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Latino Evangelical Churches Changing the Religious Landscape

Photo by Ruxandra Guidi

San Diego's Victory Outreach church sits on a main strip in National City, near the U.S.-Mexico border.

SAN DIEGO -- Evangelical pastors along the U.S.-Mexico border are increasingly building their Latino church services. They're focusing on youth ministry, women in the church and popular culture, and rapidly reinventing a traditionally Catholic community.

It's 7 pm on a Wednesday night, and a nondescript white building in National City is alive with colorful strobe lights, people rushing in, and catchy live music.

The churchgoers call this WOW, or Weekend On Wednesday prayer, an alternative to the Sunday morning mass.

Twenty-nine-year-old Alicia is one of the greeters outside. She's been with Victory Outreach for four years, and she says it was the energy of a night like tonight that brought her here for the first time.

"As soon as you walked into the building, you just felt the love," says Alicia, recalling the first time she attended the church. "You just felt the music, and I think that's one thing that just kept me so close, that I wanted more of that."

Alicia is originally from California's Central Valley. Because of her past, we agreed not to use her last name. She's a college dropout, and a former crystal meth addict who found herself in an emergency room after an overdose. Soon after, she realized she needed a life change.

Stories like Alicia's are common at Victory Outreach. With more than 600 churches across the U.S. and in 30 other countries, this is one of the fastest-growing ministries in the country, focused on what they call the "hurting people" -- former gang members, addicts, and prostitutes.

But you wouldn't be able to tell they're hurting just by looking at them. Waving their arms up above their heads and with eyes closed, the parishioners sing along to various tunes about Christ and rebirth. Everyone, on stage and off, is young and hip, dressed more for a dance club than for church.

Pastor Dave Martin of Florida is addressing the crowd. Tonight's guest speaker is a self-described "Number One Christian Success Coach."

Photo by Ruxandra Guidi

A group of parishioners gather on Wednesday night at Victory Outreach for mass.

"I tweeted today, Monday I was with Pastor Perez, Tuesday I was with Pastor Vasquez..." says Martin. He lists the names of Victory Outreach pastors -- all of them under 40 years old and Latino.

"Tonight I'm with Pastor Valdez, tomorrow I'm with Pastor Martinez. Like, my goodness, grab the chips and salsa - let's have a fiesta or something." The crowd around him laughs, as if on cue.

Over the last ten years, the growth of the Latino population has transformed the religious landscape in America. According a 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a large majority of Christians, once aligned with the catholic church say they feel the typical mass is not lively or exciting and doesn't allow them to have a more personal experience with God.

And that has led to an influx of new parishioners at Evangelical and Protestant churches such as Victory Outreach are opening newer and bigger churches.

Thirty-four year-old Al Valdez is a senior pastor in San Diego. Originally from East L.A., Valdez grew up in a poor Catholic household but was drawn to the social mission of Victory Outreach.

"We reach a number of people that come out of poverty, brokenness; some people come out of prison," says Valdez. "So obviously they have some baggage and we're equipping them and empowering them to be able to go beyond those challenges. And many of them are starting to experience the blessings of god in their life so they give."

Victory Outreach has made a name for itself for over forty years, by reaching out to these marginalized parishioners but also by sharing with them the prosperity gospel -- the idea that God wants to bless believers financially.

Photo by Ruxandra Guidi

Pastor Al Valdez, of Victory Outreach in San Diego, is originally from East L.A.

And that promise has meant more money for the church because parishioners are expected to give back and bring more people to the services. Valdez would not offer specifics, but did say the money is used to expand old churches and pay for the training of young ministers like himself.

"Latino Protestantism from the very beginning has always had a sense of community -- in other words, we are responsible for each other," says Juan Martinez, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. "As issues have kind of pushed us, pastors and churches all of a sudden realize, we have to address this."

In other words, churches like this one across the country are beginning to exert greater social and political influence. Martinez says now, more than ever, Latinos are much more interested in participating in moral, social, and political issues, and they're looking to their religious leaders for guidance.