Tuesday, May 23, 2006

religion in el campo

Hi Everybody,

I spent the last few days up in the campo, but now I'm in the city,
enjoying time off, privacy, and food that isn't beans. Not that I
have anything against beans. But they get old after eating them three
meals a day. I also seem to have caught a cold, so I've been spending
a little bit of time sniffling, feeling sorry for myself, and drinking
tea. Being sick is much less fun when my husband isn't around to fuss
over me. But speaking of Tom, he'll be here in a week! I imagine
that I'll be making less-frequent blog entries when he's around, since
I tend to talk out most of my ideas with him, and writing seems like
more of a repetitive chore than a necessary aid to thought.

The woman I stay with in the campo is very involved in her local
Catholic church. There is a shortage of priests in the area (probably
made worse by the terrible transportation situation), so lay leaders
get designated to be "delegates of the faith" and to lead services,
including mass where they take communion. My hostess is one of these.
In the month of May, the community goes to every house belonging to
church members in the community, taking one day at each house. A
statue of the Virgin Mary is brought, and people gather to sing, hear
a sermon and some readings, and pray the rosary together. It makes
for a busy schedule with several hours every afternoon devoted to this
schedule, but it's only for a month. It's also fun to gather and
sing—these gatherings are not seen as burdensome. An interesting
thing for me about these ceremonies is that they take place in every
house, including the poorest. (Probably I caught my cold germs from
gathering with forty other people into any of several 10 ft by 10 ft
dirt-floored, poorly-ventilated rooms for two hours.) Those who can
afford it provide food—the owner of one of the biggest farms in the
area gave us a meal of rice, chicken, tortillas, and coffee, while a
more normal thing is to have coffee and sweet bread. Sometimes the
poorest houses don't give out anything. And the food given is always
reported back. If someone didn't go, they will ask the returning
attendees how it was, and these will reply, "they gave us bread and

Tomorrow, my hosts will be hosting a rather more elaborate version of
this ceremony, which will last not just a couple of hours in the
afternoon but all day and half the night (until midnight, probably,
they told me, but times are usually wild estimates). They are hoping
to serve both a meal and bread and coffee at different times. I do
not get the impression that they are richer than their immediate
neighbors—they do not have much land, and only a few other
money-making activities, none of which I can imagine produce much in
the way of profit (except, perhaps, for hosting me, and I'm not
predictable). But they are definitely both in leadership positions of
the community. The husband is both the president of the cooperative
and what I guess I'll translate as deputy mayor. The wife is a leader
in the church, like I said. They both have wide family networks
throughout the community, and live centrally, where people are
constantly dropping in to visit. So it's interesting to think of this
family as working on a project of consolidating these leadership
positions, and this ceremony as a part of that project. When I go
back (I'm going to the ceremony, assuming my cold doesn't get worse),
I'll ask them about how and why they decided to host it.

Not everybody in the community is Catholic, however. There is also a
significant minority of Evangelical protestants. This is common
throughout Central America, where Protestant churches have put in a
lot of evangelizing effort in the last few years—I've read that in
some places in Guatemala, for example, the Protestant population has
reached fifty percent.

I had an interview with an Evangelical leader on Saturday, and he was
anxious to understand my own religious affiliations. This is a
complicated and awkward question for me to answer. Religion is
important here. Atheism and non-church membership, which are seen as
approximately the same thing, are interpreted as symptoms of despair
and nihilism. I am neither an atheist nor a nihilist, but I am not an
official member of any church right now. However, I feel that
organized religion, or its equivalent (such as being a Red Sox fan?)
is a necessary and beautiful part of the human condition, and I both
respect and enjoy it. Really, I very much agree with some of the
Catholic thought I've been hearing, for example about loving your
neighbors as a necessary part of achieving salvation, and the way that
the church, which they worship (at least sort of), is the same as the
group of people that make up the church.

I was raised as a Unitarian Universalist, and suppose I still am one
(it would be hard to disidentify with a religion which tells you to
seek your own truth, even if I wanted to). So I answer any questions
about religion by describing UUism, and don't mention that I don't go
to any church on a regular basis. I say it is a Protestant church,
but not Evangelical, and to my knowledge there aren't any in
Nicaragua. (If somebody knows that there are UU congregations here,
please don't tell me!) So while I'm here, I go to churches where I
have friends. This statement has gotten me invitations to the
Evangelical church, and I think I'm going to try to make a point of
going this Sunday, if I can, both from curiosity to see what it's like
(will there be speaking in tongues?), as a way to get to know some of
the Evangelicals better, and as a strategic move to send a message
that I'm here with the whole community, not just the Catholics.

Finally, I want to tell those of you who remember me in my squeamish,
vegetarian days that I was in the kitchen when my hostess brought in a
dead strangled chicken, feathers and all, and watched her make soup.
I then ate that soup without a qualm, including using hands and teeth
to get the meat off the bones. The next day, I watched the chickens
run around in the yard with the same amount of enjoyment as yesterday.
Aren't I a big girl!


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