WASHINGTON, Jan. 22 (UPI) -- In a stark living room of a Washington townhouse, 20 young Latinos, acting as if in a trance, loudly recite Scripture, punctuating each verse with "Gracias a Dios" -- "Thanks be to God."
They are a tiny group within what Richard Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, calls a huge movement in American Protestantism -- the breathtaking growth of Hispanic Pentecostalism.
In his year-end report for 2001, pollster George Barna revealed that no more than 53 percent of U.S. Latinos are still Roman Catholic, a decline from 68 percent in 1991.
Latino Pentecostalists might pray in small places, such as the tiny makeshift chapel called El Reino de Dios (Kingdom of God) on Washington's 12th Street. Or they assemble in huge mega-churches, such as the 9,000-member Templo Calvario (Temple of Calvary) in Anaheim, Cal.
What makes them switch? In an interview with United Press International, John Mendez, the NAE's vice president of ministries, attributed the phenomenon in part to the immigrants' search for community.
Ronaldo Cruz, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs, also credited Pentecostalism's knack for explaining the gospel to the biblically illiterate.
But the acting pastor of the 12th Street sanctuary, speaking on condition that his name not be used, gave a theological explanation: In a Pentecostal environment, the intimacy with God is greater than in most of the traditional denominations, Catholic of mainline Protestant, he said.
"I have encountered Jesus," the minister stated adamantly, refusing to elaborate.
Evangelicals call this a faith experience. Pentecostals often report that a divine calling triggered their conversion.
The Rev. Jacinta Torres, pastor of the Iglesia Pentecostal Fuente de Oracion (Fountain of Prayer Church) in Brooklyn, N.Y., told United Press International how she came to accept Christ.
"One evening I was giving a lecture," she said. "There was a man in the audience staring at me. At the end of my speech he came up to me, introduced himself as Don Francisco and said, 'God has chosen you.'"
Don Francisco turned out to be a Pentecostal pastor. Torres said that during the ensuing dialogue she realized that she had a calling to serve God.
A few days later, she attended one of the stranger's services, converted, and soon began to evangelize in her neighborhood. Now a pastor, she has a congregation of more than 180 Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Central Americans.
"Many of my members used to be drug addicts or alcoholics. They turned to faith to change their lives," Torres said.
José, a pastor of Templo Bethel, a large Pentecostal congregation in Northern Virginia, explained that conversions of former addicts were very common. "I myself am such a case," said the minister, who did not want to give his real name. "I was an alcoholic, but when I attended a Pentecostal service, Christ changed my life."
Other members of his church had similar experiences.
"There is a 24-year-old former addict who has not taken any drugs for three years since his conversion," the pastor told UPI.
Like all evangelical churches, Pentecostal communities do not allow substance abuse among their members. Dewey Wallace, a professor of religion at Washington's George Washington University, says that the resulting abstinence transforms the individual. This in turn stabilizes the family, Wallace contends, because there is less domestic violence. Faith-driven abstinence also reduces the incidence of single-parent families.
Where families are stable and waste no money on drugs and drink, they do well economically, according to Wallace. Thus Pentecostalism contributes to a healthier society.
This message was driven home in Washington's tiny El Reino de Dios church when UPI visited one of its services. Sternly, the acting pastor exhorts his 20 youthful congregants: "Maintain your discipline all day and every day."
"Gracias a Dios," they answer, "Thanks be to God."