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A Discussion with Oscar Azmitia, Rector, Universidad de la Salle, Costa Rica

With: Oscar Azmitia Berkley Center Profile

January 31, 2009

Background: This discussion between Oscar Azmitia, Katherine Marshall, and Brady Walkinshaw took place on January 31, 2009 as part of a January 30-31 consultation in Antigua, Guatemala on "Faith-Inspired Organizations and Development in Latin America." In this interview, which was originally conducted in Spanish, Azmitia shares his inspiration for working in development through the Catholic order of La Salle and reflects upon the evolving religious landscape in Guatemala. He discusses the La Salle order's work with Mayan populations in Guatemala and shares his perceptions of the quality of education in Latin America. Azmitia explains how organizations like his are able to relate to native communities in their work to improve the course of development.

Can you tell us about your journey to the De La Salle Brothers (Christian Brothers)? What has inspired you along the way?

I am a brother of the order of La Salle, and my primary work has been in the field of education. For 30 years before I assumed the office of rector of La Salle University in Costa Rica, I worked with Mayan populations in Guatemala.

My work focused on the development and training of Mayan teachers. I helped to create the Escuela Superior de Educación Integral Rural (ESEDIR), an institute that offers training to rural Mayan teachers. The institute is an important part of a process that we hope will lead to the founding of the first Mayan university in the world. I also helped to found the Santiago Development Project to support the development of Mayan culture and to strengthen the cultural components of Mayan education. The goal is to celebrate the richness and history of Mayan culture through education.

My hunger to strengthen education grew steadily during my years working with the Mayans. I became deeply invested in the challenge, and I remain so today. In the last four years as rector, I have worked to strengthen the quality of all of our educational projects in Central America.

One of my inspirations is our founder, Monsieur John Baptist de La Salle, who was a great pedagogical innovator and started an educational movement that continues to this day which serves the world's neediest people.

Could you please elaborate a little on the history of the order of La Salle, its focus on education, and its social projects?

To start with, the Order is the first that has an exclusive dedication to education. Monsieur De La Salle created the first Sunday schools, began the Education for Work program and, in a century where rationalism prevailed, he spoke of the role of tenderness in education. In his time, he was a visionary and a revolutionary. Following his death there was a shift in the work of the Order towards a focus on the education of the middle classes. Today, though, we are returning to our roots and seek to serve the poor. Altogether, the order numbers 5,000 globally, with about 1,000 of those in Latin America. So we are quite a large organization.

In Guatemala, we are closely linked to the Mayan world through our service. The indigenous populations are the least understood in that country and across the region and we are, historically, indebted to them. At the time of the civil war in Guatemala, around 20 former Santiago Indigenous Institute students were killed. A brother of the order of La Salle from North America was also killed by the army during this period. We and the Institute had bombs thrown at us, but that didn't diminish our commitment to the people.

Today, with the changes in the government, are the conditions of the indigenous people improving?

People no longer live in the state of insecurity that prevailed during the war in almost all parts of the indigenous altiplano, that is for sure. But the agreement that was supposed to establish the legal and cultural space for the indigenous populations, the Identity and Rights of the Indigenous Peoples Agreement, is not always implemented as we would have hoped. This shows the lack of political will on the part of different governments to improve the conditions of the Mayan population, historically excluded in Guatemala.

How do you characterize the impact of Christian Evangelism on Guatemala's Mayan culture? Is the evangelization of the Mayan population a political theme?

About 25 years ago, a vast majority of the indigenous people identified themselves as Roman Catholic, even as they never stopped practicing Mayan rites and or identifying with their Mayan heritage. Later, when Rigoberta Menchú won the Nobel Prize, indigenous peoples got “permission” to practice these rites and spirituality more openly. Much of the Mayan population sees no conflict or contradiction in practicing both Catholicism and Mayan spirituality. There is broad acceptance of syncretism. There are many Mayan priests in the Catholic Church, though we have never had a Mayan bishop. This is a sign that shows that the Church itself is not completely open to the Mayans, though they represent about half of the country's population. As an Order, we have carried out many projects to emphasize culture as a central point in Mayan education. We have been working on this for the last 30 years, and have developed an expertise in this area.

