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Mutual belief

Older churches share space as population shifts

A group of Brazilian Baptists study religion on Thursday evenings and arrange details for the church they will open this month at the 200-year-old First Baptist Church. On Sunday afternoons, Vietnamese fill pews in the basement floor of Sacred Hearts Catholic Church, listening to their Sunday Mass - a ritual now in its third year.

Two Jewish temples - Congregation Agudas Achim and Temple Ezrath Israel - that were once a single entity but split generations ago, merged last month to survive. They have emptied one building and filled the other, with the two congregations adjusting to one another as children do on the first day of school.

As the city's population shifted in the last decade, older religious groups redefin ed themselves, and new ones emerged, often in the buildings of long-standing churches.

Nearly all of Malden's mainstream churches have rented space to ``ethnic churches,'' clergy say, reflecting the influx of Chinese, Vietnamese, Latino, and Caribbean people during the last decade. The growth has stirred mergers and rental arrangements that have offered a financial cushion to century-old churches and given emerging ones a platform for growth.

``Churches start because of geography and end up because of community,'' said the Rev. Randall Ferrara, president of the Clergy Association in Malden and reverend at First Church of Malden, Congregational. At 355-years-old, First Church is one of the city's oldest.

``Some start up because of ethnicity and end up because of community; in time they all assimilate,'' Ferrara said.

The growth of ethnic churches in Malden is no different than in the rest of New England, according to Eldin VillagaÄne, professor of Christian Social Ethics at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton.

``What is new is the intensity and the large quantity of the need,'' he said.

Milton Ortiz, pastor of Casa de Fe, a Spanish-speaking Presbyterian church, sees cultural and administrative differences between his church and the First Baptist Church, where his congregation has rented space for all of its four years.

``For us, our religious practice is part of our culture and is not necessarily theologically based, unlike for Americans,'' said the Colombian-born pastor. Even so, there were reasons for considering a partnership, he said.

``Since we are living in the house of one family, as an ethnic church, we want to enter into a more fraternal relationship, which means having two separate denominations that are working together,'' Ortiz said.

The Brazilian Baptist church set to open this month at the First Baptist Church followed a similar path in Watertown. Its parent church is Belmont Street Shalom International Baptist Church, which merged with the 83-year-old Belmont Street Baptist Church four years ago, when membership was dwindling.

With an infusion of Brazilian Baptists, services are now conducted in Portuguese, and translated for English-speaking members.

``In the beginning the relationship was very unfriendly,'' said the Rev. Regina Pinto-Moura of Malden, who with her husband has overseen the opening of six other churches in Greater Boston. ``We were two separate congregations. Then my husband and I started going to the Euro-American services and we spoke with the pastor and the trustees ... it was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.''

The first requests for rented space at the First Baptist Church came in the early 1990s, from Haitians and then Chinese. Those congregations - the Chinese Christian Church of Grace and the Premiere Eglise Baptise Haitienne - are now fully established in locations of their own in Malden.

``We are a landlord and a host, said the Rev. Martha Dominy, of her church's role as a mainstream church offering space to other churches.

``I would guess there is a dual feeling,'' she said. ``It is easier if it's in their own denomination they are hosting. For some churches it's income-generating, for others it's also a means of having their facility fully used and also helping a new church to develop - all of those apply to us.''

Many residents travel out of the city to worship. Turkish Muslims drive to Medford to perform a communal prayer with other Turks in a rented office. Asians travel to Quincy and Lynn to light incense before the statue of Buddha.

In the last decade, Malden has become home to the third-largest Asian community in the state. The 3,000 Chinese residents counted in the 2000 Census is nearly five times the number counted in 1990. The 2000 Census counted 1,383 Vietnamese, 1,202 Haitians, and 1,281 Brazilians - groups that had fewer than 400 residents in the city in 1990.

The Rev. David Horst thinks there is plenty of room in Malden for people seeking a religious alternative - the thing his church, the First Parish in Malden, Universalist, could offer. The congregation, founded in 1648, has dwindled to 12 members. Horst was assigned to the church this summer primarily to boost its membership.

``We are really in the process of redefining ourselves,'' he said. ``As a religious community, we have to always be evolving because the community ... is changing.

``The vision that I am presenting to the congregation is creating a religious community of people who hold very different beliefs. Malden is such a diverse community that we [can] create a religious home for residents of Malden and Everett who wish to belong to a diverse religious community.''

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