Guatemala's Protestants collide with Mayan beliefs

SANTIAGO ATITLAN, Guatemala (Reuters) - In Guatemala, a nation of survivors, little Maximon has been a big help.

He sipped rum and smoked cigars through the 36-year civil war that ended in 1996, comforting the families of Mayan farmers who, suspected of anti-government sympathies, were hunted down by death squads. The people of this traumatized highland town whisper their wishes into his ear, tilt him back for a stiff drink and make the sign of the cross before leaving the hut where Maximon holds court by day and rests on his mattress in an overhead loft by night.

This three-foot tall wood-carved Mayan icon has changed with the times since Catholicism swept through the region in the 1500s. His garb resembles that of the statues of saints in the local church. Next to him, laid out in a glass casket strewn with flowers and colored electric lights, is a statue of Jesus. A carved likeness of John the Baptist takes the other flank.

For centuries, Catholics and spiritual Mayans have mingled their traditions in this community of 30,000 souls squeezed between volcanoes on Lake Atitlan. Santiago Atitlan is one of several Guatemalan towns that house shrines to Maximon, a sort of renegade saint with roots in pre-Colombian deities.

Maximon commands respect and the cavernous cathedral still overflows on Sunday. But there's a growing spiritual force in town testing the equilibrium.


As in the rest of this Central American country, huge numbers are converting to evangelical Christianity, swelling Protestant ranks from 2 percent of the population in 1950 to about 35 percent today, the highest percentage in Latin America, researchers say. And where the local Catholic Church sought to complement indigenous beliefs, the evangelicals want Maximon to retire.

"It's nothing but witchcraft," Wilson Gomez, youth director at the nearby Iglesia de Cristo, told Reuters. "They conjure demons." Standing outside his church, shouting to make himself heard over a raucous sermon within, he calls Maximon "satanic."

Inside is a service for about 1,000 swirling, singing, palm-waving congregants. Prodded by an amplified 16-piece band, the release of energy at this Saturday night revival packs the punch of years of repressed war-related pain.

While younger members run in a kind of ecstatic conga line through the aisles, a woman on the balcony of this airplane-hangar-like structure stands in place with arms raised, eyes focused on the beyond, tears streaking her face. Songs and sermons in Spanish are punctuated by shouts of "hallelujah" echoing over the dark waters of the lake.

The next morning, down a twisting alleyway farther into town, Mayan elders kneel before Maximon, chanting and waving a converted paint can spewing incense smoke. This cleansing ritual is aimed at helping a sick boy who kneels nearby with his mother.

Maximon, called San Simon by the Spanish, is bedecked jauntily in a black felt hat, silk scarves, colorful Mayan pants and two-tone leather shoes. A ring of candles flickers in front of the wooden statue. Every once in a while his cigar is taken from his mouth and he is tipped back so a drink of rum can be poured into his little wooden throat.

Six men play guitars and wind instruments just outside the door. They sit on straw mats thrown over cases of empty beer bottles. Maximon is not the only one who likes a drink.

One of the men, a 24-year-old Tzutuhil Mayan named Juan Manuel Mendoza Mendoza, said Maximon will not bow to pressure from the evangelicals.

"The Catholics shared our ideas and both sides had an open mind. But the evangelical sects are invading our culture," Mendoza told Reuters.

As he speaks, the music and raised voices of nearby El Shaddai Pentecostal Church drift into Maximon's shrine. "They want to steal our people," he says.

Claudia Samayoa, spokeswoman for the Menchu Foundation, which is dedicated to Mayan issues, agrees: "There is a struggle with evangelicals against the spiritual Mayans."

Gomez of the Iglesia de Cristo denied this, saying the church respects indigenous culture.

Virginia Garrard-Burnett, author of "Protestantism in Guatemala -- Living in the New Jerusalem," told Reuters that while the nation's Protestant movement began with foreign missionaries, evangelism here is taking on an increasingly Guatemalan face.

"By far most of the churches are not tied to any outside organization. So it's not a simple matter of cultural imperialism. It's Guatemalan," said Garrard-Burnett, a Latin American studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

According to Guatemala's Protestant church synod, the Alianza Evangelica, there are now more than 19,000 Protestant churches across the country, representing more than 90 denominations including Baptists, Nazarenes and home-grown Guatemalan Pentecostal groups such as El Shaddai.


It's an hour before dawn on Sunday morning. A young woman staggers down the street past one of Santiago's two dozen or so Protestant churches. Now quiet, the building was aflame with revival just a few hours earlier.

Barefoot, dressed only in dirt-smudged underwear, she wails incoherently, apparently quite drunk. She sits alone curbside, crying and mumbling into the thick night air. No one answers. Whatever nightmare has brought her to this state, she is not the only one in town tormented by memory. Insomnia is common in this region of lush mountains and low drifting clouds.

A block away in Santiago's Catholic cathedral, founded in 1547, a sealed monument holds the actual heart of Father Stanley Rother, assassinated on church grounds in 1981 after offering sanctuary to his flock, many of whom took to sleeping in the church. Human rights groups say between 300 and 800 people died during the war in Santiago Atitlan, including a dozen farmers in a 1990 army massacre.

The trauma of that blood-soaked decade may be key to understanding why evangelism, with its emphasis on a glorious life to come, has taken hold here.

"A lot of it had to do with the violence. People really needed something spiritual and emotional to survive," Garrard-Burnett said.

Conversions to Protestantism increased after a born-again Pentecostal, Gen. Jose Efrain Rios Montt, took control of Guatemala after a 1982 coup. A week after taking office, he appeared on the U.S. conservative Christian talk show The 700 Club, where host Pat Robertson urged viewers to "pray around the clock for Rios Montt."

Thousands of Guatemalans in rural areas are widely believed to have been killed by the army under Rios Montt's anti-guerilla campaign. Now president of Congress, he is a lightning rod for human rights activists.

Maximon doesn't look worried. An ancient but flexible talisman of steadfast faith, he appears ready to face this chapter in Guatemala's history of cultural collision.

However, the future of the evangelical church here will depend on a new generation unfreighted with direct memories of the war -- young people whose eyes are not as hollowed out and fearful as their parents' and who may not be as desperate for the spiritual balm offered by evangelism.

"The question," says Garrard-Burnett, "is whether it sticks."

09:55 08-21-01

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