A weeknight prayer service at the Nations United Baptist Church outside Washington has everyone on their feet. As one of many Portuguese-language evangelical churches that have popped up in the United States in recent decades to serve the Brazilian diaspora, as might be expected, it’s not hard to find former Catholics here.
The enthusiasm of these Brazilian immigrants is testament to the exponential growth of evangelicalism in the country that hosted Pope Francis this week.
A generation ago, Brazil was 90 percent Catholic. Now it’s around 65 percent.
Pastor Samuel Rozolem says many Brazilians felt the Catholic Church was out of touch.
"The evangelical church in Brazil grew extensively because also it started to reach out to the needs of people, to the poor, to the drug addicts," he said.
Brazil is exporting its own Evangelical brand — influenced by the deeply emotional charismatic worship style.
For Franco Rossetti, a neuroscientist, his native faith did not answer his questions.
"When you’re born Catholic in Brazil you go to the church to be baptized, you don’t know, and after that you go to the church every Sunday, but you don’t know why you go to church every Sunday," he said.
Vane Garcia says that was the kind of upbringing she had.
"I have nothing against the Pope, but I don’t believe he can do anything for me," she said.
According to Andrew Chesnut, chair of Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, many Catholics have left the Latin American church because it was historically oriented toward the privileged.
"It's only really when, because of Vatican II — but more importantly because so many millions of Latin Americans were leaving the Catholic Church to become Pentecostals, starting in the mid-20th century — that the Catholic Church really starts to discover its poor parishioners throughout Latin America," he said.
Francis has taken that further, becoming known as the “slum pope” for recently visited a Rio de Janeiro favela. Some observers believe he is encouraging charismatic practices. Several months ago, he laid hands on a Mexican man said to be possessed by evil spirits.
Luis Lugo of the Pew Research Center in Washington says the church has been forced to respond to the greater religious pluralism in the region.
"This competition, if you want to call it that, from evangelicals, Pentecostals, but also from the rising number of the unaffiliated, has been a kind of wake-up call to the Roman Catholic church that it has to now work harder to keep those folks within its fold," he said.
Brazil has 123 million Catholics. That’s still more than any other country. But despite their excitement over Pope Francis, it will likely take much more than a papal visit to maintain Catholicism's central role in Brazilian life.