A Discussion with Mónica Ramírez, World Vision Guatemala

With: Mónica Ramírez

January 16, 2016

Background: Guatemala’s unique religious landscape includes the largest number of Protestant churches in Latin America; Pentecostal denominations dominate the non-Catholic landscape. Pentecostal churches in Guatemala are diverse in theological practices and beliefs, as well as in their relation to Guatemalan society and other churches. Mónica Ramírez has extensive experience working among Guatemalan Protestant communities and is, in addition, a leader working to generate both ecumenical and interreligious dialogue and action. This conversation, which took place on January 16, 2016 in Guatemala City with Carlos Martínez Ruiz, is part of the Guatemala mapping project at the Berkley Center/WFDD in Washington, D.C. Mónica Ramírez provides a brief snapshot of the current composition of what she terms the "evangelical movement" in Guatemala and the work of World Vision in this highly dynamic landscape.
Could you tell us a little about your trajectory and what brought you to World Vision Guatemala?

I’ve been working for six years for World Vision Guatemala. I am Guatemalan, a biologist by training, and I am also a graduate of the Central American Theological Seminary in Guatemala; I have B.A. and M.A. degrees in biblical arts. I am a born-again evangelical, and I come from a very Catholic family of eight siblings. Growing up, it was a shameful thing to change religions. My parents even had to move cities once my mom converted to evangelicalism.

I have worked with churches for 27 years through the Latin American Theological Fraternity, which is an organization that promotes biblical-theological reflection on social transformation in Latin America. I worked in a variety of positions in the Theological Fraternity: I started in the operations division; then was in charge of 16 development programs in four departments in the country; worked in education, health, and economic development; then child well-being; and finally ended up transitioning to the life of Christian commitment. The fraternity works in various areas in the region. We also have the Permanent Evangelical Forum, which came out of the Peace Agreements in 1996 after 36 years of armed conflict, which left many long-lasting effects, notably the breakdown of Guatemalan social fabric. From that point, our agenda was to inform the public about the content of the Peace Agreements through the evangelical church—in this we coordinated with World Vision. That is how I started with World Vision in 1999. My main role is to promote relationships with other churches.

I am a founding member of the Evangelical Society for Socioreligious Studies. This was created because we did not have a clear religious identity, and we wanted to promote reflection on that identity, to know where we come from, to understand our roots and our path forward, to help us work in unity. We promote the unity of the church, which we have done at the level of communities and now more explicitly at the national level as World Vision. Similarly, we also coordinate with Catholic and other evangelical churches.

Can you tell us about the context in which you started your work in the evangelical church?

The evangelical church came to Guatemala 127 years ago. It was initially made up of Baptists. Currently we don’t have a clear assessment, but we estimate that we have some 1,300 evangelical churches. Not all churches have a permanent meeting place: in Guatemala City, for example, many hotels serve as churches; churches rent hotels and shopping malls to use them as churches for short periods.

Is it true that Guatemala has the highest number of evangelical adherents in Latin America?

We don’t have clear statistics. The national census of 2012 included some data on religion, but the results were not published. The last survey conducted by the evangelical church was in 2004, and it was developed with SEPAL [Evangelizing Service of Latin America, Servicio Evangelizador para Latinoamérica], an affiliate of One Challenge [OC International] in Central America, and it suggested that 25 percent of Guatemalans are evangelicals.

The evangelical church arrived in Guatemala with the so-called Liberal Reform of 1871, during which the Catholic Church was expelled and its properties expropriated, to reduce its economic influence in the country—Catholic convents were converted to secondary schools, for example. Throughout the twentieth century, we see tensions between Catholic and evangelical churches. Personally, for example, I lived that conflict within my family. I remember that Catholics would throw stones at evangelical churches in the 1970s; there was a rejection by Catholics of all things evangelical. That changed in 1981 with the arrival of the first evangelical president, Efraín Ríos Montt, who was a member of the Pentecostal Church of the Word.

Did the evangelical community identify with Ríos Montt?

He identified himself more as a military person than as an evangelical. Many of his most atrocious policies did not come to light until after the war, during the campaign for recovery of historical memory in the country. Nevertheless, during his tenure as president Ríos Montt popularized evangelicalism and began to attract more followers for the church, including more followers in the upper income brackets. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church, in meetings such as those in Puebla, Montevideo, and Aparecida, began to focus its work among the poor. There are, however, two Catholic churches: the hierarchical one, very present in groups such as Opus Dei, which benefits a limited number, and the other church, inspired by Oscar Arnulfo Romero in El Salvador, who is the priest who inspired those of us who had a social commitment, and those Catholic priests who were expelled during the war.

How would you describe the current composition of the Protestant church in Guatemala?

Let’s start with the smaller churches. For example, we have the Mennonite church, which is not strong; there are only eight churches. This was initially made up of Pentecostal churches that were taken in by the Mennonites. We admire their theology of social commitment, pacifism, and approaches to conflict resolution.

