Santo Domingo Journal; Shepherds, or Wolves? Whatever, Flocks GrowNEW YORK TIMES [NYTimes Group/Sulzberger] - By Peter Steinfels - October 27, 1992
To believe Pope John Paul II, Bienvenido Alvarez-Vega is one of the Protestant "rapacious wolves" who are increasingly stealing Latin Americans from the Roman Catholic flock.
After the Pope used that phrase in a speech to a meeting here of Latin American bishops in mid-October, Mr. Alvarez talked about religion in his roomy office at the Santo Domingo daily paper El Siglo.
Wearing a pink shirt and casual slacks, Mr. Alvarez did not look either rapacious or wolflike. But as an articulate, university-educated Pentecostal Christian who directs one of the Dominican Republic's major newspapers, he certainly represents the dramatic progress of evangelical Protestantism in lands that have been historically Catholic.
Adherents of Protestant evangelical or Pentecostal churches, often with roots in the United States like Mr. Alvarez's Assemblies of God or the Church of God based in Cleveland, Tenn., are estimated at 18 to 21 percent of the population in Brazil, 16 percent in Chile and 20 percent in El Salvador. Estimates for Guatemala range from 18 to 33 percent. The estimate for Latin American generally is 6 to 7 percent. A Topic for the Bishops
This growth, a major item on the agenda of the Latin American Episcopal Conference meeting here in October, has been bitterly attacked by many Catholic leaders. They have portrayed what they call "sects" as everything from Communist infiltrators to agents of Yankee capitalism, the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency.
One passage of the Pope's official text echoed this vision of a well-orchestrated, well-financed religious invasion by outsiders: "We must not underestimate a certain strategy whose objective is to weaken the links that unite the countries of Latin America and in this way erode the strength born of unity. Important economic resources are allocated toward this goal, to finance proselytizing campaigns aimed at destroying Catholic unity."
But Mr. Alvarez said the Pope's speech actually represented a moderation of the Catholic attitude. The Pope, Mr. Alvarez noted, had also attributed the success of Protestant groups to shortcomings in the Catholic church's own pastoral efforts, including the shortage of priests.
Protestantism in the Dominican Republic has actually lagged behind that in other nations, although the ranks of evangelical and Pentecostal Christians here have included Cabinet ministers and a presidential candidate, Mr. Alvarez said.
Most of the growth, now encompassing about half a million of the nation's 11 million people, was occurring among the poor. The new Protestant groups are egalitarian, he said, breaking social barriers and sharing power in the congregations in a way that Catholicism did not.
"Anyone can talk, sing or give testimony," Mr. Alvarez said. "The service is spontaneous and indigenous," with local songs and rhythms.
Asked whether his Protestant faith made him feel like an outsider to Latin American culture, Mr. Alvarez said, "Exactly the opposite."
Mr. Alvarez grew up in a Catholic home in La Romana, a sugar town with a large number of English and American residents and "a lot of Protestant influences," he said. He joined the Assemblies of God at 12. When he went to the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo to study communications, he joined an evangelical group affiliated with Intra-Varsity Christian Fellowship.
"My origins were Pentecostal," he said. "But I received my most solid formation in traditional Protestantism -- Lutheranism and Calvinism but with a Latin American perspective." He met his wife, a member of the Free Methodist Church, through the Intra-Varsity Christian Fellowship.
"Nobody has made a greater effort to have a Latin American theology than evangelicals," he said, and before Catholics "we had the liturgy in our own languages."
The fact that evangelical services were in Spanish was one of the things that attracted the Rev. Kerry Gonzalez when he was a boy in Cuba. Today he and his wife, Ethel, a native of Kansas, are missionaries with the Assemblies of God at the Trinity Evangelical Church in Santo Domingo.
Mrs. Gonzalez took leave of an evening Bible lesson, led by a 34-year-old former drug addict who once lived in New York, to explain that the church began in the 1970's in a carport and then moved into rented halls. It now meets in a simple but spacious concrete building seating 300. It runs a dispensary with five doctors and a school attended by 1,000 children in two shifts daily.
Mrs. Gonzalez said that only the salaries of her and her husband came from the Assemblies of God in the United States. The Santo Domingo church also welcomes gifts for schoolbooks, medical supplies and other specific items from North American friends and local congregations. But most of the church's funds are raised from its Dominican members, she said.
While the Bible lesson went from plodding repetition to a shouting, singing crescendo, Mr. Gonzalez spoke of his disappointment with the Pope's words. "He has come from Poland and gone through persecution," the 60-year-old minister said, "Anyone who has gone through that should have a better sense of religious freedom."
At the offices of El Siglo, Mr. Alvarez acknowledged that in some countries the evangelical churches, which "often think more of heaven than of earth," he said, had been favored by military leaders and conservative forces as a counterweight to grass-roots protests backed by Catholic groups. But he warned that with the Catholic Church still enjoying special privileges in many Latin American countries, the conflict with Protestants was apt to intensify as the latter grew more numerous.
Mr. Alvarez criticized his fellow evangelicals, most of whom, he said, do not recognize Catholics as genuine Christians. "I think that's a tragedy," he said. "It shows a spiritual arrogance, a sense of having a monopoly on the truth which is not real.
"I think there are important differences of theology and liturgy, but what unites us is bigger than what separates us, and both paths are sincere searches for God."
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