South Bronx Churches Cater to Young Members with English-Language Services

Fusion Bilingual Seventh-day Adventist Church in Mott Haven is one of a growing number of churches in the Bronx offering English-language services to second- and third-generation Hispanic members.

By Brianna McGurran


Photo by: Brianna McGurran

The No. 2 train rumbled overhead as Jaily Santana, 25, opened her book of hymns.

“We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion,” she sang.

She sat in a circle with five other members of the Wednesday-evening Bible study at Fusion Bilingual Seventh-day Adventist Church in the South Bronx. Pastor Emmanuel Contreras, 26, read from Genesis and led the group in a discussion of creation. Upstairs, Santana’s parents attended a separate prayer meeting – in Spanish.

“I’m more comfortable expressing myself in English,” Santana said. Fusion is one of a growing number of churches in the Bronx offering English-language services to second- and third-generation Hispanic members. The leaders of Mott Haven Spanish Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Church, where Santana’s parents worship, opened Fusion in January to make sure their children and grandchildren stay connected to the church.

“When you are second- or third-generation Hispanics, you sort of lose the language a little bit. So we felt that the youth were losing, couldn’t understand the message,” said Miguel Peña, 48, a member of Mott Haven Spanish SDA Church since 1986 and one of its biggest advocates for offering services in English.

In 2009 the Pew Hispanic Center found that more than 90 percent of second- and third-generation Hispanic youths are bilingual or English dominant, meaning their skills are stronger in English than in Spanish.

“Among themselves they speak English,” said Andrew Lynch, associate professor of Spanish at the University of Miami. “They associate Spanish more with the discourse of their grandparents’ generation.”

Second- and third-generation Hispanics are less likely to feel a spiritual bond with their churches if services are conducted in Spanish, Lynch said. “They just don’t feel the same intimacy or connection.”

Miguel Peña said Fusion started with 20 members, mostly young people whose parents worship upstairs, and five adult leaders to keep them on track. Now, he said, Fusion has 50 to 60 regular English-speaking visitors at services on Saturdays, the most holy day for Seventh-day Adventists. And that number is growing.

“It’s an incredible paradigm shift that we’re seeing, especially in urban areas,” said Daniel Rodriguez, professor of religion and Hispanic studies at Pepperdine University. “The churches that are successfully growing in the Spanish community are multilingual, multigenerational. Some that were resistant are realizing, if they don’t start offering English services to the teen adults, they will lose them.”

Fusion leaders are setting their sights beyond the children and grandchildren of the church members upstairs. Contreras said that during a week of missionary work in August, young churchgoers recruited 15 new English-speaking members from the neighborhood.

Peña said Fusion plans to hold more outreach events like a health awareness week, where members give out healthy food and encourage the community to change its eating habits.

“Just different things so that the community can see us in a different light, and maybe the church will be packed,” he said. “It’s a work in progress. It’s the first time we’re doing it, so we’re sort of learning as we go.”