Buenos Aires, Oct 11 (AFP/APP): The pastor’s voice bellows through an old converted cinema in a rundown Buenos Aires barrio and hundreds of hands reach out in prayer.
Though not a typical place of worship, Evangelical churches like this one are sprouting up all over Pope Francis’ former archdiocese, as once staunchly Catholic Argentina battles an economic crisis that has plunged more than one-third of the nation into poverty.
“There is no unfavorable situation that is impossible to transform,” pastor Alberto Rey tells the congregation at his Fountain of Blessings Church in San Martin.
The message to the growing ranks of Argentina’s poor is clear.
“All you need is in Him and no one else but Him,” rails the suited 52-year-old Pentecostal pastor. The fervor is palpable, the congregation is in his thrall and raise their arms in prayer.
Aldana Masuco, 38, finds comfort here. “We have gone through other crises and God has never let us down,” she said.
The vast majority of Evangelicals in Argentina and across Latin America are Pentecostals, a charismatic branch of Protestantism born in the United States at the beginning of the 20th Century.
– Breaking through –
Their breakthrough in Argentina dates to 2001, when the country experienced the worst economic crisis in its recent history.
“The Evangelicals have a discourse that fits better with crisis, many of the faithful come through the social welfare network, finding work or comfort in the community,” says Marcos Carbonelli of the University of Buenos Aires.
“The political class knows this and uses it,” he said.
The liberal government of center-right President Mauricio Macri turned to the churches in 2018 to help distribute food in the poorest districts of Buenos Aires.
Evangelicals gained some ground here during the campaign against Argentina’s bill to legalize abortion in 2018. The bill passed through the Chamber of Deputies, but was blocked by the Senate.
“Politicians of all stripes come to us and ask us questions, and we receive them,” says Pastor Ruben Proietti, head of the Christian Alliance of Evangelical Churches in Argentina (ACIERA), denying press reports of a close association with the Macri government.
Carbonelli says Evangelicals have gained influence among “pro-government politicians.”
However, Brazil-style political parties or leaders closely aligned to Evangelism are yet to emerge in Argentine politics.
– Spiritual transformation –
Pentecostals differ from Catholics because they don’t pray to saints, recognize the Pope, or acknowledge the pre-eminent role of the Virgin Mary.
The Holy Spirit is the focal point of their spiritual life, the cure for illness and the key to personal success.
At his church, Rey and another pastor place their hands on the heads of some members of the congregation who come forward at the end of the service. Some of them weep, others seem locked in a trance.
“I lived in bed, locked up, before I met God,” says Evel Lorena, a 48-year-old woman in Rey’s congregation.
At her side, her truck-driver husband, Alfredo Mendoza, recalled the “darkness” of unemployment and how everything changed for the better. “Today, I have a very good job, thank God.”
In Buenos Aires, Evangelical churches are present in almost every neighborhood, and have even turned old cinemas into places of worship.
There are also thousands of so-called “cells” as the homes of members of the congregation are called, where small prayer gatherings are held under the guidance of a pastor.
“Over the last 10 years, growth has accelerated,” says Proietti.
“In every neighborhood, there are more Evangelical churches than Catholic churches,” he said.
According to Aciera, more than 5,000 Evangelical churches are registered in Buenos Aires.
There are no official figures on the number of followers, but according to the organization, adherence to Evangelical worship has increased from eight percent of the population to 20 percent in the last decade.
However Evangelical churches still don’t have the same reach as in Brazil or Central America, where in some countries, Catholics are no longer in the majority.