We also have the Protestant churches of immigration, among which we have the Anglican and Lutheran Churches. They came to Guatemala without a focus on proselytism, not attempting to convert Guatemalans. The Lutheran Church came to Guatemala at the end of the nineteenth century, mainly with the coffee industry to give a spiritual avenue to their own people. But those churches are not representative of the evangelical culture, although Lutherans are now more ecumenical in Guatemala, and you see them working with other churches, including Catholics, on issues of peace and social development. We also have Presbyterians that came after President Rufino Barrios’ reform of 1871; Episcopalians came in 1875. These churches developed a social analysis of the Guatemalan context and attempted to work on social issues. Today these churches are more open to interreligious work on social issues, but they do not have much influence inside other churches.

Protestant mission churches—that is, proselytizers (which include Presbyterians, Nazarenes, Baptists, Methodists, Independent Friends)—have come to Guatemala and divided up the country systematically to carry out mission and proselytizing work, to convert. What do they promote? They promote a kind of vertical and individualist religion. Their theology tries to extricate the person, individually, from their present reality. That is, they attempt to encourage the person to reflect along the following lines: “What do I see here? I see poverty, my children are starving and are not going to school, but in the celestial missions I have a crystal sea and roads paved in gold. Heaven is my salvation.” It’s a way of thinking that here on earth we are destined to remain in the same condition, but up there in heaven there is something that will lead to change and transformation.

Then we have the Methodist churches. These are conservative, but we still observe a lot of “charisma” in the Catholic sense. There is a culture of physicality, with people clapping and dancing, for example. Other more conservative churches would never engage in those acts, but would label them sins. Many of the traditional Protestant churches have pentecostalized, and they represent approximately a quarter of the evangelical church in Guatemala. These churches include small and mid-sized churches with an international missionary orientation. However, many of them are Guatemalan missionaries that leave the country regularly for missionary work abroad. You can find Guatemalans in missionary work in the United States, for example. They go and work in the Latino communities there. They also travel to Europe; my brother, for example, is engaged in missionary work in Spain.

These are small churches comprising between 60 to 200 members. They are really not that big, and they tend to be very exclusive, as they are very protective of their theological interpretations. We could say they see themselves as “auditors” of the fundamental tenets of faith. These are Central American orthodox, and they are perceived as boring, conservative, and focused on rational more than emotional interpretations of the faith. They think that the evangelical church is not doctrinally healthy because it doesn’t have leaders with a theological vocation, and some even violate biblical doctrine. That certainly does differentiate us from the Catholic Church, because we don’t have as many pastors trained in theology as Catholic priests train.

Do you have something equivalent to Catholic seminaries?

Not enough for the large number of evangelical churches in existence. Pastors are formed as they go, on the road; they have their Bible, and they interpret it on their own. Sometimes there is ambivalence in the interpretation of the scriptures, especially among small denominations that arise spontaneously.

We also have the Churches of Faith, the Central American Church, and the Christian Missionary Alliance, which arrived around 1899. The Central American Church developed a network of churches around 2000. This network has trained many leaders, nationwide, with formalized training and with a strong dispensationalist theological influence. For them dispensationalism includes seven pacts, which include pacts with Abraham, Moses, David, and so on; these various forms of administration of the churches place the churches in a different dimension in relation to God. In Guatemala even Methodists are dispensationalists, which is not necessarily the case around the world. Dispensationalism in Guatemala was circulated widely and promoted via radio broadcasts nationwide.

Therefore, dispensationalist influences have a lot of adherents in the country. They are highly regarded tendencies. However, these are not the largest churches, and they pale in comparison to the Church of God or the Assemblies of God, which have around 3,500 churches each and are very strong around the country. The Central American Church and Church of God are different in terms of their understanding of spiritual gifts: whether they speak in tongues or not, whether they prophesize, whether God speaks through a prophet...these are the strongest doctrinal divisions.

Besides dispensationalism, what other ideological tendencies are there among evangelicals in Guatemala?

The other one is the prosperity gospel, which is more developed within Neo-Pentecostalism. They have a strong promotion of an individualist and vertical doctrine divorced from social reality; the emphasis here is on the salvation of souls. When you go to a Pentecostal church you find people clapping and dancing. On another hand, these churches allowed women, who were historically relegated to the side in the church, to have a measure of authority. Women can now get up and give testimony, something which is not very common in the Central American Church. However, this is very strongly tied to an orthodox view of the “correct” interpretation, although that may not be linked to their orthopraxis.

Moving along, we have the Pentecostalists of mission, which include the Assemblies of God and the Church of God. These are the two biggest Pentecostal denominations, the ones you see everywhere in Guatemala. The national supervisor of the Assemblies of God, brother Juan Manuel Castañeda, is a very strategic man; he has pushed the church to develop a strategic plan up to 2030. They have a social branch and a division for social support and responsibility, and they encourage local churches to develop the same system. In 2015, for example, they launched a campaign against verbal violence among among 450 churches across the country. They have also had ecological campaigns to train people in disaster preparedness.

