are the result of two decades of rigorous recruitment and outreach by Episcopal church officials whose efforts are about to make history in Virginia. The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, which represents 187 churches north of the James River, is negotiating to purchase a former Baptist church in Falls Church and convert it into a full-fledged Episcopal church for Latinos in Northern Virginia. It would be the first such church in Virginia.
"For 15 years, we have dreamed of having a freestanding Hispanic congregation with its own building," said the Rev. David Colin Jones, Bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of Virginia. "This will be an extraordinary opportunity."
Jones said church officials had spent years seeking ways to accommodate the growing Latino membership, so it was a stroke of luck when Boulevard Baptist Church on Arlington Boulevard in Falls Church went on the market. The structure, he said, would be ideal.
The church has a 300-seat sanctuary and a four-story education wing. It is located in the middle of one of the area's largest Hispanic neighborhoods, with access to public transportation and main highways.
Episcopal officials are close to purchasing the church, but one obstacle remains -- they are still short of the building's $4.2 million price tag. Last week, Jones and a handful of other Northern Virginia Episcopalian ministers appeared before 700 delegates at the diocese's annual convention in Reston to make an appeal to raise about $1.5 million.
"We are asking our Anglo congregations if they can make a major financial
commitment to the establishment of this church," said Jones, adding that
the groups hopes to
have a purchase deal finalized by March.
For these ministers, the timing couldn't be better. U.S. Census data
show that there are 217,000 Latinos in Northern Virginia, and Reyes said
only about 16 percent are
affiliated with a religious denomination. Church officials said census projections show that by 2025, Virginia will have more than 650,000 residents of Hispanic
descent. The Rev. Daniel Caballero, national missioner for the Episcopal Church's Hispanic Ministry, said the church began reaching out to Latino communities three
decades ago. Today, there are about 50,000 Hispanic Episcopalians nationwide and about 213 churches in those communities, he said.
As the Latino population continues to grow -- the Census Bureau projects
that by 2050, the Hispanic portion of the total U.S. population will more
than double from 11.5
percent to 24.3 percent -- the church cannot afford to stop reaching out, Reyes contended.
"This is our time. This is the moment," he said. "If we don't do anything now, we will be in terrible shape in the future."
The Rev. Victoria Heard, diocesan missioner for church planting, understands
this and has been reaching out to Latinos and other immigrant groups. Immigrants
Korea, Vietnam and Sudan are among groups that have joined the denomination in growing numbers and have their own makeshift churches, she said.
No longer can the Episcopal Church, which was once the established church
of England and whose early members in America included President George
"No one people or ethnic group should lay claim to being the church," Heard said. "A universal church must reflect the multi-ethnic reality of the community."
The ministers also realized that to attract new Hispanic congregants,
they must tailor the church to the culture. The most obvious way, they
said, is through the language,
with bilingual clergy who can say Mass in Spanish. Traditional organ music has been replaced with musicians playing modern instruments, the most popular being
"This is going to be the first place where we can develop from the grass
roots up," Reyes said. "This is about preserving identity and tradition
in the context of the
Reyes said establishment of the Hispanic church will also serve to validate a community long been ignored or rendered invisible.
"People would see the pupusarias or the other signs of Latino culture," Reyes said. "But they didn't see the people. Now we are being seen."
For Nilda Quinones, creation of the church manifests a pattern of migration
that she started in the 1970s. In 1975, Quinones, who is from Puerto Rico,
went with an
Ecuadoran immigrant to the minister of St. George's Episcopal Church and asked if they could use the small, brick annex next door to have a Mass at which they could
worship in Spanish.
"It started with just the two of us," Quinones recounted with a smile. "Then we just kept expanding and expanding."
On Sunday, worshipers young and old, newcomers and immigrants who have
been here for years, grandparents and young families filled the pews and
One of the musicians, Marcelo Arnez, who is from Bolivia, joined the church seven years ago. It is a place where, he said, "I can practice my faith with my culture."
Fellow guitarist Julio Cuellar, also from Bolivia, said he envisions
the new church as a place not only to worship but also where young Latinos
can learn their history and
traditions through theater, art and music.
"For the Latinos, it will be more than a church," Cuellar said. "It will be a community."