The following interview was conducted by Militza M. Pagán for La Voz del Paseo Boricua with Pastor Wilfredo “Choco” DeJesús. Pastor DeJesús, who was born and raised in Humboldt Park and whose life has been dedicated to building a church for the hurting, was featured in the cover story of TIME Magazine April 5th, 2013 issue. The article described how Latino evangélicos are transforming religion in the United States. Pastor DeJesús leads the 17,000-strong New Life Covenant Church. It is one of the largest Latino Congregations in the United States. The main church is in Humboldt Park but includes churches in Pilsen, Rogers Park and Oakwood neighborhoods. Four services are held on Sundays at Clemente High School. In his recently published book Amazing Faith, Pastor DeJesús writes about his upbringing in Humboldt Park. His book is available for purchase at major bookstores and online.
How does it feel to be in the featured article of TIME Magazine on the growing presence of Latino evangelicals?
Wilfredo DeJesus: I consider it humbling. I feel honored that God would choose me to represent Latino Evangelicals. We are 8 million people and 15-18% of the population in the United States. I didn’t expect to be featured on TIME magazine. It was not what I was desiring. It just came. I was very surprised.
Why do you think the growing presence of evangelicals is framed as a Latino Reformation?
Wilfredo DeJesus: In America and Central and South America the reformation that is happening as it pertains to Hispanics is that they are migrating from Catholicism to Evangelism. In 1996 81% of people in Central and South America were Catholic. In 2000, it went down to 70%. That’s the reformation that is being talked about.
Without a doubt Latino evangelicals are changing the face of Latino Christianity, but how do you see it changing the United States’ landscape?
Wilfredo DeJesus: In the political landscape, this new generation of Latino evangelicals is more vocal, progressive and politically savvy. Our new generation is a group of people that need to be reckoned with by both the Democrats and the Republicans. Someone once asked me if we are Democrats or Republicans and I told him we don’t represent the elephant or the donkey. We represent the lion. The lion of Juda. We bring with us social justice. We want to address the issues of immigration, poverty and housing. We are also very family oriented. We are the type of people that would die for our beliefs. We believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. We believe in life.
The Latino evangelical voice can speak prophetically in the both political and social environments. On the one hand we have Dr. Martin Luther King and on the other hand we have Reverend Billy Graham. We represent both. Dr. King representing social justice and Billy Graham representing righteousness. We believe these two things go together. That’s the Latino Reformation. You can’t box us into a category. We are a voice that addresses both the political and social landscape. We defend those that are in our churches and the ones that are not even in our churches.
Despite the large growth of your church, you’ve selected to be rooted in Humboldt Park. Why?
Wilfredo DeJesus: Humboldt Park is where I was born and raised. I’m a firm believer that you live where you worship and where the people you’re ministering are. They are tangible things you see when you live here. You see the suffering. You are able to relate to the struggles people have. Three years ago, we decided to build a new church in Humboldt Park to show that Latinos could move forward. Not only Latino evangelicals but all Latinos. We wanted to show that this is our community.
Where are you in terms of the construction of the new church building on Kimball and Division?
Wilfredo DeJesus: At this stage, we are just waiting for permits. We have already been approved by the zoning board and the planning commission. We are expecting to get the permits in a week or two. We hope to be in construction at the end of April, beginning of May and to be in the building within 6 or 7 months
How do you feel your new church building being built on Kimball and Division will impact Humboldt Park especially the Latino/Puerto Rican community?
Wilfredo DeJesus: Building the church gives the community another anchor. We look at the flags on Division Street and those are anchors. They make a statement. The church also makes a statement: one of hope and stability. The church represents that the God we serve and preach about is alive and the new church building will serve as a testimony of what we preach about. We also hope that it would lead to greater economic investment in the community. We are going to invest millions of dollars in our community. We hope new business open up along with our new building.
People often ask, “Can anything good come out of Humboldt Park?” We’ve always been stigmatized by crime and violence. Yet God in his infinite wisdom saw it fit for me to play this role in our community. I hope that the TIME magazine article, my book Amazing Faith, and our new church building highlight the great success stories coming out of Humboldt Park. I’m just one of those stories. They are so many more the world needs to see.