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Laura West

A junior in Georgetown College studying government and chemistry, Laura West is currently studying abroad in Quito, Ecuador at the Universidad de San Francisco for the fall of 2011. Fascinated by the intersection of science, politics and anthropology, Laura chose Ecuador because of her interest in environmental policy. She has long been intrigued by what motivates governments to adopt environmentally conscious policy and what motivates individuals to embrace stewardship. As a developing nation, which ultimately faces different challenges related to environmental issues and is already coping with a host of other pressing matters, Laura hopes that Ecuador will push her to develop creative and integrated strategies that deal with environmental conservation. She also looks forward to exploring how Ecuador’s large indigenous population, which lives in some of the most vulnerable areas, embraces stewardship and responds to environmental change.

Family and Community Reign Supreme in Ecuador

November 1, 2011

To reach the tiny town of Lumbisí, an indigenous community located about forty minutes outside of Quito, you have to take a bus up a narrow partially paved road, wind around two bends in the path and cross a small gorge before finding yourself in the main square.

Upon getting off the bus the first thing you notice is the silence. There are plenty of people around and several shops circle the plaza, but the jangling discord of car horns, whistles and vendors’ calls has dissipated since leaving Quito. The next thing that catches your attention is the breath-taking backdrop behind the town’s church. The Andean peaks, shrouded in verdant green, rise majestically behind the church steeple, casting a soft shadow over the valley in which the town resides.

In contrast, stop for a moment along your walk in Quito and you will quite literally not be able to breathe because of the pollution. As you admire the landscape one of the town locals will likely pass by with a smile and a wave and a stray dog will probably come up a sniff you. The entire scene is a picture of tranquility and serenity.

Outside of the major cities of Quito and Guayaquil, most of Ecuador is still very rural. Less than an hour’s drive outside of the capital, Lumbisí is a world away from the bustling urban sprawl that is Quito. Like most pueblos beyond the metro area it is small, quiet and struggles with poverty. But also like most small towns it has furnished a tremendous sense of community characteristic of Ecuadorian culture.

Volunteer work first brought me to Lumbisí about three weeks ago. Twice a week I make the commute from Quito to teach English and work in the community garden. When we gather on Friday mornings to tend the vegetables in the garden, it is in every sense a communal effort. The group normally includes about ten to fifteen people – an eclectic mix of men, women and exchange students – all working together for two to three hours pulling weeds, trimming trees, planting new seeds or hoeing soil. With great pride the townspeople of Lumbisí maintain this garden, donating all of its harvest to the elderly dining hall.

In Quechua (an indigenous language of Ecuador) the name for this type of community work is minga. During times of minga the whole community comes together to work collectively on a project. All participate in order to ensure the project’s success. While the word minga originally comes from an indigenous language, I have heard it woven into Spanish as well.

For example, my ecology professor has a small non-profit organization called Minga para Mi Rio, which organizes river clean-up/conservation projects for students. The mere fact that both of these languages include a word specifically describing work done in community speaks immensely to culture tendencies within Ecuador.

Having lived in Ecuador for the past two and a half months, I have noticed that it is much more community-oriented than the United States. Everything is done within a group here, which lends itself to a type of loyalty and intimacy that runs deep within Ecuadorians. Minga is one example, but so is the fact that every Sunday night my host father’s entire family gets together to have coffee and dessert.

Another example, on Sunday afternoons my host family drives out to my host grandfather’s house to spend the day with my host mom’s extended family. While you are in the house, it is not uncommon for everyone to hang out in the same room. Furthermore, in Ecuador it is rare to live outside of the home until you are married. My host mom was shocked when she found out that I go to school on the opposite side of the country from where my family lives. Even simply walking down the street to the bus stop, I normally see groups of people walking places rather than individuals.

These observations leave me with the impression that above all else family and community are most important here in Ecuador. They form the foundation, the base to which one can always return in times of struggle and even joy.

Ecuadorians Looking for Faith Outside the Catholic Church

December 14, 2011 | 2 COMMENTS

"Me duele que el catolicismo me fregara."
(It hurts me that Catholicism failed me.)

While I was interviewing my host father for an anthropology project, the above phrase was the first thing he told me when I asked what first attracted him to Protestantism. He was raised Catholic – typical of many Ecuadorians since 95% of the population identifies as Catholic – but decided to convert to Protestantism, specifically evangelical Christianity, later in life.

His decision reflects a growing trend among individuals in a region known for its strong Catholic heritage. However, the last fifty years or so have seen an explosion of not just evangelical Christianity, but religious pluralism, across Latin America.

Along with this impressive growth in religious pluralism in Latin America, most notably among Protestant sects, has come a wealth of scholarly literature attempting to uncover the reasons for this phenomenon. While much of the early research focused on how the rise of Protestantism reflected a clandestine pro-American conservative agenda, recent investigations have explored how this movement reflects underlying opinions of the Catholic Church in Latin America.

