A Discussion with Ana Victoria Peláez Ponce, Professor, Rafael Landivar University, Central American Women's Network of Religions for Peace, Guatemala
January 10, 2009
Background: As coordinator of the Guatemalan Interreligious Dialogue for Development, Ana Victoria Peláez Ponce is a leader of interfaith work in Guatemala. In a wide-ranging discussion, she talks about the process of working with the Guatemalan government to incorporate the perspectives of faith leaders in poverty reduction programs, as well as in government-supported programs more generally. She discusses the special role of religious institutions, which have a doctrinal commitment to the integrity of families, in addressing issues of inter-family violence and violence against women and children.
Can you describe how you came to be in your present position? What has inspired you throughout your career?
My own journey and my faith both inspired me to Religions for Peace. It began with the Guatemalan Interreligious Dialogue, which took shape as part of an initiative of the World Faiths Development Dialogue, supported by the World Bank. In Guatemala, an interreligious dialogue aimed to support a wider, global dialogue process. It was a part of the global poverty reduction strategy as it was articulated in 2003.
While the Guatemalan government had no obligation to take the products of interreligious dialogue into account in their poverty strategy, we, as a group, nonetheless engaged in the consultation process. A happy coincidence led me to the dialogue just as it began. I am Roman Catholic, and had experience in the social work of the Church and its pastoral activities, so that discussing issues of particular national importance, especially involving the social role of the Catholic Church, was of great interest. As to my own training, I studied communications and have a master's degree in development. Over the last 10 years, I have been engaged in research on social issues.
An early conclusion of the interfaith group was that we should work together around a common theme, grounded in our common concern for the well being and development of Guatemala. Then we set out to identify topics on which we shared interests and concerns. Through that process, we came to see that there were a set of ethical values that we shared, even though we came from very different faith traditions and institutions. We thought that if we could speak of and agree on the most fundamental values, we could then move on and stretch our sights towards practical questions and interventions. Working with the Ministry of Education, we thought that we would be able to have an impact on values through the basic curriculum. This experience gave us the opportunity to appreciate that there was, in practice, some resistance from technical staff, as regards the involvement of churches and religious communities in public affairs.
A challenge that we saw at the outset was to identify the best strategies to ensure that faith organizations and/or churches could exercise some influence over public policies. Over the course of time, we have learned that a long term perspective will be the most effective, as it makes it possible to work to strengthen links among faith communities. People from different faith communities can thus come to know and be more aware of people from different communities and appreciate that they do share common concerns even when people have different ideas. This was important for the interreligious forum as it made it possible to build agreements even on topics where there did not appear to be a real basis for agreement.
What have been the most significant challenges for the interfaith dialogue process in Guatemala?
Not surprisingly, we have met some barriers and obstacles along the way. One has been the agenda of the donors; aid workers have tended to have their own agenda and as representatives of faith communities we needed to be sure that we did not deviate from our own agendas. We also needed to find the resources to implement the agenda, no mean task, but we needed to be sure that we did not compromise our agendas by taking on donors' agendas in the process. Along the way we experienced some tensions among us for this reason. Further, the donors often tended to see us simply as a group that was part of the world of civil society. Another problem has been the prejudices that separate the Church from the state, meaning that the expectation was that the Church would not engage in public affairs, even though the very core of the religious experience of faith communities, with some exceptions, inspires people to commit themselves to work for a better world and to work in the public arena to translate that commitment into reality.
Some serious issues are still before us, such as gender relations and the continuing discussions on abortion. Also significant is the issue of violence against women. The churches need to see how far faith communities can find real common interest with the donors. The churches can seem at times extremely conservative to the donor community, but they must not close the door to entering into collaborative processes if they wish to achieve real change.
When Religions for Peace in Latin America was first launched in 2003, the organization's leadership wanted to develop an institutional mapping of the region. For Guatemala, I have coordinated WCRP's engagement and participated in the organization's activities. Three years ago we launched a Latin American Network of Women for Peace and then, in 2008, we established a network for Mesoamerican, which I moderate, whose objectives are to highlight the issues that are of most concern to women. We decided to work above all on the topic of violence against women. We undertook a mapping of the organizations that are working with faith communities, and also those where there was participation of women from faith communities. We are now reflecting on how we can increase the numbers of women who are involved. What we have seen is that the representation from faith communities tends to be predominantly male and there can simply be a duplication of the work with women and men.
