Religion and Poverty in Guatemala

By: Katherine Marshall

Last week I traveled far off the beaten track in western Guatemala. The only news of the world that registered there was the path of hurricanes heading in our direction (the area is still recovering from Hurricane Stan two years ago) and the Peruvian earthquake (the area’s history is full of earthquakes and volcano eruptions) . But the central question on my mind was a global issue: what can religious communities do about the stark poverty that is so obvious there?

It would be hard to miss religion in that part of the world. Evangelical churches are everywhere, all sizes and colors with noisy services emanating from them day and night. The Catholic churches, old and new, pristine and crumbling from earthquake damage an eon ago, seem like so many parts of the landscape. And western Guatemala is a Mayan area, with traditional costumes, customs and language everywhere. The painful history of separation and oppression is very obvious. Deep divides among social groups and races are notorious and persist today. Going through communities where housing is precarious and farming techniques barely changed from centuries ago, it is hard to believe that Guatemala counts as a middle income country. More than ten percent of the population there is working in the United States, sending home remittances that are visible in half-finished houses everywhere. Yet, between downpours, the gorgeous landscape, lush greenery, and eager and beautiful children give glimmers of possibility of something approaching a paradise. But how to get there?

As a fly on the wall, I saw a Catholic social organization help a group of Mayan women in their first efforts to write their names; they were inspired by shame that they must attest to their identity when they vote in national elections on September 9 with thumbprints. A feisty and socially active Catholic bishop, Alvarro Ramazzini, let me accompany him on his rounds (plus hefty bodyguards since his social activism has inspired death threats). We visited a group of nuns running a clinic serving the community. It combined basic medicine with traditional practices and drugs. Then we went to see a Catholic high school (its new building supported by an Italian congregation), miles and miles down muddy roads, clinging to the side of an active volcano. The next day we went in another direction for a service that was partly in Spanish, partly in Mam, with traditional Mayan music and decorations before the altar that bespoke of love of nature and things natural – flowers, fruits, vegetables forming the four points of the compass. At lunch, children screeched with laughter as a downpour soaked the guests and turned the muddy street into a river. We then went past the huge works of a gold mining company that has raised the hackles of surrounding communities because they say few jobs are forthcoming, cyanide used in processing can poison the water sources, and the beautiful hills are stripped of all vegetation.

The churches cannot solve the problems alone and they are painfully aware of the huge challenges ahead. New road construction offers some hope that access will improve but the downsides of market forces send shivers down spines, especially the memory of the crash in coffee prices only a few years ago that threw many out of work. The schools are not educating people for jobs and a common civic culture. Above all, the lack of a vision of what can be seems a major stumbling block. There are far too many problems and far too few solutions. But the churches must, it seems obvious, be an integral part of defining and reaching that solution. They are so omnipresent, so deeply concerned with human dimensions, and so open to solutions. The communications gap between them and public entities, whether governments or secular development organizations, is an outrage and an obstacle that needs to be overcome.

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