Culture, Politics, Religion, Social Life

… is paved with good intentions.

The evangelical problem…

So, where to start with today’s rant?

Shortly after settling into Jaibalito, I noticed something that I thought was odd. That first night, I didn’t think much of it but as days went by, I came to realize this was going to be a daily thing.

For those following my trip on Facebook, you may have seen a post or two with me joking about badly sung Spanish karaoke. You see, every day around 6pm, I’m jolted by very loud music and singing in what I thought was Spanish but now realize is sometimes Spanish and sometimes Kaqchikel, the local Mayan dialect.

Originally, I was kind of ticked off about it, not because it was annoying (although tit was) but because I thought it originated at a luxury hotel and was being put on for the rich Gringo tourists. I thought it was disrespectful to the local people to be playing music that loud for the benefit of foreigners.

This music is loud, and I mean Loud (capital L). It reverberates through the hills.

For those back home in Moncton, imagine a concert on Magnetic Hill and tone it down only slightly in volume.

After a couple of days of this I came to realize that it did not originate in the luxury hotel property at all but rather at one of the 2 local churches.

At this point, my indignation subsided. I thought to myself, of course, these people have little in the way of entertainment so a community sing along makes perfect sense. Why it was so loud I couldn’t figure out but it seemed someone was having some fun so, no problem.

Days passed and every day between 6pm and 9pm this music, accompanied by some very, very bad singing would ring though the hills of Jaibalito. Again, as an outsider, annoying, but I’m guest so I tried to ignore it.

Then I found out a little more info that put me back on that indignation path.

I never gave much thought to the fact there were two churches in this little village. Completely did not occur to me that this meant two faiths. I think most back home, when they think of Latin America they automatically think about the Catholic Church. Now, I don’t have many good things to say about the institution of the Catholic Church or the Pope but this blog entry is not about that.

You see, I discovered by talking to a couple of the locals and ex-pats who have been living here for years, that this ungodly blasting of music originates in a specific church and it is not the entire community that is partying it up but rather a minority of the community in fact. As well as annoying visiting gringos like myself, this blaring racket also apparently very much annoys the majority of the community.

These nightly events occur in the Evangelical Church, not the Catholic one.

IMG_0467Doing some further research and talking to locals again, I came to discover that Evangelical churches are exploding in Latin America in general but Guatemala very specifically. Over 30% of the population of this country is now evangelical. 40 or 50 years ago, close to 95% were Catholic.

So how is this fact relevant to my story about annoyingly loud music?

Well, for me it was a great example of how this new faith is negatively influencing the lives of the local people. Guatemalans in general but the Mayan people most specifically.

In Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America, David Martin of the London School of Economics asserts that the growth of conservative Protestantism in Latin America, Asia and Africa is as significant as the rise of revolutionary Islam.

The brand of evangelical Xtianity that is most widely seen down here is a variety of Pentecostalism and neo-Pentecostalism. It is imported into this country by western missionaries, mainly American. These zealous Americans urge personal commitments to Jesus and strict adherence to and a literal interpretation of, the Bible.

The spectacular growth of this sect since the 1960s has occurred largely in “Pentecostal groups that combine biblical orthodoxy with an innovative stress on emotionalism and miracles” according to a Time Magazine article.

I looked into a few of local missionary groups active in this area and found this in one of their mission statements:

We believe the Bible to be the inspired, only infallible, authoritative Word of God. We believe that there is one God eternally existent in three persons: The Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We believe in the deity of Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, and in His personal return in power and glory. We believe in the present day works of the Holy Spirit to inspire and empower believers to be effective followers of Jesus Christ. We believe in the resurrection of the saved to eternal life, and the everlasting punishment of those who have rejected God’s forgiveness in His Son. We strive to contribute to achieve greater unity in all that we do within the Body of Christ. Our heartbeat is to provoke a young generation to passionately pursue Jesus Christ and to take His life giving message to the ends of the earth!

Now, I’ve had to say this over and over again whenever I discuss my views on religion but I will say it again here: I have no issue with people of faith.

Full disclosure: I am an avowed atheist but I am well versed on Xtian mythology as well as that of other religions. I’ve read the Bible, several times, and cover to cover. If belief in a mystical power floats your boat, so be it, you’ll get no argument from me (unless you are interested in academic debate on the issue which I quite enjoy).

