The dominant religion in the Rio Grande Valley has historically been Catholicism. In Starr County, 75 percent of residents identify as Catholic. In nearby Hidalgo County, 39 percent are Catholic. These numbers are significantly higher than the rest of Texas, which, according to the Association of Religious Data Archives estimates that 64.4 percent of the state identifies as Evangelical Protestant, with only 21 percent of Texans statewide identifying as Catholic.
But the Valley is experiencing a shift toward increased religious diversity, or at least that’s the subtext of this story from McAllen’s The Monitor, which addresses a criminal noise complaint filed by a Mission, Texas, man against the pastor of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. The church’s bells violated the city’s noise ordinance, and though the complaint was quickly withdrawn (with no explanation given by the complaining witness), Mission’s city council moved to prevent the problem from coming up in the future after they “unanimously and without debate passed a measure this week exempting churches from the city’s noise ordinance,” according to the story from The Monitor.
The Monitor goes on to suggest that the core of the complaint may not be as simple as “the bells are really loud,” and the paper looks at the changing religious affiliations of Valley residents to explain why:
“It’s a very interesting thing because for the longest period of time, the Roman Catholic Church was essentially the only Christian population in town,” said Dr. Ken Grant a professor of philosophy and history at the University of Texas-Pan American. “They had almost a monolithic presence as far as religions go.”
But things have changed, Grant said. As the Valley continues to grow, it’s becoming less religiously homogeneous. One of the fastest-growing religious populations is non-denominational evangelical Christians who do not necessarily have a positive view of Catholicism, he added.
“I understand why the priest was fairly direct in his approach to this, and I think he was right, but I think he also needed to be aware of his impact,” he said. “His congregation likes the bells, he likes the bells, but not everyone around him is Catholic anymore.”
Amber Gutierrez, the president of the UTPA Atheist Student Organization echoed Grant’s call for religious tolerance, citing growing Hindu and Jewish populations. Temples for both religions opened in McAllen and Edinburg in the past five years.
Atheists like Gutierrez seem to have the toughest road, when it comes to being accepted by their neighbors in the Valley—the story goes on to describe the speed with which posters for the student’s organization’s meetings were torn down on campus—but the idea that the church’s bells may have been the target of someone who resents being subjected to sounds affiliated with a religion he didn’t adhere to raises other interesting questions. Mission City Manager Martin Garza told the Monitor that “The city of Mission is a very Christian community,” and “we understand that church bells and chimes play at certain times of the day from different churches. [Our Lady of Guadalupe] is a part of our history and plays a large role in our community.”
That may be so, but churches that are less historic and which play a smaller role in the greater Mission community will receive those same exceptions, which will be a broader test of the way Valley communities are dealing with the changing religious identification of their people. Or as Dr. Grant puts it, “If it had not been church bells but the Muslim call to prayer, would the Mission government have reacted with the same latitude they tried to afford the Catholic church?” Despite Garza’s statements about the “very Christian community” and the church’s place in Mission history and the community, at least one city council member understood the implications of the question:
City Council Member Armando O’Caña, who introduced the ordinance and graduated from the Our Lady of Guadalupe school, said the Council would have granted any religious institution the same privilege.
“No sir,” he said, when asked if a mosque performing the Muslim calls to prayer would have been treated differently. “You’ve got understand that over 200 years ago our founding fathers of the United States broke away from England to allow the freedom of religion.”