A COMMUNITY OF PRESENCE AND MISSION

TLAPA, GUERRERO, MEXICO

 The community of insertion is a small community that lives among the indigenous people, seeking and suggesting something of greater depth:  to live gospel values within the reality of poverty endured by the people of that particular geographical area.

For some time there have been stirrings within the Mexican Province to establish a community of insertion.  Some friars had powerful experiences with the indigenous communities of the Huicholes Indians in Western Mexico, in the Prelature of Nayar, and then in the Southwest with the Tlapanecas Indians in the Diocese of Tlapa.

After the experience with the Huicholes and Tlapanecas Indians, the Mexican Provincial Chapter, on March 5, 2004, called for opening the “Guadalupe de Xabugnii” (Guadalupe of the Poor) Community in the South-western area of Guerrero State, Acatepec, Diocese of Tlapa.  Practically speaking, this is a missionary community that offers an experience of insertion and inculturation at the same time.  Presently, there are 150,000 Tlapaneca people.

The community is composed of three friars who live actual poverty in a very humble house with no electricity or running water.  The Servites take care of 23 small ecclesial communities in the territory.

Enculturation, insertion and

Evangelization

From a conference given by Fra Federico M. Mena, OSM in Coyhaique, 2004

Servites in Mexico have always been concerned with missionary work but the motive behind this experiment among the Huichol indigenous people was not missionary activity but presence:  to live evangelical poverty in the midst of marginalized people and to accompany them on their journey of total liberation.  This was something we could do among indigenous people, in slums or in psychiatric hospitals…

We decided to work among native people: the Huicholes.  They are not Catholic and they know nothing of Christianity.  We would combine the work of presence with missionary activity.  Our friars encountered an almost intact pre-Columbian tradition and culture.  We were immediately faced with questions: What is the meaning of missionary work in this environment?  How can we preach the Gospel to a people who have a language, mentality and sensitivity so different from our own? It was essential to learn their language.  Was language enough to make ourselves understood?  Was it not also necessary to think the way they did?  But how did they think? And an even more thorny question: what were we to make of their non-Christian rituals? Were these rituals diabolical? Should we fight against them as the early Spanish missionaries who evangelized Mexico did?  What were we to make of their religious beliefs?

We realized that before we made any attempt to present the Christian Gospel message we had to understand Huichol culture:  their world-vision, their religious beliefs, their sacred symbols and rituals, their mythic and magical thinking, their religious organization … We discovered that “presence” was precisely the best possible method for understanding a culture we found so exotic.

…..

FUNDAMENTAL NUCLEUS

The heart of a culture, its fundamental nucleus, is composed of two elements:

world-view: how the world, man and God are understood;

sensitivity: the mental/emotional process through which one relates to the world, others and God. 

It is very hard for these two aspects to change.  They are concealed and covered over with protective layers of experience.  These protective layers cause a culture to flourish in favorable circumstances and are the key to survival in hard times.

World-view and sensitivity are the constituent elements of this fundamental nucleus: they are the starting point for inculturation.  This nucleus is the rudder and motor of the other three levels of culture: it allows changes in folklore, adaptations to external influences –  but the new elements introduced into the folklore change their meaning because of the world-vision through which they are perceived.  Emotional response to new, originally foreign, elements is governed by native sensitivity.  For example: if they abandon their native costume and wear the clothes provided by the free market, the fundamental nucleus will change the meaning of these clothes.  Although they appear externally to conform to the fashions of the outside world they are internally, secretly Huichol or Tlapaneca.  The same phenomenon occurs with changes in social organization or in assuming a new identity.

Some missionaries eager to face the challenge of inculturation devote themselves to external and superficial cultural phenomena – folklore.  They fall into the trap of believing they are pursuing inculturation if they build their churches in native style, adorn their vestments with local symbols or introduce indigenous rites into the Catholic liturgy.  Similarly they are disappointed when local people abandon their own folklore and embrace elements foreign to their tradition, as if by changing their “mask” they are losing their identity.

For example: native dress.  Popular wisdom tells us that the habit does not make the monk.  If a Tlapaneca no longer dresses as his ancestors did he does not cease to be a Tlapaneca.  We see missionaries waste energy, time and resources trying to provide oxygen to dying folkloric customs; they feel that if this folklore disappears a culture will disappear.  But nothing is disappearing: the fundamental nucleus guarantees the preservation of what is essential: the meaning people attribute to life – even if they adopt a new identity.

Other missionaries have discovered that social organization is far more important than folklore and they choose this are for their evangelical endeavor whether or not accompanied by inculturation.  Those who have not understood inculturation concentrate on religious organization which they mistrust and see as tainted with paganism or idolatry.  They devote their energy to rooting out error, teaching their own version of the truth and destroying any ritual relationship with false gods.

