“Where’d you go in Guatemala?” asked the lady behind me in the check out line at the local Superior grocery store. She had started the conversation just moments before, observing that the heat was unbearable because it was dry.
“I just spent ten days in a humid heat,” I told her initially. “I was in Central America, it’s a far different sort of environment then Palmdale, and I wasn’t prepared to come back to this heat wave” I responded to her inquiry about my travels. We ended up talking all the way back to our cars about the great need in Guatemala, but mostly her church.
I told her about my trip and found out that she was originally from Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, also known as Xela. She had been living thirty years in the United States and hadn’t visited Guatemala once. Part of me wanted to ask her about her legal status in the States, and another part of me wanted to ask her if she had called her family and kept in touch with them. But neither of those things were my business, even though they were connected to my Root Causes Interfaith delegation to Central America.
I refrained from intruding into her personal life directly, but inside me, I still wanted to know more. I let her tell me what she was comfortable with as I told her about my trip, all the while trying to direct (read prod) her to share more. She shared her desire to do missionary work in Quetzaltenango. But it seemed like her Church was not in the missionary business, at least not the one where missionaries go provide services.
As she told me more about her Church, I got lost remembering how I fell in love with Xela. She kept going about her Church services; I felt our conversation had veered into proselytization and I began to get uneasy. I didn’t like the sound of her church, its theology seemed chthonic in the face of my own faith practices focus on service to others and community.
The awkwardness grew, and I thought maybe it had to do with my questions about her church, though she couldn’t have inferred them to be intrusive given how much she wanted to share about her faith. Maybe I grew uneasy because as an [North] American, this topic of personal faith is not for public consumption. I certainly don’t go around talking about religion every moment I get. I take solace in that she felt she could. I created that space even though what she intended for me to get out of our conversation was not what she probably had envisioned.
Xela, I Loved
Quetzaltenango is the capital of the Mayas, unofficially, of coarse. It is the center of Mayan indigenous culture and its the second largest city in Guatemala. Surrounded by ancient volcanos, some still active, Quetzaltenango seems to be built to survive, to appear permanent in the face of its physical location that places it on a precarious struggle to survive the next cataclysmic eruption. Its fitting that Quezaltenango is the Mayan capital, the Mayan people had to do extraordinary feats to survive into the modern age.
Like the ash that pours out of these mighty earth making giants, buildings in Quetzaltenango have soaked in the gray and sooty character. They are designed to be practical buildings. Those who have the money, painted their homes bright colors, adding accents like columns and blinds and wrought iron bars. This characteristic reminds me of Guatemala City, yet it pales in comparison to the sort of elegance and imperialism that is present in the capital.
Quetzaltenango is also referred to Xela (Shaayla). The reason Xela is a concentration of Mayan people has a lot to do with its historical role as the capital of the Mayan Ki’che kingdom. Xela is also the historical location where the barbarous conquistador Pedro de Alvarado defeated and killed the Ki’che general prince Tecun Uman. What is interesting is that Alvarado was censored by his peers during his life because of the depravity he showed toward indigenous communities he conquered.
None the less if you were on Alvarado’s good side there were some benefits, like having Xela renamed, from the formal Mayan K’iche name Xe Laju noj (under the 10 mountains) to Quetzaltenango from the Nahuatl, the language of Alvarado’s Central Mexican indigenous allies. Quetzaltenango meant the resting place of the Quetzal bird. Even in this, legend seems to nod at the fact that the Quetzl can’t be caged, representing liberty, and fittingly Xela represents this aspiration of the Mayan people.
My time in Xela was a reprieve from the past several days of moving around Guatemala and Mexico; which was preceded by the intense tropical humid heat of Honduras. Drinking in the soupy air of Honduras, and the little peculiarities of being on the road made my arrival to the cooler highlands that more perceptible.
I was surprised by the drastically different climate though. With pine tree forests and corn fields draping steep mountain sides, all my reading on Guatemala didn’t prepare me for this. Mornings found the town clouded in mists and volcanos rose up around us in the distance out of the clouds like floating islands. I was caught off guard by the cold climate and found myself clutching onto a wool blanket as I went about the Catholic religious retreat we were staying at.
