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Photograph: THE WORD: Brenda Barreto, a former Roman Catholic, speaks before the congregation at Iglesia de Pentecostal on Jerome Ave. Photo Credit: Njeru Waithaka.

Pentacostals pray with fire

By Ellen Butler, Staff Reporter

Brenda Barreto was leaving her Gerard Avenue building one day when, she said, the Holy Spirit told her to get out of the elevator. So she returned to her apartment. A few minutes later she looked out and saw people clustered around the elevator. Her next-door neighbor had been robbed at knifepoint.

"I said, 'God, I thank you because you didn't let that happen to me,'" said Barreto, a homemaker who grew up in Puerto Rico.

Barreto, 41, was a Catholic and then a Jehovah's Witness before she converted to Pentecostalism. She is now a member of the Iglesia de Pentecostal, at 1345 Jerome Ave. "I felt inside my heart an emptiness," she said. "This church is the closest to following what the word of God says."

Like Barreto, in recent years millions of Spanish-speaking people have sought salvation in the international Pentecostal movement, best known for its followers' tendency to speak in tongues and to believe they are possessed by God.

The number of Hispanic Pentecostal churches is growing in the South Bronx, said the Rev. Robert Foley, president of the Bronx Council of Churches. There are 102 Pentecostal churches listed in the borough yellow pages, but many, including Barreto's, aren't listed.

Exposed to American Pentecostals in Latin America, many Hispanic Roman Catholics join the Pentecostal movement after they immigrate to the United States, said Randall Balmer, a Barnard College religion professor who documented evangelicism in a television series, "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory."

"They see Pentecostalism as a way of becoming upwardly mobile" and distancing themselves from the poverty they associate with Catholicism, said Balmer.

They are comfortable with Pentecostal services whose fervor resembles Latin American Masses, he said.

Between 250 and 300 people attend the Sunday service at the Templo de Renovacion in the old Bronx Opera House at 1099 Morris Avenue. Pastor Ernesto Custodio said that in his 25 years as a pastor in the borough, he has never seen so many people joining the church.

He attributes the remarkable growth to the "great tribulations" he says are approaching. He said only those people who have been saved in churches like his will be sheltered in heaven during this period of worldwide war.

"This is the last call the Lord is giving the world, the last chance for salvation," he said.

Even so, Custodio encourages ambition in his members. "We have people who have come from Central and Latin America poor, and they have houses and good incomes now," he said.

Twelve years ago, a neighbor urged Barreto to go to Pentecostal service. When she went up to be blessed, "I started crying, I didn't know why," she said. "It was the Holy Spirit touching my body. Right from then, I started embracing the Lord."

At a recent Thursday night service at the Iglesia de Pentecostal, the hymns ended in a rumble of fervent prayer and shouts of "Hallelujah" as worshipers offered ecstatic praise to God, raising their hands, palms upward.

"They are expressing how they feel inside about the Lord," said Barreto."They're filled with joy."

Dressed in a simple black dress with a lace collar, Barreto said that before converting she liked to wear tight pants. But now she thinks women shouldn't wear pants or a lot of jewelry. "Some do it in a way that tempts the men," she said.

Ada Sierra, a member of Custodio's church, said she's careful about television. If a show has too much sex or violence, she said, "I feel very uneasy. Something inside me tells me, 'Ada, shut that movie off.'"

The Bronx Beat, March 13, 1995