Ruben Lambert was educated in Catholic schools and grew up as a faithful Roman Catholic. As he grew older, the first generation Cuban-American decided to adopt a religion more rooted in meditation and enlightenment.
Now he follows the practices of Zen Buddhism and has assumed the name Venerable Mooh-Sang Sunim.
Like Lambert, many Latinos are shedding their traditional spiritual beliefs for non-traditional, non-Christian religions. Whether it involves praying five times a day or forsaking a suit and tie for long robes, these people are firm believers in the doctrines of their chosen convictions.
At first, it was like anything new and my family was reluctant to except it. The idea of a Buddhist monk is not an idea my parents expected me to become. So, taking those factors to account, there was a natural resistance.
While the numbers of Latinos converting to these religions are still very small, they are slowly growing. According to experts, 65 percent of Latinos are Catholic, 30 percent of Protestants, and 5 percent are “unaffiliated.”
“It’s a larger number now than, say, 10 years ago, and the smaller numbers spread out among Islam, Buddhism and various Sikh and Hindu denominations,” said Arlene Sánchez-Walsh, an associate professor of Latino church studies and chair of the Ministry department at Azusa Pacific University, an Evangelical college in California.
Lambert’s conversion to Buddhism came as a shock to his friends and family. His family expected him to follow their spiritual footsteps.
“At first, it was like anything new and my family was reluctant to except it,” he says, “The idea of a Buddhist monk is not an idea my parents expected me to become. So, taking those factors to account, there was a natural resistance.”
Unknowingly, Lambert's began his spiritual journey at age 7, when his father first enrolled him in Taekwondo. For both father and son, this involvement meant absorbing long-standing eastern philosophies that would help develop the mind and body.
Eventually, as an adult, he would use these and similar practices at the So Shim Sa Zen Center in Warren, New Jersey, where he acts as the Director of Wellness Programs.
“I was raised to believe that we have to see it in order to believe it,” he says. “I was reluctant at first but eventually gave it a try. Personally, my interest peeked in the midst of meditation when I experienced how the mind can go from external distractions to inner peace.”
The growth of Latinos converting to Buddhism has been concentrated in major metropolitan areas like New York, Los Angeles, and Miami, which have some of the largest concentrations of Hispanics. Some meetings in these areas are now held in only Spanish.
William Aiken, director of public affairs for Soka Gakkai International, says their organization is comprised of 78 organizations world-wide, including some in Argentina, Mexico, Chile, and Brazil—their third largest network.
“The growth of Latino Buddhist can be in part due to our number of growing Latinos holding leadership positions. We have a great deal of Hispanics who are essential to coordinating the expansion of this community,” he says. “We’ve also noted an increase in the Northern Virginia and Washington area, where there is also an increasing number in our youth membership.”
But Buddhism is not the only Eastern religion Latinos are beginning to embrace.
Juan Galvan of the Latino American Dawah Organization (LADO) said there are a growing number of Latino Muslims in cities like Los Angeles, Houston, New York City and Chicago.
While there is no way of stating what ethnic groups are likely to convert, LADO believes Puerto Rican-Americans have gained more visibility; thus, generating interest among Latino communities in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area. Meanwhile, a significant number of Mexican-American Muslims have had a major influence on Latino communities in Texas and California.
About one-fifth of the world’s population is Muslim. A study in 2006 by the American Muslim Council reported that there were more than 200,000 Latino Muslims living in the United States.
Among them is Umar Abdul Kayyam Garcia, 31, who is Puerto Rican.
He follows the doctrines found in the Qur’an at the Islamic Educational Center of North Hudson (IECNH) in Union City, N.J.
Unlike most traditional converts who accept the religion freely, Umar’s introduction to Islam was a bit different. He was Muslim as a young child after his parents converted from Catholicism. But after he moved to Puerto Rico following his parents’ separation, he stopped practicing the religion.
“Here I was. I called myself a Muslim, but I didn’t practice it,” Garcia says. “I remember hearing my uncles always debating about religion and this always intrigued me. So, when I returned to the United States as a young man, I was very eager to learn more about a conviction I had long forgotten.”
When he returned, he embraced a life in Islam when he took his Shahada in Spanish (The Shahada is an oath of faith that officially makes someone Muslim). With his formal conversion, he began to grow a full beard, while his wife (also a convert) began to wear a hijab – a traditional head scarf worn by Muslim women.
“My friends and family became dubious and doubtful when I started to show more physical and cultural changes. They didn’t entirely accept it but they slowly grew more open minded,” he said. “As a Muslim, I pray five times a day, I don’t drink alcohol, and I have an extended family.”
Cristina Pinzon is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.