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Keeping the Faith

Only 41 percent of U.S. Latinos are practicing Catholics—just one surprise in our poll on faith and religion

Tell Me Where You Came From... 

The spirit moves us—in many ways, and often. More than nine in 10 Hispanics surveyed believe in God and pray. Three-quarters go to church. But when it comes to religion, Hispanics aren't as alike as you might think. Only 41 percent are practicing Catholics; 29 percent are Protestant and 30 percent practice no religion.

The study found no relation between religious affiliation and language dominance, education, or time spent in the United States. What does matter is country of origin. Those of Mexican descent are more likely to be Catholic. That's certainly true of my blood relatives. Hispanics from Central and South America are more likely to be former Catholics. Those from the Caribbean are more likely to never have been Catholic.

Show Me the Faith
A four-foot-high statue of the Virgin Mary stands atop a table in my parents' home. Her crown reflects the glow of candles my mother, Julieta Saucedo Bencomo, 84, keeps constantly lighted.

Mom is among the 75 percent of Hispanic Catholics who have a statue of Mary or Jesus in their home, and of the nearly six in 10 who light candles as a prayer for the dead.

But not just practicing Catholics perform such rituals. Many ex-Catholics still give blessings before someone goes away, pray to the Virgin, and cross themselves when passing a church. And among those who have converted to Protestantism, two-thirds give blessings, even if their new religion doesn't have such rituals.

Faith of Our Fathers (and Mothers)
Whatever their religion, parents and grandparents overwhelmingly say it's important to transmit their faith to the next generation. They do so in a variety of ways, from saying grace at mealtime to taking children to church or reading the Bible with them. Some 90 percent of parents with children at home and 76 percent of grandparents think they've been at least somewhat successful. And those who feel they've failed say that among their biggest challenges are trying not to force religion on their children and competing with popular culture.

My cousin Armida Álvarez, 58, recalls her father—my 104-year-old Tío Lito—telling of how, as a shoeshine boy in El Paso, Texas, he found a tattered statue on the street. "He didn't know who it represented, but to him it was God," she says. "He took it home and made a little altar under his bed. He'd slide under his bed and pray to his little statue."

He passed his faith to her, and she passed it on to her kids. Now the owner of a Christian bookstore, Armida says that until seventh grade her two children attended a Christian school, where, she says, "they learned the Bible backwards and forwards."

Next: Catholicism: Staying or Leaving?

Catholicism: Staying or Leaving?
The reasons for remaining faithful or leaving Catholicism are many. For the devout, like Armida, the church provides strength. "As we get older, we really don't have a lot to hold on to except our faith, which gives us hope," she says. More than 97 percent of devout Catholics value going to Mass and being part of their family's Catholic tradition. More than nine out of 10 of the faithful value praying to the Virgin Mary, saying the rosary, and taking weekly Holy Communion.

Those who have left have many reasons too. Disagreements with the church's political activities; rules about divorce, marriage, and birth control; and the lack of a sense of community were frequently cited. But that doesn't mean the defectors won't come back. Nearly four out of 10 who didn't join another religion have considered returning. Some do.

My cousin Christine Hodgdon, 57, left the church in anger after a bitter divorce. "I went to the altar and said straight to God's face, 'I'll never return.' " she recalls. In the next 14 years, she remarried, found the Holy Spirit in an Episcopal church, learned about the Bible in a Methodist church and, at the end of what she calls a "beautiful journey," had her first marriage annulled and then remarried in the Catholic Church. "I would never leave the Catholic Church again," says Christine.

But some leave, never to return. Christine's brother, Al Saucedo, 56, left because, he says, "in my heart I wanted to know more about God." Raised Catholic, he was married and received into the Episcopal Church, briefly attended a Methodist church, and now attends Baptist services. "What I really like about the Baptists is their emphasis on the Bible," he says. Still, he misses the Catholic Church's daily Holy Communion; Baptists offer it monthly. And when he attends Mass with his mother, he listens carefully. "Now I know what the prayers and the sermons are all about," he says.

My Argentine-born sister-in-law Griselda Domínguez Asayama, 58, left the church and became a Mormon well before moving to the United States. In fact, the study found that more than a third of immigrants who convert do so before immigrating. "I was raised a Catholic with strong Christian values," she says. She left the church at age 16, she says, because when she had questions about her faith, the church wouldn't answer them. She no longer attends any services.

I can still envision my maternal grandmother on her knees reciting the rosary in her bedroom, where the glow of tiny oil lamps reflected off the crown of the Virgen de Guadalupe, for whom she was named. And I remember her discussing the Bible with Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons who stopped by. That's what faith is about, she'd say, respecting and valuing all beliefs—even if they weren't your own.