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Immigrant Women Speak About Leaving the Church

Illustration by Patrick MartinezWhere feminism has cut the biggest swath — North America and Europe — Catholicism has lost the most turf. There’s also a gusher of leakage, though, in regions where the patriarchy remains nearly unchinked. In Asia and Central America, for instance, women are leaving the church for reasons that have little to do with gender. I talked to some members of the immigrant community in a couple of local churches. One question was about the concept of original sin, which postulates that we are all born with the taint of Adam’s disobedience; it thrives among evangelical Christians — but with a difference. Catholicism colors original sin with a more sexual tint, casting Eve/woman in the role of temptress; the effect is to foster guilt and wield control. Born-agains, on the other hand, actually find it liberating to see themselves as flawed creatures who can’t help but drink, fight, lie and lust; past transgressions become a doorway that leads them to Christ, without whose love and intervention the sinner will spiral ever downward.Mainly, I asked the women why they left the Catholic Church.

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My old friend Bernard, a former Catholic who’s married to a Filipina, introduced me to the Gospel Life Community in West Covina, where the congregation is nearly all of Philippine descent. There was singing, hand-waving and barefoot dancing during the service, which climaxed with “New Church Rising” — pretty much “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” transformed into an evangelical rally song. Afterward, a traveling healer from Northern California laid hands on the ailing. It was a sincere, happy crowd, most of whom, according to Bernard, are Republicans. Not pastor John, though, whose sermon contained some choice disparagements of the Iraq War. Irma. Catholicism’s endless repetition of prayers was a drawback for Irma, a nurse. And, “When I was in the Catholic religion, I didn’t have the joy, the peace that I’m looking for. I knew something was missing. I did it by words before. But when I learned about grace, it changed my life. The peace is there, the joy is around.” Grace. Also a nurse, young Grace was drawn to the people here. “I saw how they pray and how they talk to people, and the warmth that I felt moved me.” She, too, didn’t connect with the Catholic practice of saying the Rosary: “It’s like Mary is equal or higher than Jesus.” As a woman, she also felt she could participate more meaningfully here; Catholicism placed too much emphasis on the priest. “For confession of your sins, you go to the priest, who’s the mediator. You have to ask the priest to ask God to forgive your sins. We Christians learn that you don’t need a middleman. With Catholics, you go to the church and they give you [as penance] four Our Fathers, four Hail Marys, and you’re forgiven. I went home thinking, ‘I can sin again, I can sin again!’” Vanessa. “I saw the hypocrisy in the Catholic Church,” said Vanessa, a legal assistant. “They teach you to be like Jesus, to love your friends, your enemies, but they’re the first ones to ostracize you or judge you.” As a girl, Vanessa was involved with a basketball team, and participated in a parade wearing a uniform. “The mother superior in our school told me, ‘Why were you wearing shorts? Don’t you know that shorts are for the beach?’” As for the priests, “Catholics treat the priests as gods. But when the priests are out of the pulpit, they do all kinds of things that mortal men do — even worse. And I know that for a fact, because a neighbor of ours had a baby from a priest.” Linda. “We used to learn, when we were still Catholic, that we had to fear God,” said Linda, a sales and marketing professional. “Because if God gets angry, there’s gonna be earthquake, there’s gonna be flood, all this disaster is being attributed to God. Oh my God, what kind of father is that?” In the Philippines, the notion of the Son was just as strange. In Linda’s hometown, young men perform a ritual in which they are whipped and carry a cross to which they are sometimes even nailed. “There’s blood! Then you go to the river, and it’s kind of like it’s healed. They think that they have to do that to please God, and in order to be saved.”Marcia. A 20-year-old loan officer, Marcia is engaged to the son of the Gospel Life pastor. “What Catholicism taught me was that God is far from me, something you should respect, but you can’t really touch. It didn’t teach me to have a personal relationship with God.” She said she intended to go to school and learn to be a minister; Catholicism’s prohibition of women’s ordination was a problem for her. “In my experience, in my circle of friends and family, I see the women as the spiritual leaders.”I visited a little evangelical church in Glendale through Maria, who works for my family. For many years her church’s pastor was a woman, and she still attends in a wheelchair. A band of amateur musicians onstage banged through songs ranging from minor-key two-beats in the tradition of “Hava Nagila” to Elton John–like hymns. The singing was enthusiastic; an assistant pastor pogoed up in front. There were testimonials and petitions from the mostly female congregants; one woman, before asking for the community’s prayers, knelt, resting her head on a pew, openly sobbing. Led by a number of preachers, the service was entirely in Spanish except for one segment translated to English by David, who was also kind enough to act as my translator.Alma. Alma is the pastor’s wife, a co-pastor, really. Outside of church, they also work together in a jewelry and watch-repair shop. She was by far the best sermonizer of the day, calmly working up a rhythmic head of steam that was quite inspiring. She came here from Mexico in 1971. “At the age of 22, I saw the difference between Catholicism and Christianity,” she said. “Catholicism is a religion, Christianity is a relationship with God. My family, without Christ, without a relationship with God, was destroyed — alcoholism, prostitution, adultery, fornication, blasphemy.” Alma’s experience with Catholicism left her indifferent. “When I was a child, when we went [to Mass], it was in Latin. I didn’t understand anything. I would get bored. Sometimes I would go to sleep, and my grandma would wake me up.” Her ministry, according to what’s seen as biblical example, maintains separate gender roles. “My husband, he’s the pastor, he’s the one that would marry somebody, do certain ceremonies. Me, as a woman, I probably would not.”Santos. A housekeeper from El Salvador, Santos has been a Pentecostal for 11 years. “Jesus Christ accepted me. Now I am happy. It’s a different life. In the Catholic religion, they didn’t tell us about Jesus. I was blind in spiritual things.” Yes, she saw a gender difference in the Church she grew up with 40 years ago: “The women didn’t have participation, besides the nuns.” But should women obey their husbands? “Yes.” Maria. I talked to Maria at my house. Encouraged by a co-worker in an electronics factory, she was born again in 1990. She supports her church by tithing and by cleaning the premises; she has found a home there. “When we feel the Spirit, we cry, we dance.” The three-hour services are no burden: “I don’t feel tired — the time goes fast. In the Catholic Church, they read the phrases, very mechanical. When I went home, I didn’t feel comfortable.” And it didn’t make a real difference in her life. “After, we could go and do bad things.” Maria used to be a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a faith that doesn’t consider Jesus to be God. She left because the atmosphere was too negative. On one point, though, she agreed with the Witnesses: The end of the world is nigh, evidenced by the natural cataclysms and widespread immorality predicted in the Book of Revelation. “The signs are here,” said Maria. Seconds later, the house shook with a series of substantial jolts. I checked the news afterward. It was a 5.2.