I reserve my religious distaste for the last part of that manifesto above. “and to take His life giving message to the ends of the earth” This is the part that I have a problem with and this is the crux of this blog entry (i.e. rant).

The Guatemala Civil War, which was horrific and really only ended about 7 years ago, was largely the result of US interference in Latin America.

Like the much more publicized Contra War in Nicaragua, Guatemala’s right wing governments and military were propped up, especially during the 1980’s by the US government, mainly through the CIA. It started with the CIA-backed coup of the democratically elected Guatemalan President in 1954 and continues, even up to this day to one degree or another.

As an aside, it was this US-backed coup in ’54 that helped radicalize a young Ernest Guevara and put him on the path to change Latin America forever.

At the height of the US government interference in Guatemalan affairs in the 1980’s, CIA-backed death squads roamed the country massacring suspected communist guerrillas and their sympathizers. These people were largely indigenous and the Maya people suffered horribly under these regimes.

Over 300,000 people were murdered or disappeared.

Efrain Rios-Montt, an ex-general turned de facto president in 80’s was recently found guilty of crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing of the Ixil Maya. Rios-Montt was once described by Ronald Reagan as: “a person of high moral character”. He was also a favourite of Margaret Thatcher and Brian Mulroney.

Sure, because he was also an evangelical pastor, he must be of “high moral character” right?

IMG_0463Montt enjoyed much support from evangelical leaders in the 1980s, while he was in power. He once counted Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson among his friends and supporters. Some US evangelical leaders have even recently defended this monster, maintaining that during the Cold War, “drastic measures were justified to keep Communists from overthrowing Guatemala’s government.”

I don’t know but I don’t see anywhere in the Bible that forgives someone for ethnic cleansing because it helps stem the tide of communism (maybe the Old Testament, I’ll have to go back and look).

As the fear of the communist rebel began to subside with the end of the cold war, the US backed off somewhat in its direct interference in Guatemalan affairs although they continued to backup and support its military.

At this point, a more unofficial interference moved into high gear in the form of US corporations and, more to my point today, US churches began moving down here in force. Evangelical missionaries flocked here and found waiting converts.

Catholicism was waning as it offered little help to the impoverished, terrified and war weary indigenous population. Javier Ariz, a Catholic bishop in Peru, says evangelicals make their gains by invading “areas where the people are naturally very religious and the Catholic Church has been chronically short of priests.”

Evangelicals, for example, provide the only community leadership in many parts of rural Latin America that have been overrun by guerilla groups. In Guatemala, evangelical pastors have saturated rural areas, greatly outnumbering Catholic priests. At the same time, they have been interfering in traditional Mayan ways of life.

So here is how it works according to my sources: These missionaries come into rural communities and start spreading around massive amounts of money. Again, this is rural Guatemala. A really good daily wage here is 70 Quetzales (that’s $9.28 CAD). And when I say really good wage, I mean the people that work in restaurants or the hotels that serve the gringo tourists. The subsistence Mayan farmers and artisans among whom I’m living would be lucky to earn $10 in a week.

So they spread around what seems like an unlimited supply of cash. The build beautiful new churches among the corrugated tin and cinder block homes of the locals. They teach early converts to their faith and make the most charismatic (and aggressive) among them pastors.

To be sure, a good portion of those who “accept salvation” may simply be doing what missionaries want them to do in order to receive surplus food and medicine. And in almost all instances, the missionaries equip these new churches with massive audio equipment including big Marshall stack speakers.

And then they leave.

They return back to their privileged American lives thinking they have spread the good word and ensured their place in heaven because they have converted the simple Mayan people to the only path to god.

Now, I’m sure they are well meaning. At least I hope they are. I want to believe that these people truly think they are doing good even if their methods (spreading around cash) are not exactly “Christian” in my opinion. And here is where the problem truly begins.

Once they are gone, their variety of “the good word” gets modified and twisted, morphing with the local interpretations and cultural influences of the area.

Remember the civil war I described above?

Many of those responsible for the worst atrocities, both government and private death squad alumni but some guerrillas as well, find themselves in leadership roles in these new churches. They are the most aggressive, confident and charismatic so its natural for them to take control of these new communities. These churches, from my experience, become gangs.

They continue to flaunt the money and equipment supplied by their American benefactors and those who have not converted are now viewed as the enemy in many instances. Those who support the evangelicals are showered with praise and gifts and those who do not, those who maintain their Catholic or traditional Mayan faiths are ostracized and bullied.