The Spanish missionaries in Mesoamerica 500 years ago were accompanied by soldiers of the Spanish Empire; they fought against native social organization and imposed their own.  Some villages died in defense of their sacred space; others retained their fundamental nucleus and accepted the external changes imposed upon their religious and social organization.  They attributed different beliefs and mythic traditions to the images that were imposed.  They understood the new ministry of worship with the theological categories of their ancient priestly tradition.  They invested the Roman liturgy with the significance of their pre-Hispanic ancestral rites.  They apparently became Catholic but in fact they continued to practice their ancient pre-Hispanic religion.  This is a curious instance of reverse liturgical inculturation.  The pre-Hispanic faith underwent inculturation and not Christianity.  Using the images, ministry and rites of the Catholic religion that were imposed people celebrated their ancient pre-Hispanic faith with the mental and emotional attitudes that derived from their sensitivity.

After the wars of independence when missionaries no longer enjoyed the support of the military imposing the new religion was not so easy.  It was then that they discovered other elements of social organization and used them as means for further proselytism.  This is what the Franciscans did with the Huicholes.  Seeing that the natives ignored their condemnations of Huichol religiosity as paganism or Satanism, they exploited the social and economic situation of the Huicholes.  They recognized their underdevelopment and economic shortcomings and were moved to compassion.  They employed a strategy of welfare and paternalism with a twofold finality: to alleviate misery and win converts (rice Christians).

The missionaries soon realized bitterly that their converts were only pretending to be Catholic as long as they received material assistance and once this assistance stopped they abandoned Catholicism.  The missionaries then sought to exploit another aspect: political organization.  They determined which powerful families and tribal chiefs dominated villages.  They allied themselves with the powerful, serving and protecting their interests as long as they obliged their subjects to take part in evangelization.  The Huichol people were divided into two groups: the obstinate pagan masses condemned to live without hope and the flourishing group of converts to Christianity who would be saved.

Later the Adventists came from the Sierra.  They had well-financed welfare projects.  And then drug traffickers arrived and involved natives in the profitable drug trade.  Finally agents of the National Indigenous Institute came also with well-financed welfare projects.  These three groups shared a common prejudice against Catholic missionaries.  Tribal chiefs who had been the missionaries’ dear friends suddenly became their enemies and sought to expel them.  They forbade their subjects taking part in the missions’ religious activities. 

Faced with this new impasse the Franciscans explored another level of social organization: education.  They established children’s schools.  Initially converts sent their children – not because they valued education (they didn’t understand what it was) but because children were given free meals.  The Franciscans thought it was worth the money, time and personnel: they had access to young children and could teach them Spanish (the missionaries never succeeded in learning the local language) and the Christian faith.  Once they had received Christian training these children would be baptized and sent back to their villages where they could evangelize their neighbors in the native language and lead them out of paganism.  After twenty years they began to see the results: total failure.  These children evangelists were rejected by their communities and since they persisted in teaching “heresies” they were expelled.  They were only allowed to return if they married a local woman – in this way the hold of Catholicism (the intrusive religion they learned in boarding school) could be broken. 

Those who accept the challenge of genuine inculturation and understand the world of social organization realize that authentic evangelization must be integral.  It cannot be limited to the sphere of religion.  It must bring the Word of God to other social areas: economics, politics, education – so that all this culture’s  forms of organization can be purified by the light of God’s Word by struggling against unjust structures and laying the foundations of God’s Kingdom.  These enlightened missionaries warned people against accepting external influence in economics, politics, education and religion.  Locals must preserve their own forms of organization in these areas only correcting those things that contravene God’s Word.  Only by preserving local forms of social organization adapted to the Christian faith can inculturation of the Gospel message be achieved.

Elements of Identity

Inculturation of the elements of ethnic identity is the solution.  One must learn the language not just to preach the Gospel but to engage in dialogue with people of another religion, another world-view.  One must come to know all parts of the country and stand with the natives in defending their territory.  One must combat any trace of racial discrimination.  One must respect and encourage the transmission of the people’s historical memory.  One must recognize the people’s religious wisdom and understand the psychological dynamics behind rites and sacred symbols; they are an expression of the people’s emotional relationship with God.  Only in this way can the missionary exploit those elements of identity which allow him to explore the world-vision and sensitivity of a people: it is his entry to their fundamental nucleus.  Inculturation is only achieved when the missionary expresses the Christian faith in the world-vision of the people so that they understand it, accept it, celebrate it in their own way and live it with commitment in their own forms of social organization.

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