Fishwrap Archive

Rockin' religion

ENGLEWOOD, N.J. -- It looked like the room was ready for a rock concert, albeit in an unusual place. There was nothing strange about the pipe organ and electric piano at the back of the altar, but the drums to the right of the crucifix at the front of the altar seemed out of place. So did the tambourines, maracas and mike stands.

But when the service started at 6:30 p.m. with a prayer and a reading from Psalm 81, it was obvious no devil music was to be played here. Instead, the Sunday service of the Iglesia Reconciliación was beginning.

The prayers began as a semi-organized Babel, with one person reading from the Bible and saying one prayer, while the rest of the congregation either went along or prayed as the spirit dictated. Some swayed from side to side. Some held one or both hands in the air. Some did both, and others did neither. Cries of "Gracias, Señor!" -- meaning "Thank you, God!" -- periodically emerged above the confusion of voices. The pastor, the Reverend Marcos Carrillo, stood to the side, undisturbed by the chaos. He was caught in the spirit, too.

Besides, the chaos is what drew most of the congregants to this Pentecostal church. Rather than emphasizing dogma and passive adherence to ritual, the Iglesia Reconciliación urges active participation, both in the service and in the lives of the faithful. For many church members, most of whom grew up as Roman Catholics in predominantly Catholic Latin America, this is an invigorating change that has transformed their lives.

Church members come from Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and El Salvador to attend Friday and Sunday night services in a sanctuary rented from the Bethany Presbyterian Church. For many of them, the faith they grew up with failed to satisfy their spiritual hunger. Whether or not they were actively seeking an alternative, or were drawn to the church through a personal crisis, they found the rock on which they have now built their lives in Pentecostalism.

Hannia Villalobos, a native of Costa Rica, is one of those who reached the church through a crisis. She came to the United States 17 years ago, and decided to stay. But when she tried to get visas for her two daughters who remained in Costa Rica, she was denied. Then she was distraught. Her sister, Damaris Bobowitz, who attended a Pentecostal church in neighboring Bergenfield, offered a suggestion.

"My sister said, 'You'll have to go back, but first we'll go pray in the church,' " Villalobos said. They went and prayed. Two weeks later, she again tried to obtain the visas. The result was more than she expected.

"We got the visas for my daughters," Villalobos said. "My sister said when I got back I had to give my testimony. When I did the Holy Spirit touched me."

Villalobos, who was one of the people who led the service on Sunday night, began to study the Bible. Then she began studying to be able to teach others about it. What she experiences in her religious life now is vastly different from what she felt in the Catholic church of her youth.

"When I went to the Catholic Church I always fell asleep," Villalobos said. I had no interest in this, in that thing. And church was just one hour. Now when I go to the church, you go three hours and want more."

Members of the congregation get plenty -- plenty of prayer, plenty of readings from the Bible and, especially, plenty of music.

The musical bounty had a distinctly Latin flavor. There were no martial hymns like "Onward Christian Soldiers," no pastoral "Ave Marias," no slow spirituals like "Amazing Grace." With a guitar, the piano, a wide assortment of drums, maracas, tambourines and other percussion instruments, the melodies were like something one would hear blaring out of a cantina just before last call.

The lyrics were not about sin, though, but redemption. And they were flashed on the wall by and overhead projector for the benefit of those who didn't have the songs memorized. The songs had a power that drove many in the congregation to the edge, and occasionally over the edge, of ecstasy. One of the songs, "Te Alabare Jehova," or "We Praise You, God," was underpinned by minor chords that heightened its emotional impact.

Unfortunately, not everyone was impressed. One young girl fell asleep in a pew, in spite of the noise. She managed, however, to add a discordant percussion note to the proceedings when a bottle fell out of her unconscious hand. Her younger sister, who had spent her time before the service began by playing with her mother's lipstick -- getting most on her lips but some on the tip of her nose and her chin -- fell asleep on her mother's shoulder. No one, however, seemed to mind.

As the first expanse of music drew to a close, the Reverend Carrillo read from the Epistle to the Romans, then delivered a sermon on free will, grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, which many in the congregation were by now feeling. A newborn child was presented to God and the congregation. Following another reading from the Bible and a hymn, communion, using saltine crackers and grape juice as symbols of Jesus Christ's body and blood, was given.

The service closed after a number of people offered their lives to God. While there was a lot of hand-holding, hugging, and praying, the mood was much more subdued and the volume much lower than at the beginning of the service. But the emotion had not left, it was only transfigured. Some members sobbed uncontrollably as the ceremony drew to a close. But all seemed rejuvenated.

According to the Reverend Victor Nieves, pastor of the Church of God of Englewood --which is actually located in Bergenfield -- said the vitality of the worship service is what draws converts to the Pentecostal church.

"I think it's the environment that draws them," Nieves said. "The music, the joys of worship. They were committed to their religion but there was no experience. But when they come to an evangelical church, a Pentecostal church, they find something that they can relate to."

Nieves, of Puerto Rican descent, said the energy of the experience is particularly important to Latin Americans.

"The Hispanic culture is a very upbeat culture," said Nieves, "a very motivated culture, very lively, and if you don't do anything to make them feel at home, they're going to go elsewhere."

David M. Lawrence