It was also the first time I heard music blaring from inside restaurants and cars, in particular I heard jazz. The sound gave me a sense of ease. I felt at home. I hadn’t experienced these feelings on the trip up to that point. It wasn’t that I wasn’t uncomfortable in Progresso, Honduras, where we had a permanent home base, but rather all things felt right in Xela.
Which is funny because I have this internal desire to be close to large bodies of water, and for that reason have always found comfort in places close to the ocean- San Diego, Newport Beach, Los Angeles, Seattle and even Karachi. Xela in that very special way stands out because it is high up in the mountains at 7000 feet, and feels like it hovers over all the rest of Guatemala like from the Castle in the Sky.
If a pilgrimage had a promised land as its destination, then for our delegation, and me in particular, Xela, with its green pine forests, dark rich soil, moist and thunderous atmosphere and fresh crisp cool air was that destination. It made sense that after the humid tropical discomfort, and discombobulating learning experience of Honduras, Xela was where we came to end our journey. The long hours on the road, and the hopelessness of the stories we listened to, in Xela we could find an oasis to reflect on all of this and its weather, location, and climate provided the opportunity for this.
Xela is not only the capital of Mayan culture, but also the capital of Central American culture as I later found out. In fact, Xela has a very active music scene, which explains the blaring music I heard while driving through its streets. This is probably because it is a locus of indigenous cultures and its experiencing an active economic boom that has brought others from around Central America to it.
Xela has, in that way, trumped the general economic malaise that grips the rest of Guatemala and Central America. However, the relative peace is also in place because Xela is the center of narco-trafficking, the organized [mature adult] crime [criminals] keeps the violence at bay, and the chaotic juvenile maneuvering of gangs as well. That fact made for a disconcerting reality.
The Plague of Prosperity
Back to the lady from Quezaltanango I met in the grocery store. I asked her what was keeping her from going back to help people in Guatemala. I guess I could be masking my real question- do you have immigration status? – but that was not my intention. And maybe realizing this added to my feeling of uneasiness as we progressed in our conversation.
Any number of things can hold a person back, including immigration status. For example finances, health, or a variety of obligations. For her, it was really her faith. She spoke of the culture being different, of people not believing in themselves, of how people in Guatemala see poverty as a way to salvation. Which was odd, because thats not what I got from the people I met with, none of them said their poverty was their ticket into heaven.
So for her, it was about how you can provide the Gospel to people who can’t see themselves benefiting from God’s bounties, truly believing that God doesn’t want their condition of poverty to be their reality, and having an attitude that thinks positively of one’s capability to achieve and prosper. That sounded like the Prosperity Gospel.
She told me that she went to a Church that didn’t have any opportunities to do things that were focused on social justice type stuff, but she liked the Church because of the services and messages it provided. After some reflection, I realize that I was uncomfortable with her church theology, or the way she expressed it.
I realized the reason it was awkward was because I had recognized that she was coming from a Prosperity Gospel perspective. I have yet to find something mutually common between someone who follows the prosperity gospel and what my beliefs are as a Muslim. I have found that even if people are from a different faith, it is possible to identify certain values and principles, what can be called universal. But I didn’t find that in our conversation, and that is partly why I understood her being a Prosperity Gospel proponent.
Faith to me is about service to others as much as it is about my personal salvation; faith for her was service to self through salvation. Which is an odd and peculiar sort of situation because my place of faith requires me to act out on helping others with what I have, whenever I can, at whatever cost to me I am willing to incur for the sake of God, in whatever fashion I can. This was a stark reminder to me that not all paths to faith are the same.
She shared with me the name of her church and invited me to the next service. I said goodbye to her, and one more time encouraged her to visit Guatemala sooner rather than later. And we parted ways.
The Many Names of God, [Material] Prosperity Isn’t One of Them
Earlier when I described the “prosperity gospel” as “chthonic theology” I felt I was being extremely harsh. Chthonic is defined as dealing with, inhabiting, or having to do with the underworld. To call a theology as hellish is a severe charge. However, when I read about the Prosperity Gospel, and talk to other Christians, the way they describe its theology is similar to the way I, or many other American Muslims, would describe ISIS, AlQaeda or any number of groups that distort and mutilate Islam.
