Chapter 6: Provocations

In the Power of the Spirit
by Dennis A. Smith and B.F. Gutierrez (eds.)

Chapter 6: Provocations


This is a working document. Its purpose is to help pastors and church leaders articulate contextualized pastoral strategies for responding to the challenges presented by this particular moment in Latin American history. No solutions are offered, just stories, questions, and a few tentative clues.

You will need to ponder and assemble these disjointed pieces to see if they respond to your particular situation. But the puzzle will remain unsolved unless you add the pieces unique to your particular context.

This is a biased reflection. It gives special attention to reality as it is experienced by the excluded majorities in our countries. If your pastoral call is to other sectors of society, this document maybe of little use to you.

Before I forget, let me ask a favor of you. If this document (or the others included in this collection) provokes you to put some thoughts down on paper, send them along to us. (You'll find the address at the beginning of the book). We'll do our best to circulate your comments.

Pieces of Evidence:


A few weeks ago, Leonardo died. At 35 years of age, his liver could no longer resist the ravages of alcohol. He left a wife and four children. Leonardo and his family, Kaqchikel Mayas, had left their village 30 years ago to seek their fortune in the city. They built a shack on the periphery of the city. Leonardo became an ironworker.

When he went on a binge, Leonardo would beg for money to pay for his next drink. His family would find him collapsed on the street in a drunken stupor. They would take him home, but he would leave again, helpless before alcohol's fury.

Leonardo was a timid person. He was not a violent drunk. He did not beat his wife and children. Rather, he seemed perplexed, sad, silenced before his inner demons.

He had tried many times to control his alcoholism. He had tried attending Alcoholics Anonymous. He had gone to the meetings of the Catholic charismatic renewal. He had asked a Pentecostal pastor to pray for him. He had joined the church choir. But the fury always returned, the fury rose up within him, and he was helpless before its power.

Have you met Leonardo?

Luz María Coto, a Salvadoran pastor, shares this testimony:

Three years ago, when Consuelo was five months pregnant, she decided to tell her father and mother that she was expecting. Her father has not spoken to her since. She had to go to live with a friend of her mother. The father of her little girl never helped her in any way. After Gabriela was born, she had to abandon her studies and go to work.

Looking for a companion for herself and a father for Gabriela, Consuelo became pregnant again. It was the same story. The father abandoned her as soon as Marta was born. She gave up her search for a companion and confronted life alone with her daughters. She has raised them by herself and has been an example to them of what a woman can do, even without a life companion. Both girls study while she works.[1]

Have you met Consuelo and her daughters?

David Stoll, American anthropologist, relates what he has observed in El Quiché, Guatemala:

By the late 1980s... the town's youth were no longer following their older siblings and parents into the churches. Many of the earlier generation of converts had left (Sacapulas) to pursue careers in the capital, leaving the town's congregations smaller than before. When I quoted the 1984 health census, that 33 percent of the family heads in town were evangelical, a disappointed pastor replied: "The majority of this town may have passed through the evangelical church, but where are they?" The ambience had changed, another leader explained. Through cable television, youth were becoming absorbed in worldliness and drugs. Jesus Christ had been very popular with the teenagers of this town in the 1970s; now their successors were more interested in rock music and videos. They were being converted to consumer capitalism as represented by the town's new satellite dish. Where Protestantism still boomed was on the dry, scrubby ridges above town, in hard-scrabble aldeas that clustered around government schools and Church of God chapels. Here, evangelical leaders claimed, their members were outnumbering Catholics.

Already in Nebaj, a second generation was emerging in the evangelical churches, of adolescents who were more interested in acquiring sunglasses than imitating their parents. According to one such youth, who was already "fallen" due to drinking, Protestant as well as Catholic youth engaged in the same kind of behavior because of the influence of their friends. The more prosperous households were acquiring televisions and, by 1992, there were three video parlors on the plaza specializing in Rambo-style violence. Young Ixils were being bombarded with images of sex, status, speed and mobility. Like so many millions of other Latin American youth, they were being taught to imitate urban consumption patterns far beyond any visible means of attainment.[2]

Have you met the young people from Nebaj and Sacapulas?

