'Garage' churches challenge Pope for the faithful

Quito, Ecuador - In the dusty streets of Atucucho, on the outskirts of Quito, it's hard to walk more than two blocks without bumping into an evangelical church.

In one cinder block church overlooking the city, parishioners sing and pray along with the Rev. Lema. Some break down in tears. Outside, children dressed in their church best play in the dirt.

These so-called "garage churches" have popped up in poor suburbs across Latin America, catering to communities that have been pushed to the periphery. Many of the pastors are local indigenous leaders.

They have become perhaps the biggest challenge for the Catholic Church in Latin America, where Pope Francis is on a weeklong, three-country tour.

According to the Pew Research Center, 92% of Latin Americans were Catholic in 1970, but that has dropped to 69%. Protestant congregations, on the other hand, are growing. The Pew data shows protestants were at 4% in 1970 and are currently at 19%.

On Saturday in Atucucho, young men and women carrying Bibles make the rounds visiting the sick and elderly.

"God put us on Earth for a reason," said evangelical Lizbeth Quiroz, on her way from visiting a man who'd been in an accident. "And my reason is to visit those in need and talk to them about God."

In Atucucho, which means "Place of the Sun" in the native Quechua language, there is one Catholic Church.

But with the emergence of Pope Francis, also a champion of the poor, there is renewed enthusiasm among Catholics.

In Quito, children have been practicing a song for the first-ever Latin American pontiff. They belt out the lyrics as they snack on slices of green mango outside their school. They sing: "Welcome Pope Francis, Ecuador receives you with songs of love!"

Two girls tell us they will be going with their families to Bicentennial Park for the Pope's Mass on Tuesday.

Others say they will try to get a glimpse of him as he passes in his Popemobile.

But while the excitement is tangible, the big question is can Pope Francis get people back in the pews and stem the exodus from the Catholic Church?

According to a recent Gallup Poll, many Latin Americans believe Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Argentina, will change the Catholic Church for the better. A total of 68% of those polled said he brings hope to the poor, including 37% of non-Catholics.

We ask the Rev. Robin Calle if there has been a noticeable impact at the El Carmelo Church in Quito, where he celebrates Mass.

"What the Pope is saying is that we need to be like Jesus and focus on the most miserable, on the most excluded," he said.

"He's generating a kind of internal movement in the church to build on that foundation. But it's too soon to talk about impact."

He said parish priests must carry the Pope's message forward.

During his visit to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, Pope Francis will visit many of the neighborhoods where evangelical congregations have flourished.

It remains to be seen if he can inspire them to return to the fold.