Trump’s Appeal to Latino Evangelicals: One Pastor’s Conversion Story

On a recent Tuesday evening, two teenage boys approached their pastor, Camilo Perez, before Bible study. They wanted his opinion on the debate that was troubling them. Their friends from a local public high school were talking about discrimination against Latinos. Did the pastor agree? Does the government give white people more power?

“No, no, no. That’s not true. We’re not oppressed. Everyone here has the same rights,” Mr. Pérez recalled telling the boys in a short tirade that touched on some of his favorite topics: freedom in the United States, scarcity and oppression in Latin America, and the dangers of those he perceived as… Liberals’ notions of victimhood.

He told them: “This is an agenda against the country.” “They are trying to put confusion in your mind, trying to bully you into being against your country, against everything.”

This was not the first time that a pastor’s advice was more universal than spiritual. As he serves a growing flock of 250 families in the dusty suburbs of Las Vegas, Mr. Perez has transformed from a leader who rarely acknowledges politics to an ardent soldier in the cultural and political battles of his new country.

It’s a path traversed by a growing number of Latino evangelicals, a group that is helping to reshape and revitalize the Republican coalition. The Republican Party, which has long included conservative white Christian voters, has for years quietly courted Latino religious leaders like Perez, finding common ground on abortion, schools and traditional views on gender roles and family.

And now Donald J. Trump is reaping the rewards of that work. Polls show that his support among Hispanic voters has reached high levels Not something we’ve seen from a Republican president in 20 years. If he wins the White House, he will thank people like Mr. Perez — little-known figures with underappreciated power.

This is an unpredictable situation for Mr. Perez. Nearly 20 years ago, he was a recent immigrant from Colombia, building his flock by holding backyard barbecues. Now, his church, Iglesia Torreon Fuerte, bustles with activity, with pre-dawn worship, a private school and Christian theology classes that extend past 10 p.m.

He lives in a tidy, middle-class subsection of a suburb that he considers a glittering land of opportunity. He is sought by major Republican candidates. He has met with Mr. Trump three times.

Mr. Perez has come to view Democrats as a threat to all this, and Mr. Trump as an imperfect but tireless guardian. He says weak and corrupt governments in Latin America made him appreciate politicians who emphasize law and order and capitalism. He once pushed back on Mr. Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and harsh language. Now, he believes it’s not meant to apply to law-abiding immigrants like himself.

Yes, when Mr. Perez counseled teens, he acknowledged there was a history of racism in the United States, “but not anymore.” After all, Barack Obama became president, and a black man rose to the pinnacle of power. Mr. Perez even voted for it.

Mr. Perez first saw Las Vegas in a vision he had when he was a young man. His father, who was pastor of a large congregation in Medellin, encouraged him to begin preaching even when he was a child. Another priest from Guatemala came to visit and was impressed by the young man. The priest told him that he would continue driving in the big city, where he would be a light in the darkness.

Mr. Perez envisioned a desert with a skyline sparkling with colored lights.

He went to college, married a preacher’s daughter, and was serving in a ministry in Puerto Rico in 2006 when a Las Vegas pastor called asking for help in his ministry to youth.

When Mr. Perez arrived, he immediately recognized the skyline.

The youth ministry job ended within months, but Mr. Perez found work as a union carpenter. Many of his co-workers were Mexican immigrants, or their parents were, and they marveled at how different Mr. Perez was. Mr. Perez said they asked him about his optimism and his decision to stay away from alcohol. He invited them out for carne asada on the weekend. He promised to dance but without the beer.

The meetings became weekly events, and were soon ending in prayer. Attendance grew quickly. They moved from homes to hotel conference rooms and took on a name: Torreón Fuerte, the Strong Tower.

Almost everyone was raised Roman Catholic but had not attended church in years. In a city that often seemed devoid of fellowship, the group provided community. People exchanged tips on parenting, finding work and getting loans.

Luis Oseguera, then in his late 30s, saw in Perez a model father and husband. This made him come back.

“What the priest said, I wanted to do,” he said after a final early morning prayer for the men. “It was like it gave us hope, to understand that there was something beyond our problems and where we came from.”

Politics rarely enters the conversation. Like most congregants, Perez considered himself a Democrat “almost automatically,” he said, because everyone he knew was Democrats. He voted for Obama because he was enthusiastic about his promise of a new era of unity, and he saw his victory as a sign that the country could overcome its differences.

“We were optimistic,” he said, noting that hope is fading quickly, especially with Nevada’s economy sinking. “That was another good Democrat.”