Xavier Gorostiaga, a Jesuit economist, shares alarming data

...When the world was largely rural, a social fabric protected the poor. But today's urban poor are isolated, alone, without community . . . This process of marginalization is filled with contradictions. The free-market economic system pushes people out of rural areas because it promotes only the export-led growth of powerful agro-industry. Urban migration has created cities of 20 million that are unlivable: Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Calcutta, Shanghai, and Cairo. In these cities, people arm themselves because crime and insecurity create a permanent war among the citizenry. In the United States alone, there are 200 million guns in the hands of private citizens. Just think. They try to defend themselves from a product that their own society has created.

. . .Most sadly (we have created) a civilization of hopelessness. And, where there is no hope there is no life . . . As the possibility for hope is slaughtered, what remains is mere escapism where people seek consolation in things like drugs. According to a declaration of 132 nations that met in Naples,Italy in November, 1994, the yearly global expenditure on drugs, prostitution and arms totals $732 billion, a sum equal to 40 percent of the per capita income of humanity.[3]

Do you find your region reflected in the data cited by Gorostiaga?

I Know Her

Up at dawn.

Life is numbness, noise, being pushed, pushing back, going through the


Do we have water today? No, no water.

What about breakfast? Just enough for the kids. You know how it is-- as a woman, I'll get by.

Do we have electricity? Yes,for the moment.

She turns on the radio. Country music.

For a moment, she identifies with the woman's musical lament.

Life is numbness, noise, being pushed, pushing back, going through the motions.

Going to work. An hour and a half in buses. Exhaust fumes, crush of


When it rains, mud. When it doesn't, dust.

Careful with those guys at the corner! Are they thieves?

Here come the cops.

Are my papers in order? if not, they'll hit me for a bribe.

Got to hurry! if I'm late, I'm fired!

Going home. Another ninety minutes.

She arrives exhausted.

And the kids?

(Her mother stays with them all day).

Not sick, are they?

Fix some food. And do some wash if there is water.

There's a meeting at church. Does she want to go?

They want to form a committee to demand

clean water and a health clinic.

She's not up for a meeting tonight.

Maybe tomorrow.

Tonight, just switch on the tube and catch a soap.

Just as she settles down, she hears noise from the neighbors. He's drunk again.

Their boom box is shaking the walls. No rest tonight,

but tomorrow, up at dawn.

She begins to think.

Think? Maybe think is too strong a term.

Life is numbness, noise, being pushed, pushing back, going through the motions.


The reflection of what once would have passed for thought -

A moment of nostalgia.

Who can she count on when push comes to shove?

The neighbors? Sometimes, when they're not drunk.

The father of her children? No way! Cost me an arm and a leg to get rid of

that jerk.

People from back home? Sometimes. But here in the city nobody stays in

touch anymore.

The family? Yeah, sure, my family. Most of the time.

The church? I think so. I'm not sure. Sometimes they're all talk.


Yes, God. God has not abandoned us.

We still have someplace to live. We're not on the street.

We have life. Today the kids are well. . .

But all around me, nothing seems to make sense anymore. .

so many things I just don't understand

She goes back to watching TV...

The Emptiness Within

A group of us were meeting, pastoralists from several Latin American countries. The task for the morning was to identify the religious feelings of people we work with, especially among the excluded majority.

A spiritual laundry list for our time:

We yearn to feel that we belong to a community.

We long for meaning in our lives. Noteworthy are those preachers who offer people the discipline they need to survive the current social and economic crisis. Noteworthy are those who claim they have the authority to conquer alcoholism, dishonesty, domestic violence.

Violence and aggressiveness dominate interpersonal relationships.

We feel exhausted, harried, empty, pushed to the limit.

In our hearts, we long for tenderness and affection.

We yearn for joy, for celebration.

Maybe we don't know how to express it. But somehow, we yearn for a personal experience with God. We long to abandon ourselves in God and savor the mystery of God's absolute otherness. We yearn to become channels of divine grace.

In the cities many want to "consume religious goods," but without losing their anonymity, without risking discovery.

People are fed up with religious institutions and with the organized religion industry.