And that takes me full circle back to this loud, blaring music and singing every night for 3 to 4 hours.

Keep in mind, this is the tropics and daylight hours don’t fluctuate like they do in the north. By 6pm, the sun is going down. By 7pm, its pitch dark. People here are also early risers, often up and active by 5am and certainly by 6am.

Not long after this daily evangelical singsong tradition began, many of the traditional Mayans complained, first to the Mayor and then directly to the local evangelical pastor. In one instance relayed to me, a pregnant mother, who also had a couple of other small children at home, went to the pastor to tell him that the loud music was very disruptive to the community and that her children needed their sleep and asked him to possibly turn the volume down somewhat or to possibly begin and end the events earlier.

His response to her was to tell her that if she complained to him again, or if she went to the Mayor or to the regional police in Panajachel, that she would be killed and her children orphaned.

In another instance relayed to me, two local boys were severely beaten because their families refused to join the evangelical church. There are many more instances like this.

Now, I’m aware that evangelicals back home would read this account and be as disgusted as I and will claim this is not their religion and that I should not paint all evangelicals with the same brush.

To that I say… bullshit.

Sure, what it has morphed into in these local communities may not reflect you religion of peace and love but that is a cop out in my opinion.

If your faith encourages, or even requires you to proselytize and find converts to your own brand of Xtianity, and your church chooses to evangelize in the developing world, then you most definitely are responsible for this type of behavior.

You cannot come into these communities, preach your gospel, throw around obscene amounts of money and then leave and not take responsibility for any unintentional side effects.

If you don’t want to be associated with these goon-pastors and the types of tactics they use in the name of Jesus… then perhaps you should stop sending your missionaries here until you have a better understanding of the local culture.


2 thoughts on “… is paved with good intentions.

  1. Karen says:

    Congrats on taking a trip that has the potential to change your life. I typically don’t get involved in these types of debates because my experiences have shown me one cannot changes another person’s mind no matter the determination and good intent behind it. In this instance I simply want to point out a couple of thoughts I have. I grew up with different experiences than yours and I think it’s healthy to share other sides to this “rant”.
    I was brought up seeing missionaries (some of specific faith and others interdenominational) dedicate their whole life in 3rd world countries, bearing and raising their own families amongst people that didn’t have the chances we in our country have. You’re right, they often did come home to Canada – for furlough…and then proceeded to go back for large amounts of time again. And again. They were not blaring out their beliefs to others, but were down in the trenches, providing assistance for day to day life. They were quietly serving the people in need, providing medical care, education, unconditional love and true caring. And sometimes, they died for this cause alongside these same families they dedicated their time to help.
    You’re absolutely right…there are atrocities in this world, no matter where you call home, that break our hearts. Please don’t paint this issue with one colour. There are a myriad of colours and hues to so much of the world and it seems like your rant shows only the shades of anger. You have the right to be an atheist and I completely respect that. I will not assume all atheist react as one same mind. But aren’t you doing the same thing that you accuse Christians (I will use the whole word as it doesn’t bother me) of doing as a whole? Trying to convert to your beliefs?
    Be outraged at the awfulness you may see. Share it with us. But, please…take this unique opportunity to step in and use your strong caring hands to help soften their tears and poverty. I love the pictures of your adventure but I want to see less of the mountains and more of what you can do to make a difference. Stop standing behind the camera being the observer. I want to see you in front of it teaching others how to put aside religious differences and make someone’s life more joyful.

    • Thanks for the comment Karen. Yes I am sure there are well meaning missionaries and I am aware some have died serving or protecting the communities they are proselytizing too. That said, my blog post stems from personal experience, in one region of Guatemala, and I stand by what I said. I have seen this with my own eyes and cannot condemn it loud enough.

      Also, please note, I’m not here on vacation snapping souvenir pics. I originally came to learn and explore. What has occurred though is I’ve found a way to contribute and am now putting plans in place to that will allow me to work with and for these people for the foreseeable future.

      I am working on a fair trade business endeavour that will see me travel regularly between Canada and Guatemala and one where I will be putting the majority of the business profits back into local poverty reduction and education programs in these Mayan villages. And I will be doing that without without imposing or even suggesting these people need to adopt my own worldview, religion or philosophical outlook. I will leave that to the individual Mayan to determine on their own.


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