A Priest, a Pastor, and a Witchdoctor Walk into a…
LAC Missionaries Jeremiah and Marj Campbell, along with their son, Judah, are training leaders to evangelize, disciple and reach the university campuses of Bolivia with the Gospel. Jeremiah also teaches in local Bible institutes, while Marj is pioneering a ministry to support young women who have a heart to see people know Jesus, in addition to leading an Engage study abroad site.
Understanding the Lostness of the Latin America Caribbean Region:
I remember the first baby dedication I ever officiated as a missionary in Bolivia. I felt so privileged to be a part of a young indigenous family’s journey with Christ – that is, until I was told about them afterward. My heart sank as I learned that earlier that morning, the young couple had gone to a Catholic service to have their baby baptized, and the day before to an Incan witch doctor to have a spell cast on it for protection. As I inquired to why they did this, I was told that it is common practice for many families in Bolivia, and across the Latin American region. I was told that the parents are doing their best to protect their child from evil spirits, so they go to a curandero (witchdoctor), a Catholic priest, and a Christian pastor in hopes of keeping their baby safe.
Stories like this are common among Latin American and Caribbean countries. Many people profess to be Christians, but most are lost as they do not truly have a relationship with Jesus. This article expresses a brief overview of the false Jesus in whom many souls put their faith, and the dire need that still remains in this vast region of the world.
Between a rock and a hard place… Or is it a sword and a wall?
The year 1492 was not only a famous year for Columbus, but also for the birth of the unified Spanish kingdom. That year the Catholic Spaniards were able to unify under one kingdom and conquer the last of the Muslim Moorish kingdoms in southern Spain. To help replenish their depleted resources, Ferdinand II and Isabel I, the Catholic monarchy (as they were called) employed Columbus to sail west. Much to their surprise they found the Americas instead of India. This New World sparked the interest of greedy conquistadores, who were accompanied with Catholic missionary monks.
As Europeans sailed across the Atlantic, especially Spaniards, they encountered many new peoples, and forced their culture and their religion on them. This same century, the Roman Catholic Church initiated the inquisition forcing conversion. Many Spaniards would line up indigenous people against a wall and force them to convert to Christianity with a sword to their throat, hence the Spanish refrain, “entre la espada y la pared” (between the sword and the wall). This phrase, equivalent to “a rock and a hard place” demonstrates the history of Christianity in Latin America. A religion that was forced, and never truly accepted in the heart.
Many developed cultures with a rich and complex religious system were also forced to convert – the Mayans, Aztecs, Incas, and Africans who populated much of the Caribbean islands during the salve trade are some of the most well-known. However, for many of them, their conversion was merely a means to an end. They paid lip service to spare their lives. Therefore, these new “Christian converts” really never changed their beliefs. Since Roman Catholicism permits prayer and worship of Mary and the Saints, many changed the names of their gods to mask their continued pagan worship. Much of which is still seen today in syncretistic forms of worship.* In his article, Latin American Images of Christ, Diego Irarrazaval notes that across the region of Latin America, individuals may say they believe in Jesus, but they pray to other spirits, and have a variety of understandings of Christ that deviate from orthodox Christianity.**
In Guatemala, special flowers are purchased outside of Catholic churches, but hold Mayan worship practices. In Peru and Bolivia, the Virgin Mary and Pachamama (the Incan Mother Earth) are worshiped as one and the same. Across the Caribbean, African Voodoo, imported from the slave trade is still mixed with Roman Catholicism and even Evangelical Christianity in worship practice.
Revival of Indigenous Religions in the 20th Century:
You might think that the issues of pagan worship and syncretism are a thing of the past, or an issue that only affects Catholicism. Well, you’d be wrong. With archeological discoveries of the Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, revival has birthed among the many modern counties where these large empires once spread. Most individuals in the Latin American regions possess a large percentage of indigenous ethnicity – the same is true for African ethnicity among the Caribbean.
I remember my first trip to Peru to visit Machu Picchu. I was surprised as our Peruvian tour guide was so excited to share the Incan religion with our group. She stated that it went together in harmony with Christianity, and at the end of our tour, she happily stated, “I invite you to worship the Incan religion with us.”
As modern society has become more aware of the worship practices of their ancestral cultures, the greater those once nearly dead religions returned to life. Today it is common to see and hear of animal sacrifices, idol worship, burning of incense to pagan gods, or Saints in the name of those pagan gods. Dances, and parades are even performed in their honor as a form of worship. I was just asked last week by my neighbor, who knows I am a pastor, if I would be interested in going to the “La Diablada” (the deviled) parade hosted by the local Catholic parish.
What makes it even more difficult for Evangelicals or Catholics to battle this revival of pagan beliefs and syncretism are the local governments. The Bolivian and Peruvian governments restrict a Roman Catholic priest from preaching against syncretism in their church. If a local parish believes that Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the Virgin Mary are one and the same, an incoming priest cannot speak against it. If an Evangelical missionary wants to evangelize an unreached village in Bolivia it is now illegal for them to come and proselytize without written consent or invitation from the village or tribe’s leadership.
The Rubber Band Effect of Marxism and Postmodernism:
Not all of Latin America struggles with syncretism or revival of pagan beliefs. The newest wave of the twenty-first century revolves around secular humanism and postmodernism. Thanks to the beauties of globalization and the internet, many countries are easily influenced by one another. Higher education is growing at an exponential rate among Latin American nations, and with such growth, the influences of secular humanism and postmodernism continues to grow.
According to their own census, Uruguay is a prime example of this phenomenon with over 40% of its population claiming to be atheist.*** Many individuals look to science and objectivity as an extreme response to their lack of answers in the Spiritism of their ancestral beliefs.
There may be an organized church in many of the countries of the Latin American and Caribbean region, but the need is still very great. Missionaries work tirelessly alongside nationals to plant churches, train new ministers, mobilize national missionaries, minister to unreached people groups, reach the university campuses, children’s ministries, and touch the countless needs through compassion ministries. There are over 640 million people in this region of the world and more than 550 million of them have never received an adequate message of the Gospel or who Jesus really is. The Church is growing in Latin America, but the harvest has never been riper. Let us not give up at this most critical time to fulfill the unfinished task!
* Norman Geisler, and Raplh MacKenzie, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books), 299.
** Diego Irarrazaval, “Latin American Images of Christ,” Journal of Reformed Theology no. 1 (2007), 64.
*** National Institute of Statistics of Uruguay, Encuesta Nacinal de Hogares Ampliada – 2006. https://web.archive.org/web/20130927091848/http://www.ine.gub.uy/enha2006/flash/Flash%206_Religion.pdf