For politics and politicians, the Mayans are a problem to be taken care of during elections and then forgotten afterwards. At present, there is only one Mayan minister in a government that promised it would have a Mayan face. Some evangelical sects have grown a lot in the last few years. Many among them promote a theology of prosperity and fundamentalism, which can inhibit the joint construction of a truly national identity.

From your perspective, how do the evangelical churches relate to Mayan communities?

I heard recently from someone in the seminary that almost 35 percent of Guatemalans are Pentecostals. I don't believe the rate is truly that high, but we do know that Brazil and Guatemala have very large and growing numbers of evangelicals. There are more than 20 different kinds of Pentecostal churches in Guatemala. Such growth has to do at least partly with the fact that the Pentecostal churches can very effectively separate people from vice. They are able, in quite powerful ways, to help people free themselves from alcohol addiction, for example. The other side of the coin is that they promise great prosperity, while demanding very little from their adherents. These churches spread a message of, “We should only worry about ourselves! Others will be fine.” For the evangelical churches, poverty is your problem, and you have to deal with it. It is the theology of prosperity.

One thing about this rapid growth that is very worrying and problematic is the level of fanaticism promoted in these churches. They spread messages that what is festive or fun should be attacked, and they promote a God that punishes over a God that loves.

According to what we hear, evangelicals are growing in numbers, perhaps at four times the rate of the growth in the Catholic population. They are also increasing their financial bases impressively. It is impressive how the presence of the churches has grown in the media. Some people say that there are over 400 evangelical radio stations, to only 100 Catholic ones. There is also a political component. Those parties supported by evangelicals have a big advantage in elections. Currently, the relationship between Catholics and Evangelicals is characterized by a lack of communication.

How have bishops, priests and the Conference of Catholic Bishops reacted to the growth of the evangelical communities?

The Catholic Conference of Bishops is to be commended for many things. They have maintained a consistent and forceful point of view regarding the preferential option of the poor. They have been prophetic in their opposition to open-pit mining, because of its extreme human and ecological costs. Where they have not been very successful, I think, has been in responding to the advance of these new sects, or even in achieving real solidarity among Catholics.

What worries you regarding religion, development, and Guatemala's journey?

My biggest concern is the advance of fundamentalism, cloaked in Pentecostalism. I worry that the thousands of Christians that have left us have done so because they think they will find comfort elsewhere. I worry that faith might not be an impulse of solidarity anymore. I worry that we may become unfit to participate in a dialogue. I worry that ecumenism is not higher on the agenda, and that interreligious dialogue seems like a far-off goal.

Could you tell us more about the order of La Salle? What are they working on and how do they work with other orders of the Catholic Church?

As I said before, our projects focus on education and at-risk youth. We want to offer quality education, and we want to ensure that the teaching and research done at our universities is in the service of the social good. Our work with other orders of the Catholic Church is limited.

What is your perception of educational quality in Latin America? Is there a role in which religious orders may increase their activities?

Quality has to do with ethics, and we must work hard and remain committed to achieve it. Quality can be understood as ensuring that education is culturally and socially relevant. It can also be understood as a human rights issue, from the point of view that it should be relevant to people's lives, goals, and dreams.

The members of the Order of La Salle bring added value to the concept of quality education some elements taht are specific to our Order. This arises from our role of living the democratic experience ourselves; this can be part of the way that political leadership can and should experience the values (faith, fraternity, and service) that mean that the Kingdom is already present in our everyday reality.

From your point of view, what elements of the dialogue at the Antigua meeting most need follow-up?

The discussion of ethical challenges and accountability were only touched on in a preliminary way and they could and should be pursued. Likewise the objective, for the Church and the churches of recovering and following up on the true spirit of the preferential option for the poor needs much more discussion. The ideas on networking are important but need to be made more explicit and translated into reality.