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Atlanta-area black megachurch starts Hispanic outreach

LITHONIA, Ga. — Sprinkled among the black faces at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, Hispanic worshippers listen intently to the congregation’s leader, Bishop Eddie Long.
    It’s an unusual scene for a predominantly African-American church, but the area’s Hispanic population has grown from just 1 percent in 2000, to nearly 9 percent today. And New Birth is acknowledging its new neighbors in a way most historically black churches haven’t.
    Long is trying to attract Latino members by hiring a Hispanic band, adding Spanish-language Sunday services, hiring a Hispanic pastor — even by learning Spanish.
    ‘‘My message has been geared to challenging African-Americans, but I have to be culturally sensitive,’’ said Long, whose congregation draws more than 25,000 worshippers. ‘‘Now, I focus on using biblical principles that are relevant to everyone.’’
    Long’s services are already translated into Spanish, among other languages, but Long wanted to do more for Hispanics at home.
    It’s a challenging plan. Most Latinos in the United States attend churches that started in their own neighborhoods, or they worship at predominantly white churches with large missions to Spanish-speaking immigrants.
    But Long says black churches have a special lesson for Hispanics. Like African-Americans before them, new Latino arrivals are struggling with poverty, finding work, getting a good education and getting a say in public policy.
    ‘‘We were there,’’ Long said. ‘‘Because we’re beginning to turn the corner, we can reach back to our brother. This is about people working together and using faith to improve themselves.’’
    New Birth’s message of personal growth and prosperity can also appeal to Hispanic immigrants who came here to improve the lives of their families. The Atlanta suburb where New Birth is located — Lithonia — has one of the country’s highest affluency rates for blacks.
    The idea of attending a black church seemed strange at first to Julio Alberto Rodriguez, who had watched Long’s services on television from Florida. Still, when Rodriguez moved to the Atlanta area a few years ago, he visited New Birth.
    ‘‘Initially, you feel kind of out of place because you’re a Hispanic among so many black folk. I was like, ’What am I doing here?’’’ Rodriguez said. He joined anyway, and now works as a personal trainer with the church’s fitness ministry.
    The Rev. Eddie Velez, a 13-year member of New Birth who was recently appointed pastor to lead Spanish-language worship, has been courting the new Hispanic residents, spreading the church’s new motto: ‘‘Nuestra casa es su casa,’’ or ‘‘Our house is your house.’’
    ‘‘We’re all the same. We’re all family,’’ said Bernardo Reyes, who plays guitar in New Birth’s Latino band and has attended the church for about six months. ‘‘It makes me feel important that they’re thinking about me.’’
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