Religious demographics are shifting in Mexico

It seemed like a typical Sunday Mass, one of thousands taking place across this nation where the vast majority still call themselves Catholics.

The faithful – including the Silva family – knelt, offered one another the sign of peace and lined up for Holy Communion.

But it wasn't a Mass. It was a service for members of the United Church of Christ, at what they call their temple, El Buen Pastor. ("The Good Pastor.") There were no saints on the walls, not even the ubiquitous Virgin of Guadalupe.

"We don't believe we need saints to reach Christ. We believe in direct communication," said Hector Silva, a businessman who attends the temple service every week with his family.

El Buen Pastor celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, but the church remains tiny. Its membership has never topped 250.

Heavily influenced by its parent church in the United States, it extols the values of self-reliance and independence – progressive teachings that put it at odds with the prevailing Mexican tradition of looking to the church, and to government, for direction.

El Buen Pastor, however, is no longer the oddity it once was. Mexico, a nation once almost exclusively Catholic, has in recent years increasingly opened its arms and hearts to other religions.

Nationwide, Mexicans aren't just testing the winds of change in politics, having elected the first opposition government in 71 years, but in the pews as well.

In the last 10 years, the number of Mexicans who consider themselves Catholics has fallen from 89 percent to about 81 percent. The number who consider themselves Protestants rose from about 4 percent to about 9 percent, according to religion experts at the National Institute of Anthropology.

The change is spreading fast. Protestants abound in Oaxaca and Chiapas. There are swelling pockets of Mormons in Durango and Chihuahua; and Pentecostals and Jehovah's Witnesses in Guanajuato, President Vicente Fox's home state, known for its staunch conservative Catholic beliefs.

These religious newcomers are not without their detractors in Mexico. Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, have been criticized for concerning themselves more with preparing souls for the next world than about helping improve the lot of those living in today's.

And for many Mexicans – people who voted for the same party for more than 70 years and practiced the same religion for centuries – change remains painfully slow. Many have a tough time choosing self-reliance over paternalism – or putting their faith in a church or government that doesn't pretend to have all the answers.

"Some of these new religions represent a new thinking, a new way of looking at the world and at themselves," said Alma Dorantes, a Guadalajara-based religion scholar at the National Institute of Anthropology.

For many, such new concepts remain foreign. El Buen Pastor demonstrates how U.S. influence in Mexico goes far beyond the economic. The church's teachings can be traced to the Mayflower Pilgrims.

"They take pride in promoting independent, critical, tolerant, analytical thinkers," said Ms. Dorantes. "It's something that's not very common in Mexico."

In 1872, Protestant missionaries David Watkins and John L. Stephens traveled from California to the state of Jalisco to spread the Gospel. They settled in Guadalajara. Their daunting task: converting Catholics.

It was an era when the Catholic Church dominated every aspect of Mexican society, controlling even what people could read. Bibles, for instance, weren't available to the public, because the church thought that withholding them would force the faithful to attend Mass.

While Mr. Watkins stayed in Guadalajara, Mr. Stephens ventured to small rural villages to spread the word. In the town of Ahualulco, he set up a church and a leadership skills school. A year after Mr. Stephens' arrival, violence erupted in the countryside. He and a Mexican supporter, Jesus Islas, were stoned to death.

More than a century later, the United Church of Christ hasn't forgotten Mr. Stephen's experience. There's no heavy-handed proselytizing. Instead, they appeal by teaching tolerance and leadership by example.

In 1953, local supporters finished building the temple for El Buen Pastor. By 1956, they'd taken up collections to purchase roughly 100 acres for a campground for youngsters. They hold annual summer camps, relatively unknown in Mexico, for about 80 youngsters 7 to 18.

The youths, from all denominations, are taught leadership through activities that include putting together a daily newspaper, learning about environmental cleanups and taking survival courses.

Campers gather each morning and sing a tribute to Mexico – to the tune, unbeknownst to many, of "America The Beautiful." It wasn't until years after he attended that church member David Silva heard the original song in English, while watching television. He turned to his older brother, Hector – the two now run the campground – and proudly remarked, "Look, the Americans are copying us."

Alumni of the leadership training include engineers, businessmen, a newspaper publisher and political leaders on both sides of the border.

"I think the church helped me solidify a sense of discipline," said David Silva, whose company, GPI High Technology, was named by industry peers as Mexico's top tech firm last year. "It taught me to view the world differently, to be more tolerant."

Despite the fond praise from members like Mr. Silva, El Buen Pastor continues to arouse suspicions among some local Catholics. The church draws criticism for its close ties to the United States, and for what are perceived to be its liberal teachings. For example, members of other denominations are routinely invited to take Communion, and women are encouraged to become pastors.

David Piniera, whose grandfather was a founder of the church, remembers that when he was 12, other parents wouldn't let their kids play with him.

"I was diabolic just because I was a non-Catholic," he said. A restaurateur today, he said much of his success comes from the lessons he learned at the church as a youth, lessons in leadership and practical skills. (He recalls assembling the church piano, without written instructions.)

Despite concerns about its close ties to its parent denomination in the United States, El Buen Pastor operates with autonomy, its leaders say. In 1970, the inner circle of El Buen Pastor met with American board members of the United Church of Christ. They told the board members it was time for the natives to set the agenda and practice independence. The Americans agreed.

Recently, the Rev. Randal J. Mayer, an American from a United Church of Christ in Sahuarita, Ariz., stopped by El Buen Pastor and beckoned members to support a cross-border program aimed at saving Mexicans from dying in the desert as they try to enter the United States

"Moses crossed the border illegally," he told the congregation. "Joseph was also an illegal immigrant. They were all looking for better horizons, just like the immigrants today." Worshippers waved Bibles and church programs to show their approval.

Among those listening were a small group of Catholic nuns, who slipped in and out of the church quietly.

Why the secrecy?

"They don't want to get in trouble with the Catholic Church," Hector Silva said. "Mexicans, even some of our own members, aren't yet very tolerant when it comes to respecting different religions."