Column Entry: Dealing with Difference
Column Description: If you hang around long enough, mingle with enough folks in enough places on this fragile planet, and pay attention at least part of the time, life happens. And with life, stories. In this monthly column, Dennis Smith, former President of the World Association for Christian Communication, shares communication insights and wisdom gleaned from 43 years of service as a Presbyterian mission worker in Latin America. Through mission service, God gifted Dennis with quite an assortment of relationships. Through them, the Divine whupped him upside the head and “invited” him to pay attention. To be present. To bear witness.
Dealing with Difference
I grew up learning to view people from other religious traditions with suspicion and, sometimes, fear. I remember when John F. Kennedy was elected President in November of 1960. The following Sunday—I was only 9 years old—I remember sensing an undercurrent of tension at church: Had the US become subject to Rome? How could God have allowed such a thing to happen?
Nor were we comfortable with Pentecostals. The exuberance of Pentecostal worship—especially speaking in tongues and divine healing—generated suspicion. I had been taught that such manifestations belonged to an earlier dispensation. Furthermore, such extravagant behavior was dismissed as spiritual self-indulgence.
Nevertheless, my faith community offered me many opportunities to broaden my world, to find myself face-to-face with “the other.”
One summer our youth group offered “Bible School” to poor kids whose fathers worked in the logging camps of Northern California. That summer we also visited jails and talked to prisoners. Another summer I lived on Navajo lands, and I began to ask myself why the Navajo kids my age had to travel hundreds of miles from home to study at a Bureau of Indian Affairs residential school in California.
Class. Culture. Race. Gender. With time I began to suspect that difference need not be met with suspicion. Perhaps the Creator was not subject to my rules, nor to the dogmas so carefully articulated by my church. I began to understand that I understood little about how God’s Spirit blows and that I needed to make room for nuance and diversity, contradiction, and ambiguity.
I first arrived in Guatemala as a mission volunteer in 1974. I spent that volunteer year traveling throughout the country: observing, listening, learning. I was embraced by a wise and generous people who, at the same time, kept this young gringo at a certain distance; relationships were marked by an ancient silence.
When I returned to Guatemala in 1977 as a mission worker in communication for the Presbyterian Church (USA), I quickly confirmed what I had already begun to suspect in my volunteer year. My academic training at Wheaton College—although theoretically sound and technically proficient—had not provided the analytical framework I needed to help me take into account the larger context of cultural, economic and political exclusion experienced by most Guatemalans. Patient Guatemalan mentors and a few veteran missionaries introduced me to Latin American literature, history and culture, and to Latin America’s fecund experience of the Sacred.
It was through my contact with colleagues in the Latin America region of the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC) (https://waccglobal.org/) that I came to new notions of what communication is and how it works. I came to see communication as being less linear, less rooted in technology, less quantifiable than I had thought. I learned that communication was thicker, rounder, more sensual than I had known. In the words of Argentinean communication theorist María Cristina Mata, I came to understand communication as building meaning in common.
I also came to understand better the power of the media to set the agenda for public discourse and how the consumer society promoted by the media could hijack the dreams and expectations of subjugated peoples. In Guatemala, I witnessed how the ancient, complex beauty of Mayan culture could be reduced to a tourist poster, and, in this colorful representation, how the people themselves, their very way of being, could be invisibilized; their voices could be silenced.
In four decades of mission service, I also witnessed dramatic changes in the role played by religion and religious institutions in Latin American culture. Traditionally, the Roman Catholic Church and, in some communities, historic Protestant churches, held sufficient cultural power to be able to dominate public religious discourse. These institutions exercised significant influence in the public sphere and had the power to limit and stigmatize the public activities of marginalized religious traditions such as Indigenous or Afro-Latin American spiritualities. For decades, they also placed limits on the public activities of Pentecostals, Latin America’s first church of the poor.
This profound change has coincided with a massive population shift from small, rural communities to the peripheries of Latin America’s great cities. Indeed, the social dislocation generated by moving to the city has made it easier for many to contemplate the possibility of changing religious identity. They feel less accountable to the dictates of traditional religious hierarchies.
Thus, in many Latin American countries traditional religious protagonists have been displaced and new religious actors are taking center stage. Especially notable has been the rise of Neopentecostal megachurches. These emerging religious entrepreneurs have demonstrated an unprecedented ability to build a powerful media presence by tapping into profoundly Latin American spiritual sensibilities and aesthetics. Furthermore, some of these new religious actors have become powerbrokers in partisan politics.
This growing charismatic media presence, combined with an increasingly entrenched consumer society powered by the commercial media, have led many Latin Americans to view religious faith as just another consumer product. Some academics describe the emergence of a religious supermarket where veteran institutions like the Catholic Church and mainline Protestants compete for market share with these new actors that have proved quite adept in the craft of marketing symbolic goods.
At the same time, many people no longer feel the need to disguise the fact that they embrace, simultaneously, multiple religious identities. One frequently encounters good Catholics—not to mention Presbyterians and Baptists—who sometimes attend to the charismatic spectacles offered by the televised megachurches. Many of these same people, when encountering moments of crisis in their lives, feel free to consult with spiritual guides or shamans from other religious traditions. In Latin America, we are finding that the intimate space where each person and each community builds religious identity is not subject to the laws of Cartesian logic.
I suspect that this has always been the case. When it comes down to it, Latin Americans have always reserved for themselves the right to build a private space where they encounter the Sacred. When religious institutions have enjoyed significant cultural and political power, those institutions have tried to exercise hegemony over the public expression of spirituality. But once this hegemony is broken, the public religious landscape becomes far more diverse and complex.
Spirituality in Latin America becomes a space for feeling connected with ancestors and with forces far beyond the domain of human reason. It is both a space for building meaning out of the critical moments of human existence—birth and death, pain and suffering, sickness and healing, poverty and plenty, loss and absence, hatred and love—as well as being the currency for religious institutions that try to mediate and control these phenomena. Here, spirituality has not been wholly domesticated. It remains an elemental force, raw, sometimes savage.
Religious communicators in Latin America face the challenge of being effective, creative actors in this fragmented landscape of religious meaning. This is the space where people today build religious community. What do we contribute to the emerging imaginary—a common vision that includes and defends the specificity of each believer and their community? And how? How do we engage the popular religious imagination? How to cultivate an imaginary that is rooted not in defending the historic cultural power of our ecclesial institutions but that is faithful to the way of Jesus? An imaginary that celebrates human life in all its diversity, that defends and promotes the integrity of all creation, that accompanies the excluded, that embraces the terrible beauty of mystery, of the unknowable? How to cultivate an imaginary that exalts dignity, integrity, and mercy while opposing violence, mendacity, and corruption? How to cultivate an imaginary that challenges the power of death?
This is where our task begins.