Religious Diversity, Societal Change, and Ecumenical Prospects in Guatemala

By Duffey, Michael K. | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Religious Diversity, Societal Change, and Ecumenical Prospects in Guatemala


Duffey, Michael K., Journal of Ecumenical Studies


Introduction

Mainline Protestants arrived in Guatemala in 1882, when President Rufino Barrios invited Presbyterian missionaries into the country with the intent of challenging the power of the Catholic Church. Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists made limited converts, but the arrival later of Pentecostal missionaries from the United States led to remarkable rates of Protestant growth in Guatemala. A great deal of religious activity has paralleled the country's political turmoil throughout the second half of the twentieth century, marked particularly by the oppression of the Mayan peoples of Guatemala. Guatemala's hopes for democratization and land reform during the presidency of Jacobo Arbenz were dashed by a CIA-sponsored coup in 1954. For the next four decades the country was ruled by military juntas or civilians dependent upon them.

By the 1960's, progressive Catholic bishops, priests, and catechists were working with the Mayas to develop local leadership, organize cooperatives, and improve health and education. Through this progressive wing that had arisen from "Catholic Action," a re-evangelizing program that had begun a decade earlier, the Catholic Church was addressing a problem as old as the Conquest--how to transform a society in which people are treated as "inhabitants" into a society of "citizens" who demand government accountability.

In the 1960's an armed revolutionary movement in Guatemala City and eastern Guatemala was brutally put down by the Army. It resurfaced as the Guerilla Army of the Poor (E.G.P.) in the country's western highlands, where insurgents hoped to expand its popular base among the Mayas. For the next two decades the army responded with massive brutality, massacring thousands of Mayas and burning over 400 villages throughout the highlands. Among the targets were Catholic priests and church workers. (1)

Guatemala experienced a devastating earthquake in 1976, which claimed 20,000 lives, injured 80,000, and left one in eight Guatemalans homeless. The earthquake, the violence of the army, and the counterviolence of the insurgency had created a culture of fear and insecurity. The churches tried to cope, in some cases with assistance from their U.S. and European counterparts.

This essay explores the religious diversity of modern Guatemala and inquires into the prospects of ecumenical cooperation in social reform and development. Among the different forms of religious community in Guatemala are what Chilean Pentecostal theologian Juan Sepulveda describes as "three new ways of being church" in Latin America: Pentecostalism, Catholic charismatic renewal, and both Catholic and Protestant base ecclesial communities (comunidades eclesial de base, CEB's). (2) How have these ways of being church been felt in Guatemala? And, how has a fourth way--Mayan cultural resurgence--impacted Guatemala? Part One explores especially the rise of Pentecostalism. (3) Part Two inquires about the contribution of religious bodies to social change and healing in Guatemala. Part Three, based in part on the author's interviews with Guatemalan religious leaders, addresses the prospects of further ecumenical cooperation in Guatemala.

I. Faiths in Crisis

Guatemala's political, social, and economic strife of the last half-century is paralleled by changing religious affiliations. Today, approximately one-quarter of Guatemala's population of 11,000,000 identify themselves as Protestant--compared to ten percent for all of Latin America. Between 200 and 300 different Protestant denominations exist in Guatemala. The oldest and largest mainline Protestant church in Guatemala is the Presbyterian Church, which marked 125 years in Guatemala in 2007. In 1959 its first Maya presbytery was established among the K'iche' Mayas, and by the 1980's presbyteries for five Mayan language groups existed. In addition, the Brotherhood of Maya Presbyteries, representing eight indigenous presbyteries, was formed in the early 1980's.

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