More evidence:

Slipping Out the Back Door

In 1988 a Costa Rican evangelical businessman became concerned by the claims of local preachers that a quarter of the population had become Protestant. He consulted with a respected local public opinion firm and they decided to study the religious preferences of Costa Ricans. The study was carried out in July, 1989. They interviewed 1,276 adults. They discovered that:

8.9 percent of those interviewed identified themselves as Protestants. (The word we use in Central America is evangélicos).

81.7 percent of those interviewed identified themselves as Roman Catholics.

72.8 percent of the Protestants were born into Roman Catholic homes.

Besides the 8.9 percent who identified themselves as Protestants, an additional 8.1 percent admitted to having been Protestants at some time in the past. This represents a desertion rate of 91 per-cent.

Of this 8.1 percent of those surveyed who abandoned Protestantism, 62 percent returned to the Roman Catholic church, 1 percent became Jewish, 6 percent became Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons, and 31 percent ceased to profess religious belief.

Let me run that by you again. Of the 8.1 percent of Costa Rican adults who abandoned evangelical churches (the author of the study calculates that we are talking about approximately 42,500 people), 31% ceased to profess religious belief.[4]

It's the Real Thing

Kristian Führer is the pastor of Nikolai Church in Leipzig, Germany. His church played a key role in the movement that brought down the Berlin Wall. In the autumn of 1989, despite the threats of the secret police, 200,000 people came to Monday night prayer meetings at Nikolai Church. Last year an American journalist asked Führer if it was tougher keeping their spiritual life alive now that they formed part of the capitalist world. His reply:

For 40 years we had in the East the experience of theoretical materialism, and atheism. In the past two years we are confronted with something new --actual materialism. Materialism used to be a theory; in this integration with the West, it is a fact... Before and during 1989 there was a genuine spirit, a true reform light, and our church was filled by no other means than word of mouth... But today, even if we put out 1,000 posters, we would not get so many.[5]

The All-Consuming Gospel

It's not as if there were a dearth of religious options out there. They're everywhere! And not all the religious options come in the guise of churches. Take televison, for example. TV's gospel is called the consumer society. Human worth, preaches television, is measured by the "exclusiveness" of the products that one consumes. Those assured of salvation by this gospel are the young, the beautiful, and the successful. (Don't be surprised if most of them also happen to be white!) Everyone else must scramble to buy a bit of salvation (and identity) by collecting some of the crumbs that fall from this exclusive table: a pair of Nike tennis shoes, a Sony Walkman, Calvin Klein jeans, or whatever the commercial badges of the moment might be.

The pure and undefiled religion of the consumer society is beyond the reach of the great unwashed multitudes. All that it offers to the excluded are carefully measured and mediated dreams and expectations. Television suggests to the excluded concrete ways for dealing with the frustration produced by their exclusion. First, violence. Armchair Rambos frequently live out their TV-generated fantasies by beating up on the women closest to them. Second, sex. Television tells us that ultimate human meaning can be found in the mechanized, mindless practice of the sexual act. Sex, of course, is closely related to violence in televisionland. Again, women are usually the objects, not the subjects, of the sexual act.

Don't be surprised to find that some of the new religious movements have quite successfully adapted themselves to the gospel of the consumer society. Since Constantine, churches have always had to define themselves in relation to the gospels preached by those in power. Some remain faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; others go with the flow.

Today, for example, the theologians of the consuming gospel explain that God wants us all to be healthy and wealthy. What about the poor and the sick? Simple! Either they lack faith or are living in sin. But this all- consuming gospel grants them the authority to grab God by the throat and DEMAND material blessing. Your God isn't big enough to give you a new car? Try mine! The result? The excluded continue to be excluded for having committed the gravest of all sins: having been excluded in the first place!

Where do we go from here?

Back to that meeting of Latin American pastoralists.

We ended our time together by compiling another laundry list. Why? Its our way of encouraging you to rethink your pastoral strategies and, if necessary, to provoke you to design strategies that are appropriate to your particular context, strategies that respond to this particular moment in history:

Christian churches have lost our monopoly over the institutionalization of spirituality in Latin America. Every day less of the spirituality experessed by average folks is channeled through the churches. The range of alternatives is enormous: from Umbanda to New Age, from the consumer gospel to ancient Mayan spirituality. Our churches must abandon our historic triumphalism and assume our minoirty position with dignity. Furthermore, without abandoning our principles, we must learn to establish relationships of mutual respect with both ancient and new spiritualities that proclaim values not wholly alien to the Reign of God.

