José Soto had to stand along a side aisle of the sanctuary, one of roughly 200 parishioners who couldn’t find a seat at the packed Spanish service inside Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Windsor.
As a light rain fell outside, the Mass on Palm Sunday began with a processional featuring the church’s India-born, Spanish-speaking priest and numerous costumed parishioners passing beneath great arches of palm branches in the center of the sanctuary. Later Soto, 23, sang along as a casually dressed choir backed by guitars, piano and electric drums proclaimed “Santo, Santo es el Señor” — “Holy, Holy is the Lord.” It is a chorus the young man used to sing at Mass as a boy in Tapalpa, a small town in the Mexican state of Jalisco.
Soto, a junior college student and talented violinist nicknamed Curly, stands at the crossroads of two key demographic groups in American Christianity: Latinos, who make up an increasing share of churchgoers, and millennials, who are staying away in droves from organized religion. He acknowledges having plenty of questions about his faith, but that doesn’t keep him from performing worship songs once a month along with his mariachi band at Our Lady’s 12:30 p.m. Sunday Mass.
Even as he ponders his beliefs, he said, “I still feel the need to play for my church.”
Christianity in Sonoma County is increasingly made up of voices outside the mainstream, its adherents at times distinctly different than the population at large.
For Catholics, that difference often crops up in an individual or family’s status as immigrants — similar to past eras, but today the immigrants aren’t Irish or Italian. In California, two of every three Catholics are now Latino, according to the Pew Research Center.
For evangelicals and conservative Catholics, the difference comes in the widening gap with the larger culture on social issues, perhaps best seen in the divide over same-sex marriage.
And for mainline Protestants, the difference often comes from congregations getting older and smaller as younger people see less need for church.
Despite their differences, the county’s churches this Easter remain a force, especially when it comes to feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and meeting other basic human needs.
“Removing that faith-based community from our city would leave a big gap when it comes to an intense effort to help people in need,” Santa Rosa Mayor John Sawyer said. The impact of local churches is “almost immeasurable.”
Even while living in an increasingly irreligious age, leaders of various Christian traditions insist that their churches still have a role to play and a message of faith to proclaim.
“We can help people find purpose and meaning in their lives,” said the Rev. Cindy Alloway, pastor in Santa Rosa of the Presbyterian Church of the Roses, a congregation that for 16 years has operated a daily free breakfast program for students of nearby Montgomery High School.
Even for the “unchurched,” the leaders offer a simple message: All people matter, because they matter to God.
In this divisive, tumultuous era, that message remains attractive “because it resonates in the heart” and “has concrete ramifications for how we treat one another,” said Santa Rosa Bishop Robert Vasa, who oversees the Catholic diocese that stretches from Sonoma County to the Oregon border. The diocese has an estimated 165,000 registered members, with about 45,000 regular church attendees.