Unfortunately, the history of Catholicism in Latin America since the arrival of the Spanish has been stained by oppression, conservative alliances with harsh leaders and waning practice on the part of believers. For example, in the early part of the nineteenth century Ecuador was governed by a religious fanatic, Gabriel Garcia Moreno, who insisted that in order to obtain citizenship one had to convert to Catholicism. Even though the Church has made several concerted attempts to put itself more in touch with the Latin American reality through the development of liberation theology and the reforms of Vatican II, it seems that in Ecuador, at least, it has had a difficult time shedding its negative reputation.

Apathy, antagonism or disillusionment toward the Catholic Church are not uncommon sentiments here even among self-described Catholics. For example, an Ecuadorian friend of mine identified himself as Catholic por exigencia (by exigency) rather than by his own will.

Having had such discussions with my host family, having had the opportunity to attend both Catholic and non-Catholic services here in Ecuador and having observed religious life in the country, it seems that while there are still a large number of Catholics within the country, a growing percentage of the Catholic population is either losing religious fervor or leaving the Church all together.

Interestingly, though, it appears that they are leaving the Church in favor of other faith traditions rather than forgoing religion. Perhaps many of these converts still seek what religion has to offer, but are disheartened by an emptiness they feel towards Catholicism. There seems to be a consensus among people with whom I have talked – even Catholics themselves – that religious practice here is vague and lacking. What people here are searching for is something more profound, something that touches them on a deeper level – something that for a number of reasons they don’t find in Catholicism.

In my own ignorance I assumed that I would be living with a Catholic family while in Ecuador, so I was surprised at first to find out that my host family converted to evangelical Christianity. Nor was I prepared for how different Latin American Catholicism is from North American Catholicism, or American Catholicism to be more specific. It has been interesting for me, in addition to witnessing how religious pluralism is taking hold in Latin America, to see regional differences even among my own faith tradition.

COMMENT FROM ALEXIS THOMAS - DECEMBER 29, 2011

Laura, this is a great essay. You bring up a fascinating point about the waning appeal of Catholicism in some Latin American countries, specifically in Ecuador. I choose the word fascinating, because like you mentioned, Catholicism has had a profound impact and influence on many cultures throughout Latin America for centuries.

This impact has not always been positive however, and it seems that in Ecuador some people have not forgotten the Church’s contested past. Now freed from past regimes that used the Catholic Church as a means of oppression, some Ecuadorians and other Latin Americans are choosing to forgo adherence to Catholicism all together. They are choosing to follow faith traditions by which they feel personally inspired rather than blindly following a faith based on principle and tradition.

I personally believe that the fear of abandoning tradition is widespread. People generally do not like change, and furthermore fear rejection by others. It can be extremely difficult and confusing to abandon the religious sentiments of one’s community, yet alone one’s own family. Perhaps, when your host father said that it hurts him that Catholicism failed him, it was because he had grown up with so many expectations for the religion to fulfill him and consistently felt disappointed. He even probably desperately wanted to feel spiritually fulfilled by the religion to which the majority of his community adhered to. After all, no one likes to feel that they have been disloyal.

In this way among many others, religion is a powerful force. Not only does it bind us to a higher power, but it also binds us to a common belief, and therefore to our communities and families as well. It is a force that is larger than us, playing integral roles in several aspects of our lives.

For this reason, I believe that it is important to belong to a faith tradition in which one truly feels comfortable and spiritually fulfilled. In my opinion, your host father represents a brave individual that was able to evaluate and choose for himself a religion that he would be able to enjoy. In many cases, this is not always an easy thing to do, especially due to societal and cultural pressure.

COMMENT FROM PROF. MATTHEW CARNES, S.J. - February 13, 2012

Laura's experience of growing religious pluralism in Ecuador highlights one of the most important transformations of Latin America in recent decades. While the region has a long history with indigenous religious practice - some of which made its way into Catholic feasts, festivals, and celebrations - the new trend is toward evangelical Protestantism. These Evangelical churches are often organized on a small, "house church" model, gathering neighbors and families for an intimate experience of praise and worship led by a member of the community. In other cases, particular preachers have drawn a national or international following, and they have set up mega-churches, with massive Sunday services and a large presence on television and the radio. What seems to unite these churches is their emphasis on vibrant, relevant, participatory worship, with a strong sense of how being Christian shapes one's living and choosing.

Many of the Catholics who have joined these churches cite their appreciation of the energetic prayer experience, and the meaningfulness of the Gospel they find preached there. Interestingly, Catholics in the United States who have left the church - a group which recent surveys indicate is the fastest growing "religious identity" in the country - often note their similar desire for quality worship and preaching. This raises the question how the Catholic Church will respond, when many of its adherents find its Sunday Masses and homilies wanting. My own experience, in both the United States and Latin America, is that there are amazing local churches that offer such high-quality worship (sometimes having learned from the evangelical experience), but these often remain isolated or marginal. The question for the next generation of priests, religious - and especially lay members of the Catholic church - will be how to make sure their worship and message can speak meaningfully to their communities.

BLOG POSTS

October 4, 2011
Laura West on Starting JYAN in Ecuador