Jan. 16, 2007 -- More and more these days in urban, Hispanic neighborhoods around the United States, decrepit storefronts and abandoned buildings have been converted into churches.
It's a storefront one day, a church, the next where a Hispanic congregation worships, raising its hands and swaying with the same kind of spontaneity that landed the church there in the first place.
This week The New York Times published a three-part series called "House Afire," about the rise of Pentecostalism -- the world's fastest-growing branch of Christianity. The trend is particularly strong among Hispanic immigrants.
Many are drawn to the faith's spirited style of worship. Music, tambourines, singing, praising, healing, speaking in tongues, and frenzied movements are all staples of a Pentecostal service. It's believed the Holy Spirit comes through this exuberance and directly ignites churchgoers, providing them with a personal relationship to God.
Pentecostalism also emphasizes attaining rewards in the here and now, a popular theme for many Hispanic immigrants in search of the American dream. There is a strong emphasis on education, hard work and prosperity, and talk of creating a better life not in the afterworld but here, even in the ghettos, on earth.
According to the Times' metro reporter David Gonzalez, who spent more than a year on "House Afire," Pentecostals are ambitious. On ABC News' Spanish-language "Exclusiva" podcast, he recalled how a Pentecostal pastor discussed his congregation's ambitions.
"The pastor said, 'We are more ambitious than Rockefeller.' Not that they want to be filthy rich, but … they want success, that if they live right by this religion, their children will go to school, they'll get an education."
Just a few decades ago, almost all Hispanics in the United States were Catholic. But today, Catholicism faces heavy competition. Most Hispanic Pentecostals are former Catholics. Gonzalez said one reason they convert is Pentecostals do not need saints and angels and statues, not even a priest.
All Pentecostals can preach, heal and feel the Holy Spirit. Everyone can pastor and feel like a priest.
"I was often told that they left Catholic church services feeling cold, empty," said Gonzalez. "That's a tough thing to say, leaving a church service feeling cold, empty. In the Pentecostal church, the storefront, the pastor knows your name. He introduces you to the congregation. They clap, and you get a chance to preach yourself. It's personal and direct."
Another reason many Hispanic immigrants convert is their sense of feeling adrift in this country. Pentecostal churches seem to offer benefits that reach far in a new land.
They offer a sense of community and Hispanic immigrants feel welcome there, often attending services every day at the church or at the home of parishioners. They feel less alone in their struggles and rely on the congregation for personalized support with broken families, the hardships of a new country, and feelings of nostalgia.
The political implications of this faith in the United States may also be far reaching.
Traditionally, Pentecostals avoid participating in politics. This may explain why the defense of illegal immigrants comes more from Catholics than from Pentecostals, even though so many members of the Pentecostal church are immigrants.
But these Hispanic Christians are part of the constituency that both Democrats and Republicans are going after as they gear up for 2008. "There is a challenge to politicians who look at minority communities as traditionally Democratic," said Gonzalez. "You just can't say because they're Latinos, they're going to be Democrats. They might be, on the social and economic issues, but on … family issues, they're going to be very conservative."
The trick, according to Gonzalez, for both major political parties, is to realize that Hispanics are diverse. To appeal to them, a candidate has to explain certain positions. Gone are the days of taking the vote for granted and just saying, "they're going to be Democrats."