I have single handedly witnessed all that is wrong with organized religion. I debated long and hard on whether to post this entry, but eventually decided I'd ¨go to post¨ with my thoughts on one of my most difficult experiences thus far in site.
Our community church, set high at the top of the village hill, was recently donated by an elderly gospel preacher from Oklahoma. This preacher has been coming to my community for nearly 20 years, trying to convert the Embera people into good Christians.
Not too long ago, this preacher paid us a visit to look after the church and give a guest sermon. Our of respect for our visitor, and as my host father sings at church services, I attended his service. After several songs and dances, our American guest gave his sermon (through the help of a translator). The sermon was full of the expected evangelical “do nots”: do not smoke, do not drink, do not have pre-marital sex. But this sermon also fervently condemned bodily exposure, repeatedly stating the shame in exposing our skin. Shocked, I thought, how ridiculously out of context is this sermon is in a culture where women do not wear shirts and traditional menswear is loin clothes. I looked around, and noticed that all those Embera in attendance at the sermon had put on shirts and long skirts, and listened to the preacher with heads bowed to the ground.
Frustrated and confused (I actually had to leave mid-sermon), the next day I spoke with my friend Andrea in the community. She explained that this preacher constantly tells community members, especially women, to cover their bodies, and that when she’s painted with the traditional Embera “jagua” (paint) he tells her that she’s ugly and God does not love her.
Good Lord. Does this man, who claims he loves the Indians so, have any regard or respect for their culture? I don’t care your religion or your personal beliefs- how can you spend time amongst a culture as beautiful and natural as the Embera, and tell them to cover who they are? And after a 20 year history visiting our little village, shouldn't this man know that these practices rob them not only of their identity but also of the economic substance on which they now successfully self-sustain; by covering their bodies, their tradition and their culture, they lose the very ESSENCE of who they are, and further, that unique people who tourists from around the world pay to see. Ridiculous. Ignorant. Sad.
Thankfully, our little church is a source of inspiration for so many community members. For one family, it embodies hope for eventual release after years of family sickness; for my host dad (previously an alcoholic), a steady reminder of faith in his own abilities and in something bigger than him to pull through his tougher times. Beautiful, and all that relgion should be. But how sad that all this good has to come in a package as ignorant as this gospel preacher from Oklahoma? Because what good is this hope, and this “Dios” that they’ve come to know from this revered white man, if it makes them feel so bad about their culture and who they are as a people?
The reality of this relationship breaks my heart. And amidst my own struggle with God and what faith means to me, I clearly don’t have the answers to this complex intertwining of religion, culture and human beings. But someone I hope that in growing closer to my community that I can help rekindle the cultural pride and self-confidence that so many have lost at the expense of this gospel message. Recently, some visitors to our community explained to the village their idea of a just God who loves ALL people. When people recount their visit to me, I see such relief in their faces as their shame fades away, and it nearly brings tears to my eyes.
My community, and all Embera people, hold such a deep connection to their family, culture and ancestors. It is a relationship that continues to amaze me the more time I spend here. I dearly hope that amidst these changing times, and moving forward in their years, that they can protect their beautiful cultural identity, sense of community, and sense of sense.