Views from the ANThill: With Missionary Zeal

by douglas c reeser on 6.21.11
Here in southern Belize, where I'm slowly working on dissertation research, it's hard to miss the influence of the Church on the local populations. There are a variety of churches trying to position themselves as the faith of choice here in Punta Gorda and in the villages of Toledo. Roman Catholics seem to be the most rooted here in the region, as evidenced by the many RC schools scattered throughout the district. However, Protestants continue to make inroads, and are quickly becoming a force in religious lives of many.

Other religious groups are active as well. It is not uncommon to see a Maya woman in traditional dress - except for her Mennonite bonnet. The Jehovah's Witness has a number of buildings here too, and one can often witness the men in suits walking with bibles in hand, hoping to find another convert. And white missionaries from various faiths seem to be here in various guises. The above picture is of a church in the village of Boom Creek, and in it's construction, Maya tradition (the thatch roof) can be seen blended with icons of the Church (large crosses cut into the front walls).

A friend doing research in one of the nearby Maya communities has described the religious division in the village: Catholics mostly inhabit one side of the creek, and Protestants the other. She occasionally has drinks with the Catholics, while such activity is forbidden on the other side of the creek. The divisions based on religious lines appear deeply rooted, and have consequences in the daily life of the village.

And what becomes of traditional Maya spirituality in such circumstances? For me, it is hard to say definitively, as my research (or that of my friend's) is not on religious and spiritual issues. However, having worked with Maya healers, it is safe to say the Maya spirituality remains alive for many here. It appears that there is little conflict between traditional spirituality and missionary religion in the minds of those who practice.

I write this on the heals of a piece just released by Survival International that discusses the diaries of missionaries in the Brazilian Amazon. The diaries describe the "spiritual warfare" being waged by the missionaries against the "enemy territory...dominated by the devil". One missionary wrote:
‘While I traveled I waged spiritual warfare, taking possession of this region which we believe God has given to us. And really we entered into a territory that until today was dominated by enemies, but we came to take possession of this land and this people for the Lord, we came in his name, as ambassadors, sent by God.’
I can't claim to understand where such sentiment comes from - profound faith, I suppose. Wherever such beliefs are rooted, they remain a powerful force of change in traditional communities around the globe. In places like the Amazon, where tribal peoples remain uncontacted by the outside world, missionary incursion can have grave consequences:
In the 1980s, the New Tribes Mission contacted the Zo’é tribe, with disastrous results: about a quarter of the Zo’é died from disease in the space of six years.
Here in Belize, the consequences don't appear as dire at first glance. Populations in Belize have been "in contact" for generations, and have adjusted to introduced diseases. However, the affects of missionary zeal remain, and continue to erode and chip at traditional beliefs and practices. This is significant when one considers the Maya way of life, wherein all aspects of daily life, including such things as food production, medicine, social relationships and more are all deeply rooted in traditional spirituality. All of social life is influenced by and tangled up in spiritual practices and beliefs. The erosion of these beliefs then, must also result in the erosion of traditional ways of life, something that is also evident here in the south of Belize.

Photo by dooglas carl for Recycled Minds
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  1. DD in Tucson5:13 PM

    I remember seeing more white Mennonites than any other types of folks when I passed through Belize briefly ten years ago. Hopefully the people that choose to convert there - or anywhere - would be moved to do so by respect for the local culture and desire to have more in common with them. (Perhaps unlikely but for some it must be possible.)

    Doug it's great to see a little of what you're doing down there!

  2. DD in Tucson!!

    thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment. I hope all is well up in AZ - i would love to catch up...

    and yeah, the white Mennonites are the most common, but there is an increasing number of Maya converting. I'm not sure those doing the converting have much respect for local culture, but I'm not looking at this stuff specifically, so I'm only offering some observations.
    And I maintain that it's strange to see the Mennonites here - a horse-drawn watermelon cart passed by my house this morning - and from casual conversations about them, they remain a pretty closed community.

    Be in touch, and keep visiting the blog!



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