How would you pinpoint the element of “faith” in the work of WCRP? When you compare it with other organizations, including secular NGOs that are engaged in similar issues (for example, an organization like CARE International), do you see a significant difference?
From what I have observed, our faith leads us to real commitment. The importance of a space like the DIRGD (Guatemala Interfaith Dialogue) is that it brings together a group that is committed to development, drawing their inspiration from the spiritual beliefs drawn from their individual traditions. In some senses, our roots are different from those of civil society, that is to say, that faith has preceded civil society. We are not just executing projects; our search to be engaged in dialogue comes from our broad interest in the process of development.
What are the topics that you believe are most important for interreligious dialogue?
I think it is important to address the issue of inter-family violence, children, violence against women, and the family. Among these topics, all the churches are committed to the importance of the family as an institution. There are, as an example, elements in the secular world that call into question the institution of the family. I believe that faith communities of faith a common concern for family values, and therefore have a common basis to fight from.
Also important is the issue of education (almost all churches are involved in education projects). Migration as a phenomenon that is transforming societies, families, and individuals. From a practical standpoint, it is important to strengthen our ability to influence public policy.
What comparative advantages do organizations that are inspired by faith have? Are there certain sectors where the role of these organization is particularly strong and where there is a greater responsibility to act?
In training: faith communities have a great impact on families, often shaping their values. Further, it is through the churches that most people fulfill their sense of belonging. In Guatemala, for example, most people who say that they are part of a group or participate in a group do so through their church. So faith-inspired organizations have great potential for training in both the personal and social dimensions: in families, schools (in our countries, the churches play an important part in providing education), in public and at the level of the individual.
A very important element is that the person who goes to church does so by their own choice and not in hopes of realizing any material benefit, which is normally the case in other circumstances.
What are the strengths and the weaknesses of the interfaith movement in the region?
Strengths: the same that I highlighted vis a vis relationships with other churches. In this sense one of the challenges it is to demonstrate the advantages that dialogue between the different faiths offers. Weaknesses: these come mostly from external circumstances that affect the general environment, such as the perception from outside that sees us more as a social movement, or prejudices, to the effect that groups inspired by faith can speak only of religion and not of political and/or economic subjects.
An important weakness is that churches have tended to avoid participating in socio-political activities, and further there are some that have also been quite resistant to dialogue with faith communities.
What changes do you see in the future for faith-inspired organizations? Are they likely to have a significant influence on public policies? Which will be the areas where there is likely to be the most significant expansion?
I would expect to see more influence over the longer term, as governments take these organizations more into account. I also would expect to see more dialogue among different faith organizations, which will allow them to come forward with common positions.
What challenges are emerging around issues of financing, especially with regard to those that relate to linkages among religion and faith?
The ideal scenario would be to count on a financing that we might term “generous,” in the sense of relying on financial support without having an agenda that would involve conditions imposed on us; or, alternatively, to be able to sustain our work with contributions from each church, which has in fact been the situation of various situations outside of Guatemala. But there is also a potential insofar as we have the capacity to identify common interests with those we cooperate with and work with them on specific topics.
But the challenge also goes to the institutions that we cooperate with and other entities that might eventually financially support the efforts of interfaith dialogue, and allocate resources for these purposes.
What do you see as the most significant challenges for the future? The most exciting opportunities?
A major challenge is to change the image that civil society equals churches. Churches and interreligious movements are not merely associations or social networks; it is about something far deeper. And there is always a tendency to want to instrumentalize the churches as an excellent channel through which to mobilize the masses. In this sense, the challenge might be to achieve greater independence, for which faith communities have to work harder to gain a real appreciation of and knowledge about issues of national importance. I am thinking, for example, of economic issues. For example, the criticism raining down when a religious group takes a position on an economic matter is often expressed as: "What do the churches have to do with the economy? Why are they meddling in that area? They are not experts on those issues.” However, these are disciplines that draw on and affect the social lives of human beings and religions exist in these social milieus. The experience of faith leads to a personal commitment to each other and this means commitment to denounce what is wrong.
Next comes training, ie., investing in training our leaders from each different faith, yes, but also sharing a common commitment that comes appreciating the individual faith of each individual and faith. Our leaders could have far more impact if they began from an understanding of practical politics, not necessarily in the context of a political party—if they had direct and practical experience in cooperating beyond the experience of project management and financing. They need to find ways to work together on sharing agendas, for example taking the opportunity for dialogue on development issues between different faith communities. This experience could pave the way for future agreement in other political and social areas.
Finally, the challenge is always to prove that there is more that unites us than divides us.