Does the evangelical church in Guatemala acknowledge climate change?

The problem is that we are a very divided church. If you want to learn the positions of the Catholic Church, you go to speak with the monsignor, who presents a position that is more or less homogenous in the church. When you go to the evangelicals, you have a conglomerate of churches linked to the Evangelical Alliance of Guatemala, but this entity is not entirely a representative voice.

Is the alliance the closest you have to the Catholic Episcopal Conference?

Yes, but to be honest, I don’t think it even begins to compare. The alliance doesn’t purport to have the same representation or to be the most qualified voice. Thus, we see much division, and some members put forward pronouncements with which we are not all in agreement. On the other hand, Presbyterian churches, for example, are more ecumenical and have inter-religiosity with Maya groups. There is a high level of syncretism in the country, although many Christians still show animosity towards anything having to do with the Maya culture.

Finally, we have national Pentecostal churches, which are the so-called autochthonous churches, born here, such as the Church of the Universal Prophesy, which was created in 1941. The Church of the Prince of Peace is also an autochthonous network of around 1,300 churches, which have become strong enough to begin missionary work abroad in the United States.

Autochthonous churches also adhere to the prosperity gospel. According to their message, God, if you are on good terms with him, will help you prosper economically; you prosper inasmuch as your soul prospers. If you don’t prosper economically, it is an indication that you are in sin, that you have something hidden—that is the reason why you don’t prosper.

These churches expand to work with the Latino community in the United States?

Not all work with the Latino community exclusively; they work beyond that community. Many of these local churches have branched off the traditional evangelical churches and have a very oral tradition. Guatemala itself is a country with a strong oral culture, especially among indigenous people who have oral contractual traditions for the transfer of land, for example. Evangelism for these churches is transmitted orally from generation to generation. It is lived and less structured, and it stresses the importance of a practical and lived faith, as seen in symbols such as their song and dance. However, not all of them dance.

As I mentioned, in Guatemala we have few evangelical institutions with biblical-theological training. However, evangelical churches do have economic independence, and they do not depend on North American churches. Neo-Pentecostal churches in Guatemala tend to be charity-focused: they work in jails, in hospices, hospitals, and at the personal level, in massive numbers.

What is the relationship of evangelical churches with young people in Guatemala?

Some churches have schools for children, such as the Christian Fraternity, which is a megachurch. They use a strategy called G12, whereby the pastor has twelve apostles, each of whom has a similar number under their tutelage, and they train each other in a highly absorbing fashion. Followers spend a great part of the week in church activities.

The Church of the House of God, for example, also has an educational center, with an emphasis on developing skills in economic well-being and spiritual liberation. They have a marketing strategy, and they also apply modern business methods to operate like a private enterprise or corporation. They are also very individualistic and focused on charity: they have food banks and give out shoes, but without much long-term clarity in their work. However, many of these churches are opening up, and some are even more tolerant with homosexual people.

What is their position on women’s reproductive health?

Evangelicals can sometimes be more open than Catholics in this regard. They are more open to the use of condoms, contraceptives, and the right of women to control the number of children, more so than some sectors of the Catholic Church. Evangelicals are practical in this sense; the Catholic Church can be more conservative in this sense, although it is also opening up.

Can you tell me about the work of World Vision in Guatemala?

World Vision came to Guatemala in 1975. It started offering services to approximately 500 children. We have evolved from a charity-oriented approach to development to work that seeks to achieve more integral sustainability. We have three priorities: we focus on children, we try to work through interreligious networks, and, regardless of our Christian orientation, we don’t engage in proselytism in our work—we invite people to follow Christ through our values, not through recruitment.

Currently we have a presence in 10 departments and 30 municipalities, which reflects the demographic characteristics of the country, because those are the departments where we find the most pressing needs. We have an integrated plan to work with children and youth; we work with young children and teenagers until they reach adulthood. With children we focus on reducing and preventing malnutrition, which is quite high in Guatemala—as high as 90 percent in some municipalities—and in preparing mothers to raise healthy children with education, nutrition, and love.

With older children we focus on literacy and support in their schooling. Here we work hand in hand with the local government school systems. We focus mainly in rural areas, where we find strong Maya populations. There is significant syncretism between Christian and Maya cosmovision in Guatemala; thus we try to promote partnerships with Mayan people, regardless of spiritual or religious inspirations.

How do you see the future in Guatemala, given the social and political changes that took place in 2015?

On a personal level, I think we can celebrate these changes, because we had not had, in our history, an experience that allowed us to strengthen the rule of law in a peaceful way. I think we are now building democracy in a different way. We, at World Vision, hope to continue growing and supporting Guatemalan society in the future, because social inequality is still the main challenge for the country.

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