Pentecostals find fertile ground in Latin America

Guatemala City, Guatemala - In a suburb of Guatemala City, a 90-day non-stop televised fundraiser for a Pentecostal church is in full swing. At one end of a courtyard is a make-shift TV studio, where a steady stream of believers are queuing to present gifts to a pastor live on air.

A man and his son have brought two floppy-eared puppies. A boy of seven has brought a cute white kitten. A woman and her daughter are clutching a plump brown hen. Noise fills the air, but the animals are quiet.

Perhaps they know they are about to be donated?

The man and the boy with the puppies are next up. They are ushered in front of the cameras, where the pastor waits to bless and thank them. With tears in their eyes the pair hand over the dogs to church workers, who whisk them away.

But these tears are not for the puppies, they are tears of joy at having helped the church.

"We are not sad to give these dogs," explains the man to me afterwards. "We are doing something that will help spread the word throughout Guatemala."

The dogs do not have far to go. Next door to the studio is an ad-hoc market. Here, everything that is donated to the church is put on sale to other worshippers. The money raised this way joins the donations pouring in from callers to the phone lines. The goal is to raise enough to build a new television studio, a high-tech purpose-built media hub to carry the Pentecostal message across all of Guatemala.

"They bring wonderful gifts - animals, televisions, even cars," the church's smiling PR woman tells me. "And it's all for one reason, and that is to spread the word of God."

The Pentecostal word has spread explosively here in the past 40 years. Estimates suggest that over four in 10 now follow the faith in Guatemala. And the same thing is happening across Central America - traditionally a bastion of Catholicism.

Here at the tele-marathon, it is clear from their dark skin and flashes of traditional textiles that many of the followers are of indigenous Mayan descent.

These people are generally poor, and discrimination against them by the elites of European descent is a part of life here.

Ricardo, a local photographer at the tele-marathon describes the scale of the racism:

"People with Mayan descent will try to forget that part of their past - especially if they are looking for jobs in the city. They will ignore their family history, not even admit it if questioned."

Not inside the churches, though, where everyone embraces everyone. In a deeply divided society, Pentecostal churches offer a level of equality difficult to find elsewhere.

We speak to one Mayan woman who, with her two teenage sons, have brought a television to donate.

"We travelled around four hours on a bus to get here today," she says. "We were wondering for weeks what we could bring to donate for the church, and then we decided that we didn't need our television any more. The bigger the sacrifice that you make for the church, the more God recognises it."

On air, one of her sons spontaneously pulls off his watch and hands it over. She looks at him adoringly. Once they walk off camera, a group of church workers surround them. Tears streaming from closed eyes she chants a prayer. Hands cover her, she is doused in blessings. Appearing on this television channel is clearly a major event.

As she recovers her composure, she is bear-hugged by a female church worker, who gives a last few words of encouragement like she was an old friend.

"I used to be Catholic," the lady explains to me later. "But when I heard the word of God through the television channel of this church, I knew it was the true word."

The Mayan population in Guatemala has embraced Pentecostalism to its collective bosom. Dominated and oppressed by centuries of Catholic Spanish rule, this new North American faith is the spiritual antithesis to Hispanic culture.

But it was during the civil war of the 1980s and 1990s that the church saw its biggest growth among the Mayans.

The UN describes the Army campaign against the peasant population in the 1980s as genocide. Conversion rates during these brutal times were astronomical.

"During the 80s people were suffering death and persecution," a Pentecostal pastor tells me later. "They ran into the churches."

And still they run.

There will be another tele-marathon next year, and again the year after that, until the new television station is completed.

This is a religion that's here for the marathon, not just the sprint.