Soon after finding a permanent home for the church, in an industrial park in Henderson, a suburb south of the Las Vegas Strip, he and his wife, Rebecca, began making plans for a school.

He began to clash with the secular world. When he tried to start “Good News Clubs,” where he could pray with children after school, most public schools rejected him. One teacher asked skeptical questions about the family’s religious practices and long days at church, Mr. Perez said, his son said. He was not comfortable with his children being taught by gay and lesbian teachers.

He said: “We are a conservative family, but they were against religion and against our families.”

Opening their school was fairly simple: Charter school and voucher advocates allied with Republicans in the Nevada Legislature to make it easier. The Perez family settled on a bilingual curriculum that incorporated Christianity into almost all lessons, including grammar and biology. The four-day weekly schedule gave students Mondays off to spend with family, because Sundays were consumed by church activities.

Generation Strong Christian Academy opened as a private school in 2019 with about twenty students. Six months later, when the Covid-19 virus struck, the school was forced to move to remote teaching.

Mr. Perez said he initially saw the closures as necessary to protect elderly congregants. But when the state allowed malls to reopen, but not churches, he became angry.

“They will silence us, and that’s what I’ve seen happen,” he said. “We needed to do something.”

Mr. Perez reached out to other evangelical pastors and raved about his success A lawsuit from the Alliance Defending Freedoma conservative Christian legal group, accused Steve Sisolak, then Nevada governor and Democrat, of placing stricter restrictions on churches than on casinos and malls.

“The country has changed,” Perez said. “It has abandoned the commitment to God and family, because we were not paying enough attention.” “We try to separate politics and religion, the Bible and everything, but it is impossible.”

Mr. Perez has been slowly moving closer to Republican politics for a few years. In 2016, he and other community leaders met with Mr. Trump during a campaign stop. Mr. Perez urged the candidate to retract his insulting language toward immigrants.

“You have to stop talking about us that way because we are human beings,” he recalled telling Mr. Trump. “You can’t generalize. And if you don’t stop doing that, the community will never support you.”

Perez supported the idea of ​​strict border enforcement, but wanted Trump to distinguish between immigrants who commit crimes and those who simply work to support their families.

Mr. Trump smiled and listened politely but did not respond. However, Mr. Perez left feeling as if his voice had been heard. He voted for Mr. Trump in November of that year.

A few years later, the pastor was invited to Tennessee to meet with Ralph Reed, president of the Faith and Freedom Alliance and a key figure in attracting evangelicals to the Republican Party.

Over time, Perez became convinced that Trump and his party were sympathetic to law-abiding Latino immigrants. He doubts that Mr. Trump, if elected, will follow through Mass deportations He promised.

In Trump’s threat, Perez hears echoes of strongmen who recently won elections in Latin America, and he welcomes the tough tone.

“We see problems everywhere, from the countries we come from to here,” Perez said, pointing to gun violence and abortion as examples. “We want order and power. People want to feel sure that they have some protection, that things are not out of control and that things will get better.”

Earlier this year, he was invited again to meet Mr Trump before a campaign rally in Las Vegas. He said the two men embraced, and Trump prayed briefly with him and other priests. This time, Mr. Perez offered no warnings.

Mr. Perez has invited Republican candidates to speak at his church, and Republican groups have sponsored voter registration drives there. But he rarely talks about politics from the pulpit.

Every Sunday, more than 200 people gather in the darkened sanctuary, its stage backlit by a bright screen and colored spotlights. Worshipers sing in Spanish to the music, raising their hands in adoration.

His sermons are full of practical advice: Make time for family dinners. Ask your wife what kind of help she needs. Pray together.

“We have to grow every moment of our lives,” he told the crowd on Easter Sunday.

Erika Perez, 42, sat in the back, her Bible open and a notebook, angrily taking notes as the pastor spoke. (Ms. Perez is not related to the pastor.)

About a decade ago, her husband met another man at Home Depot who invited their family to church. Attracted by the warmth of the community, they immediately became regular visitors. They turned down the opportunity to move to a larger house in the suburbs so they could stay closer to church.

“He made a huge difference in my life and gave our family a foundation we never had before, with mentors and morals,” Ms. Perez said.

After years of working as an undocumented immigrant, Ms. Perez expects to obtain citizenship soon. She says she will likely vote Republican.

“Before I went to church, I was kind of neutral about politics,” she said. “Now, I would say that I feel a responsibility to vote. Things like abortion and legal drugs go against what we believe as Christians.

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