LAS CRUCES, N.M. (RNS)-- When Bishop Ricardo Ramirez enters a church, he carries a crosier, or shepherd's staff, as the chief shepherd of southern New Mexico's Catholics. Lately, he's been worried about a few lost sheep. "There is a lot of this sheep-stealing going on," Ramirez says over dinner in the picturesque Old Mesilla district. The culprit: fast-growing evangelical and Pentecostal churches who lure Mexican immigrants away from their native Catholic faith. Further north, in Santa Fe, Archbishop Michael Sheehan is also looking for a few lost sheep. Sheehan, slightly annoyed, blames the "intense proselytism" of some Protestant churches. "They have their own agenda, and they feel they have the truth, so they're going to go ahead and try to steal the sheep," he says. Here along America's desert frontier, a friendly -- and sometimes not-so-friendly -- competition has been raging between Catholics and conservative Protestants to attract the constant flow of migrants coming across the border. The attraction for both churches is obvious. Hispanics are now the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, and experts agree the future of church growth for any denomination lies in its ability to attract and retain Hispanic members. It's not solely a border issue. In Chicago, Cardinal Francis George said agressive proselytism by Protestants has "complicated ecumenical relationships." A Lutheran church on the city's South Side came under fire
last year for advertising "Missa en espanol" -- Mass in Spanish. Some Hispanics had baptized their children in the La Sagrada Familia church, not realizing it was not Catholic. With holy water dispensers and statues of the Virgin Mary, the confusion was not surprising. Chicago's Lutheran bishop was shocked. "If that is true, that's the thing I want to get to the bottom of. If there is deception involved, I don't want to be part of it," Bishop Paul Landahl told the Sun-Times last August. Last November, it drew the attention of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In a new blueprint for Hispanic ministry, the bishops listed Protestant proselytism as a "challenge." Evangelical churches, they admitted, often are better at fostering "a notion of church as extended family that provides Hispanics with a sense of belonging to God's family." As many as 40 percent of the country's 62 million Roman Catholics are Hispanic. New Mexico is 23.7 percent Catholic. The bishops are concerned that only 13 percent of seminarians studying for the priesthood are Hispanic. A recent study from the City University of New York, however, found that Catholic leaders may have more to worry about than evangelicals. The CUNY study found that the number of Hispanic Catholics dropped from 66 percent in 1990 to 57 percent in 2001, while the percentage of Hispanics with "no religion" doubled from 6 percent to 13 percent over the same time period.
In short, Hispanics aren't necessarily leaving for Protestant churches. Most are leaving for no church at all. "If we have a good priest or deacon who is Spanish-speaking and can minister effectively to the newly arrived, they stay Catholic," Sheehan said. "If we don't have someone who can minister to them, we lose them ... obviously I think the Catholic Church has to work harder at feeding its own people so that they stay Catholic." In Las Cruces, Ramirez has hired a full-time prison chaplain to stem the losses to evangelical ministries that flourish inside prison walls. "Often, they go in as Catholic and come out as Protestant," he lamented. The Rev. Barbara Dua, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Churches, said the "sheep-stealing" phenomenon has been an ongoing issue for her conference, made up of 481 Catholic and mainline Protestant churches. "It's been an open discussion among our members, but there hasn't been animosity among our members because our members don't seem to be the problem," said Dua, a Presbyterian. In many ways, however, the competition for souls between Catholics and Protestants is nothing new. But with the growth potential seen in the Hispanic population, the issue has taken on a new urgency. Protestants say there is no "organized campaign" to steal Catholics away. "It's not anything evangelicals are doing on purpose," said the Rev. Paul Hutsell, a retired Assemblies of God missionary who lives in Ruidoso,
N.M. Hutsell spent 44 years working in South America, and said Hispanic Christians are hungry for a relationship with God that is "much more vibrant, much more alive" than the ritual-heavy Catholic faith. Hutsell said "we owe so much to the Catholic Church" for instilling a strong religious devotion among Hispanics. Mexico, for example, is one of the world's most devout Christian nations. But he said migrants who seek out social programs from Protestant churches are often looking for something more.

"The big attraction for these migrant workers is that the evangelicals offer them a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, whereas the Catholic Church more or less offers them a relationship with the Catholic Church."

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