Faced with our minority status, historic churches, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, can no longer afford to dismiss Pentecostals as the enemy. We must learn to be allies.

Our common identity with other Christians grows out of our common faith in Jesus of Nazareth. This is sufficient. Enough of competition! Enough of numbers! Enough of our self-promoting arrogance! The time has come to set aside our sectarianism and live out the Gospel. Together! (We always suspected as much. These are the values we have celebrated in the lives of so many of our local saints. "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us." Hebrews12:1).

We urgently need to design pastoral strategies (and even select the times for our meetings and worship services) according to the needs of that great mass of excluded people who form part of non-traditional families: single mothers, families divided by divorce, grandmothers who raise their grandchildren, widows, orphans, street children, etc. We must accept the fact that women are the protagonists in many Latin American families. Women take the initiative in creating and defending family spaces. Women administer the family budget. Women take the initiative in promoting gospel values and celebrating God's presence in the home. At the same time, we need to hold up responsible male role models that break with machismo, insensitivity and violence.

We need to rescue a spirit of celebration and not get lost in rationalism. We need to develop contextualized, coherent and celebrative liturgies, balancing form and content. This will grow out of a permanent conversation between Pentecostal and historic churches. It is not enough to pentecostalize the liturgies of the historic churches.

Kleptocracies. Narcocracies. "Formal" democracies (that is, governments where the army and the economic elites have retreated to run things from behind the scenes). These are the political systems that dominate the Latin American landscape. How do we move from corrupt, manipulative and abusive politics to the responsible administration of public resources for the common good? As Christians, we need to articulate an ethic for public servants and a theology of power. As Christians, we need to participate in the decentralization of the functions of the state and strengthen regional and local democratic institutions. When the excluded begin to participate in local boards and commissions, democracy begins to take root.

We are flesh. We are spirit. But we have divorced one from the other. Our human dignity, rooted in our divine parentage, resides in the holistic integration of flesh and spirit. For this reason, aggression against a human being is an aggression against God. But there's more. We also must learn to decipher in our own selves the constant conversation between body and spirit. And how to we comprehend the closely-related mystery of our sexuality? Or the mystery of our spiritual yearning? Or the enormous impact that these yearnings have on our physical beings?

The principal source of values, dreams and expectations in our world is the communication media, especially television. At this point in history, any serious Christian Education program must include media literacy: criteria and methodologies that facilitate a critical perception of media messages.

Preaching is in crisis. We must train our preachers to preach simple, creative, prophetic, humane, tender, contextualized sermons. ï

Many people slip out the back door of the neo-Pentecostal churches feeling deceived, defrauded, damaged. But the same thing happens in many historic and Pentecostal churches. We must humbly ask ourselves if we are prepared to provide caring communities, communities of integrity, for some of the many people who have become fed up with organized religion.

We need to review our theologies in light of our increasingly pluralistic world. What contribution can the Christian faith make to humankind's common reflection on the human condition at this moment in history? In this process, the members of our churches must learn to articulate their own beliefs, not so that they can proselytize more effectively, but so that their living faith becomes a useful tool in building the common good.



[1] "New Ways of Being Family: Testimonies from Guatemala" by Luz María Coro de Peña in Latin American Pastoral Issues, Year XVIII, 1994. CELEP, Guatemala. p. 19.

[2] David Stoll Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala. Columbia University Press, New York. 1993. pp. 275-6.

[3] "World has become a 'champagne glass.' Globalization will fill it fuller for wealthy few" by Xavier Gorostiaga in National Catholic Reporter. 27 Jan 95. Kansas City, MO, p.9.

[4] "La crisis evangélica costarricense en cifras," by Juan Kessler. Mimeographed paper, fourth revision, Aug., 1989.

[5] "We Lost Our Fear and Went Onto the Street" Robert Marquand interview of Kristian Führer

in the Christian Science Monitor, Aug. 19-25, 1994.