The God of empty spaces: Thoughts on religion and civil society in neoliberal Guatemala

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Jillian Moore
Jillian Moore is a student at Harvard Medical School. She has worked in rural Mexico and in indigenous communities in Guatemala with Wuqu' Kawoq | Maya Health Alliance. She is currently a Doris Duke research fellow in Guatemala. Her interests include gender, inequality and marginality, palliative care, and mental health.

The other day I visited Lydia, a 56-year-old Maya woman who lives with her family in the highlands of Guatemala and has for many years endured an aggressive lymphoma, currently in remission. Over breakfast, she described a dream she had years ago when she first fell ill:

In my dream I was sick, so my family took me to the local hospital, but it was the weekend, so there were no doctors there. The nurses told me that they had no medicines to help me. Suddenly the Virgin de Guadalupe appeared with her hair wrapped in cloth, but she also wore white pants and a white coat, just like doctors do. She came to my bedside and said, ‘Do not be afraid, you will be cured,’ and she injected medicine into my veins.

For people with terminal illness in rural Guatemala, God and religion are ever present. God is a principal actor in their lives: God provides money and jobs; God provides food; God heals illnesses, either through doctors or in spite of them; God guides one down her path in life and knows the obstacles ahead; God carefully chooses the hour of her death. Furthermore, church communities themselves can be central characters in people’s lives, especially during illness. Church groups visit homes to pray with the sick; cook food for afflicted families; and distribute monthly food rations to the elderly with poor family support. Two people I spoke with described how their churches raised money to cover medical expenses, paying for appointments, lab tests, treatments, and transportation to facilities. And nearly all patients I meet describe how faith and prayer get them through nights of weakness, hunger, or pain, with hope that relief may come by morning, which is especially important in places where one can hold no reasonable expectation that medical care will improve or that morphine will suddenly be made available. At church services I have attended, pastors implore congregants to give offering, with the promise that ‘it will come back to you.’ Perhaps this is not so far from the truth.

It is no surprise that in rural Guatemala, people turn steadfastly to God and to their churches. My friend Silvia, a Maya Guatemalan, describes her country as “developing but falling apart. Oh sure, [the government] builds bridges and roads, but the people are abandoned. Hospitals have no medicine or doctors, and schools crumble to the ground.” Silvia went on to explain how the people, deserted by their state, turn to God, an all-knowing power who protects, guides, and provides. The church has long played a prominent role in Latin America. In the region, the Catholic Church held a monopoly until the late-twentieth century, often serving as an official or unofficial branch of government. In the early twentieth-century, Protestant churches began to appear in Latin America; though they were initially led by foreign missionaries, they are now more often homegrown and independent. This rapid proliferation and diversification of churches has been associated with increasing civil violence, social and economic inequalities, and the implementation of neoliberal1 structural adjustment policies and the concomitant opening of civil society and withdrawal of the state from providing social welfare and adequate health care to citizens. Indeed, we continue to deliberate the many factors leading to religious diversification in Latin America.

These days, religion in Guatemala is incredibly pluralistic, and along with the Catholic Church, Charismatic and Pentecostal Christian churches are especially common in poor barrios2 and rural aldeas3. Notably, Guatemala now has one of the highest percentages of Protestant followers in Latin America. Churches appeal to their followers with promises of individual salvation and protection amidst uncertainty, violence, substance use and other illness. As Silvia insists, such fervent faith and devotion to a religion is completely reasonable: to carry on, people need ways to make sense of why they have been left to suffer.

In rural Guatemala, churches can bring poor communities together to provide for each other psychologically, spiritually, and sometimes materially. NGOs and others in development who hope to help these very communities can no longer ignore religion and spirituality in pursuit of non-secularism, especially those providing care for people with chronic and terminal illnesses. In his work in Mozambique, Pfeiffer has urged collaboration between NGOs and these community-based churches that often have years of experience providing home visits, spiritual healing and encouragement, and community support. Or better yet, as Howell writes:

Given the disparities within civil society and the greater capacity of educated elites to organize, a key challenge for donors committed to poverty reduction is identifying ways of supporting organizations of the poor, rather than organizing claiming to act on behalf of the poor, and of creating spaces where the voices of the poor can be heard.

That is, we who are able to leverage funding and resources could support organizations and capabilities already present in communities4, much like these churches that, for so many, have come to fill all kinds of empty spaces.

All names are pseudonymns.

Though there are many uses of the word neoliberal, here I refer to the public policies associated with a particular macroeconomic doctrine, elements of which include privatization of state functions, valorization of the free market, and currency deregulation, “a set of highly interested public policies that have vastly enriched the holders of capital, while leading to increasing inequality, insecurity, loss of public services, and a general deterioration of quality of life for the poor and working classes.”

Barrio refers to an urban neighborhood, usually used for those with high poverty levels.

In Spanish aldea means hamlet, or a small rural community.

In contrast to Catholic liberation theology, criticized by some as a paternalistic movement led by intellectual elites to mobilize the poor, a theology about the people rather than of the people.

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