Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Soul Matters

In Guatemala the vast majority of people are Christian, with a split between Catholics (numerical majority) and Evangelical (a very vocal minority). My host family is Evangelical, and I’ve attended several church services with them so far. I assume that an Evangelical service in the US would feel like a cross-cultural experience to me as well, but going as a middling-tall blonde-ish woman to a Guatemalan Evangelical church service… makes me increasingly aware of my outsider status with every attendance.

The first time I went, I was initially pleased at how well I was able to follow the lyrics of the first hymn. Admittedly, the lyrics had about as much variation as “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and lasted for nearly 10 minutes so this wasn’t any great feat (I started timing later… 6-10 minutes per song is normal). When that song blended seamlessly into the next song without breaking for breath (much less directing the congregation to a page in the non-existent hymnals), I settled in for what appeared to be a combination between a sing-a-long praise band concert and an aerobics class. After an hour of waving religiously themed flags and clapping to variations on an oom-pah-pah sort of rhythm from the band/choir up front, we sat down as the praise leader gave the pulpit over to the pastor.

My first Guatemalan sermon was an hour long combination between fire and brimstone and stand-up comedy. The contents included familiar parables (“the kingdom of heaven is like ___________”), commentary on abortion (apparently connected to being blonde/blue eyed or not… I didn’t quite follow but was definitely the only blue-eyed person in attendance), the concepts of being rich and poor in both worldly and spiritual ways, criticism of science, a discussion of the possibility of whether aliens are real, and more. The pastor was using a microphone but seemed to forget that his voice was already amplified, because he tends to shout for emphasis. The church building is an empty storeroom and is honestly not that large of a space. It probably doesn’t need microphones at all, and the acoustics are such that I seriously considered bringing ear plugs to my next service. I decided against it out of cultural sensitivity, but my host sister went out and bought cotton for her own ears the next week, so I may be justified in doing it for the future.

After the sermon we had another hour of intensely happy singing and dancing with a minor interlude that seemed like the Prayers of the People. During this time the congregation flipped a switch from being intensely and demonstratively happy to audibly moaning and crying. There was no worship attendant praying on behalf of the congregation; rather each person prayed aloud at once, leaving me unable to decipher the prayers at all. To wrap it up there was an altar call made for anyone moved to accept Jesus into their heart. The Offering and Passing of the Peace happened simultaneously, and there wasn’t any Communion at all (although maybe that happens on a schedule I’m unaware of). We switched over to announcements to wrap things up, which included exhortations to go out to the community with a will to invite/convert our neighbors.

Once the service wound down (3 hours in at this point) we had what Lutherans usually refer to as “Coffee Hour,” in this case starring tostadas and atol. Many adults in the congregation come up to welcome me and ask my host mother if I speak Spanish. The children came to me more directly and dissolved into giggles every time I asked them a question. After a full four hours there, we walked home across town in the dark as a family.

With each return trip, the congregation warms to me. In the case of the children this makes me feel more welcome, but in the case of the adults it may have the opposite of the desired effect.

My second trip to church ended with an intense game of cops and robbers with the kids as well as a highly disorganized soccer game that ended near midnight. The adults of the congregation greet me excitedly and always exhort me to come again for all three church services each week (so far I’m averaging just less than one service a week, much to their disappointment). After each service I have the same three young men in the congregation that approach me individually and ask me the same questions that lead me to think they want (a) to save my soul, (b) to date me, or (c) both. Last time I went to church the pastor called me out by name three separate times during the sermon, including commentary on my height and coloring.

I’m mostly entertained by all of this, but at the same time I’m not exactly dying to be in the spotlight so I was glad that my Field Based Training trip spared me returning very quickly.

All in all these experiences have impressed me with the fervor and faith that everyone in attendance exhibits. While it’s not my style of religion (and it’s a pretty big time commitment) I have found going to church has helped me meet people and be accepted into Sumpango. I see some of the children elsewhere in town and they are thrilled to see me. I will have to think about how to navigate church going as I head out to my assigned site in another month or so… I want to integrate into the community, but I don’t want to commit 12 hours a week to a religious expression that doesn’t line up with my own style and that may make the quieter Catholics in town feel slighted.

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Quick disclaimer: I don’t intend to offend with my description of religion here in Guatemala. I challenge you to look around at your own religious practices (should you have any) and think about it from an outsider’s perspective. Many rituals are faintly funny or at least confusing for those not within that faith tradition.

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