Granted, the prosperity gospel is not murderous, but in a way it is what can only be described as cannabalizing Christian theology. Thats a scary way of comparing theology, but thats what I read between the lines, the prosperity gospel and the extremists ideology both cannabalize theology for their purposes. On this trip to Central America I kept hearing about the “Prosperity Gospel” and have tried to understand why a theology would be focused on an individuals prosperity to the exclusion of the well being of society and have yet to find anything Divine about this message.
The thing about the Prosperity Gospel is that its key tenet holds that God smiles on the accumulation of wealth in this life and will reward material donations to the church with prosperity and miracles. The assumption being that if you are favored by God in the afterlife, then God will favor you with wealth – material prosperity – in this life. In this theology, the herd is no longer sheep, but rather consumers; the pastors sell a lifestyle of prosperity. A successful prosperity gospel preacher has to live the life of a successful man, or else the message conflicts with the tenet that wealth equals God’s favor. What good is a prosperity preacher driving around in a beat up 1989 Ford truck when you should be driving around in an Escalade?
It was telling that in one of my meetings, a young bank employee in Honduras, was discussing the payment of “taxes” to gangs. I asked a follow up question regarding whether the gangs tax the Church in Honduras? She responded, “they don’t bother with the Catholic church, but the big evangelical [read- prosperity] churches, they see them as a business. So those churches build into their expenses when they expand or build new facilities a protection tax, sometimes they take out loans from the bank to help cover the cost.”
Moises Naim in The End of Power notes something similar on this perception of the Prosperity Church as a business, “[i]n this respect, the church resembles nothing so much as a small business launched in a competitive marketplace without funding from a central source; it must succeed on the basis of the members it draws, the services it provides them, and the tithes and collection revenue they can be persuaded to give.”
“Immigrants, indigenous groups like the Mayans in Guatemala, or other communities with needs,” Naim lists, “that political leaders and mainstream churches have neglected, are perfect targets for these new churches.” This reality fits his thesis that the more, mobility, and mentality revolution around the world has caused the power of the Church, both the Catholic and mainline protestant, to decay to the point where these smaller prosperity churches draw in people who’s grievances aren’t being addressed by their institutions giving them a message that focuses their needs on the immediate future prosperity they can achieve if they believe, and make donations to the Church.
What happens to the donations from congregants to the Prosperity church?
In fact, in the United States, where the Prosperity Gospel has its foundational roots, there is clear indication that the adherents of the theology were disproportionately hit by the housing bubble crash. Many mainline evangelical groups including California’s Warren and x have vehemently spoken out against the theology as not just destructive but far from the teachings of Jesus.
While the global market for souls is a free for all, the problem arises with the message that is being sold in the Prosperity Churches. These Churches teach a distinctly hyper individualized salvation message based on the idea that consumption is a sign of God’s favor on the individual. It is a message that removes the universal values that have come to define many mainline world religions- the communal good through individual sacrifice, charity for the sake of charity.
If you wanted to create a religion that justified consumerism, look no further then the Prosperity Gospel, its adherents should be referred to as Consumer Christians. Consumption, and in particular wealth, as a sign of God’s favor is a concept that is detested in the Quran. Wealth is a sign of a blessing, consumption is encouraged, however, neither of these things are tied to one’s status in the hereafter. In fact, both things could turn out to be a test we humans fail to pass.
And it is important for me to identify that my disgust that I experienced above during my conversation in the grocery store parking lot, stems from this understanding of Islam.
The Quraysh of Mecca valued this concept dearly. One of their arguments, when the Prophet Muhammad began his mission was that “surely, God favors us in this life, and if there were a hereafter, God would favor us there as well because of the wealth bestowed upon us.” Throughout the early years of the Prophets message the Quran rebutted, verse after verse, this idea in its various renditions. Consumption and wealth accumulation, according to God were not signs of Divine favor, in fact, the Quran asks “would a person pious and humble be judged the same as person who hordes wealth and lies?”
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