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Charlie Baker’s service signals heft of Hispanic church

On the morning of Governor Deval Patrick’s second inauguration, the state’s most prominent clergy gathered for an interfaith prayer service at Old South Church, whose great stone edifice in Copley Square is emblematic of historic Boston. Four years earlier, Massachusetts’ interreligious elite assembled to bless Patrick’s first term at the Old South Meeting House, where the Boston Tea Party began.

Charlie Baker held his preinaugural service Wednesday night in a spare, modern sanctuary completed just last year. It was built to accommodate a burgeoning Spanish-speaking church in Roxbury, Lion of Judah, whose pastor, the Rev. Roberto Miranda, is a revered figure in Boston’s growing Hispanic evangelical Christian community. He is also a passionate culture warrior in the public square.


Lion of Judah exemplifies the ways in which the Christian church continues to evolve in Boston, and in the world: It is becoming more evangelical and more multiethnic, within some of the established mainline denominations — Lion of Judah is an American Baptist Churches congregation — as well as in independent churches.

“The profile of the religious population of American cities has been changing in the last decades; this church, as much as any I can think of anywhere in the city, reflects that change,” said Harvey Cox, a professor at Harvard Divinity School.

And the eagerness of politicians in this largely liberal, secular state to form alliances with clergy such as Miranda underscores the continued importance of the institutional church in the city’s communities of color, and in the life of the city.

In his welcome at the start of the service, Miranda told Baker and Lieutenant Governor-elect Karyn Polito he hoped they would “always seek the approval, the blessing, the wisdom, the illumination of God.

“I think I can presume to speak for all the faith communities here to say that we will be partnering with you, that we will be praying with you, we want you to use us as a resource, as allies, as people who would want to be there in moments of need, to provide whatever counsel we can provide from our spiritual perspective,” he said.


Miranda has made something of a name for himself as a vehement opponent of gay marriage, at times using incendiary rhetoric. Most notably, around the time gay marriage became legal in Massachusetts, he wrote a strategic plan to “reclaim the state of Massachusetts for Jesus Christ,” even suggesting at one point in the 17-page document that there might be “prophetic significance” in the fact that some of the Sept. 11, 2001, attackers began their deadly journey at Logan Airport.

“What took place at the material level is now being carried out at the moral and spiritual level, as the virus of homosexuality and gay marriage begins to spread dramatically all over this nation and perhaps the world,” he wrote.

Carly Burton, interim co-executive director of MassEquality, said that although Miranda may be a welcoming figure for communities of color and immigrant communities, “his homophobic and transphobic rhetoric is particularly damaging for the LGBTQ community, and we hope Charlie Baker doesn’t subscribe to that piece of his message.”

Baker spokesman Tim Buckley said the governor-elect does not. The interfaith service, he said in a statement, was “by no means an endorsement of the remarks made by Dr. Miranda, as Governor-elect Baker and Lieutenant Governor-elect Polito categorically denounce all statements of intolerance made by Dr. Miranda and others toward members of the LGBTQ community.”


But in the larger picture, the Baker team evidently sees an advantage in building a relationship with Miranda and his church. And so, for that matter, have Democratic politicians over the years.

Governor-elect Charlie Baker and his wife, Lauren, attended a prayer service at the Lion of Judah on Wednesday.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Mayor Martin J. Walsh stopped at Lion of Judah near the end of his 2013 campaign. Miranda prayed, alongside Patrick and President Obama, at the nationally televised interfaith prayer service at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross after the Marathon bombings. And Lion of Judah has worked with City Hall and the State House on a variety of issues, Miranda said in an interview.

Baker’s advisers said the governor-elect, who will be sworn in Thursday, chose Lion of Judah for several reasons: It is large and centrally located, and it offered an opportunity for Baker to reach out to the Hispanic population, continuing an effort he made during the campaign to broaden his relationship with constituencies of color.

“Charlie has said repeatedly he wants to govern for 100 percent of the Commonwealth,” Buckley said.

Lion of Judah represents an increasingly important religious and cultural demographic in Boston, and in the country as a whole.

According to the Emmanuel Gospel Center, a nondenominational Christian organization in the South End, the number of Hispanic churches within the city has grown from a handful in the mid-1960s to more than 100 today, even as many churches with largely white, non-Hispanic congregations have closed.


The pastor and his flock are also significant contributors to the community.

Miranda, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic at age 10 and earned his doctorate in Romance languages and literatures at Harvard, turned his back on a promising academic career to build a congregation for Bostonians who are mostly Spanish-speaking and of modest means.

Three decades later, Lion of Judah draws about 1,000 people to Sunday worship and engages in an array of social service work.

Its Higher Education Resource Center provides college advising and preparation programs for black and Latino youth. Its ALPHA ministry offers citizenship classes, helps with translation of immigration documents, and provides other services to about 3,000 immigrants annually.

The church trains educators to teach abstinence-based sex education to young people, and church members regularly help feed the homeless.

Speaking to a reporter as workers prepared the new sanctuary for the prayer service, Miranda sounded more soft-spoken than stem-winding.

He did not dissociate himself from his remarks about the evils of homosexuality, but he said he did not want to be defined by them, either.

“The Christian world view, and the Christian scriptures, they oscillate between these two poles, two paradigms — truth and compassion, justice and love, grace and judgment,” he said. “And we live in that tension. Sometimes, you’ll hear a sermon from me and it will be a sermon with a certain amount of harshness. Then, at other times, it will be calling people to mercy and humility and . . . compassion, love, forgiveness.”


He added that his church welcomes all people, including those who are gay.

“What I would beg is for people to see the fullness of what we do, and to also see the interventions of compassion, of mercy, of love, of service to the community, the calls to patience and God’s grace,” he said.


But he said Miranda’s leadership extends well beyond the culture wars — and, as a nurturer of the next generation of Hispanic pastors, beyond his own church.

“The largeness of his ministry is more the defining thing,” he said.

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lisa.wangsness@globe.com.