By Justin Boron
In Communist Cuba, Jorge Gonzalez said he hid out to practice the Baptist religion.
In the increasingly diverse Clayton County, he is a member of a Hispanic congregation so big, it needs its own church.
Gonzalez' church is called Iglesia Bautista Victoria en Cristo (Victory in Christ Baptist Church).
Later this month the 52-year-old deacon from Hampton will head into a larger facility in Riverdale with a 200-person congregation representing 21 different Hispanic ethnic groups and nationalities.
An offshoot of the First Baptist Church of Jonesboro, the group, through its sheer numeric strength, picks away at the perception that when it comes to religion, Hispanic means Catholic.
"It's not that there is a lot of Hispanic Baptists," Gonzalez said. "It's that we've reached Hispanics."
More than half of the world's Catholics live in Latin America, so it stands to reason that most of the Hispanics moving into the metro Atlanta area are Catholic.
But Lanny Loe, Jonesboro's executive associate pastor and minister of missions, said that doesn't mean they are all practicing.
Those are the ones, he says, that are likely recruits for the First Baptist Church, which in an attempt to diversify its congregation has seven international outreach programs.
"Those who are practicing Catholics, they're going to be at mass the next weekend," Loe said. "Those that are prospects for us, or for anybody, are not going to be as devout."
Ruben Torres, the pastor of the Hispanic congregation, came from a Catholic background.
But he said like many Hispanics, he held a "cultural" or nominal Catholicism. He was later evangelized in Mexico.
"Most of us were not very good Catholics. We weren't following through all the teachings of Roman Catholicism.
"You can go through the motions your whole life and say you're a Catholic and really not get to know who the real Jesus is," he said.
Whether they are converts or come to Clayton County already Baptist, Loe said the underlying idea for the Hispanic mission is to let people profess their faith "in the language in which they dream."
In 1985, when Gonzalez first arrived in Clayton County, he said there were probably only 20 Hispanic Baptists.
With the surge in the Hispanic population, the increasing number of Hispanic Baptists has forced the group to move its Spanish-language services into new facilities.
Its new home, the Eastside Baptist Church on Upper Riverdale Road, seats 550.
Torres said the larger facilities will allow the church to expand its mission.
"It will give us a better opportunity to reach the growing population in north Clayton County.
Victoria in Cristo obtained the property when Eastside Baptist voted to merge with Jonesboro First Baptist.
Chris Gilliam, the pastor of Eastside Baptist, said its waning congregation combined with changes in the demographic makeup of the area contributed to the church's decision to merge.
Gonzalez said although Eastside congregation will mostly assimilate into the Jonesboro one, they would be welcome at their own church.
"I'm just thankful for these people at Eastside for giving us the opportunity to go.
"They're one of us even though they speak a different language."