Wealth gospel propels poor Guatemalans
'Prosperity theology' is empowering people to help themselves out of poverty.
Doris Cuxun will never forget the words that shook her out of a daze one Sunday morning during a service at Showers of Grace, a Neo-Pentecostal megachurch here. "Who here wants to own your own business? Lift your hand!" the pastor hollered.Skip to next paragraph
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"I want to, I want to," she whispered amid the dancing and chanting.
"Me? My own beauty parlor?" she thought to herself giddily, incredulously. Could a woman who had grown up in a house made of wood and tin sheeting somehow build a successful business?
A year later, her answer is clear. "God opened the door for me," she says unequivocally while rolling pastel pink paint on the walls of her new salon located next to one of the most upscale malls in Guatemala City.
Like so many here, Ms. Cuxun was born Roman Catholic. Like so many today, she converted to Pentecostalism, a Protestant Christ-ian faith that is sweeping the religious landscape worldwide.
Just half a century ago, if you were born in Latin America, it was assumed you were Catholic. Today, more than 13 percent of the region's people are Pentecostal, according to the World Christian Database. Of all the countries in the region, none has a higher percentage of Pentecostals than Guatemala. According to a 2006 study by the Washington-based Pew Research Center, 20 percent of Guatemalans are now Pentecostal out of a population that's estimated at 30 percent Protestant.
The first Protestant missionaries came here at the end of the 19th century, but Pentecostal growth did not accelerate until decades later. After the country's devastating earthquake in 1976, American missionaries flocked here, says Paul Freston, an expert on the spread of Pentecostalism in Latin America at Calvin College in Michigan.
Early Pentecostals reached out to the poor with the idea that poverty on earth would lead to riches in heaven. They gained a reputation for being concerned only with the "otherwordly." But the movement has unabashedly adopted a new ethos: God doesn't want anyone to be poor.
This message, known as "prosperity theology" or "health and wealth gospel," is most often associated with the newer Neo-Pentecostal branches of the religion where adherents, mostly upper and middle class, fill massive megachurches. But in Guatemala even the more traditional denominations are adopting a message of social mobility, making the words "self-improvement" and "ascent" part of the daily lexicon.
In churches like Showers of Grace, Pentecostals are told that poverty does not equal humility. They are offered business classes, taught how to save money, and encouraged to be community leaders.
They believe they are among the most important agents of social change, helping to bridge a divide between rich and poor, a task they say the government all too often has been unable or unwilling to undertake. Cuxun says that Pentecostalism has brought her out of poverty, and for that the government must give thanks.
"Our purpose is to bring people with few resources to different levels," says Nestor Mendez, a pastor of Showers of Grace, whose desk is cluttered with books such as "First Time Manager," and "Let Your Dreams Soar." "I believe we can change not only their lives but the country."
At a recent service at Showers of Grace, whose members are mostly poor, men dress in jeans but carefully slick their hair back. Women, some in indigenous dress, clutch their skirts as they spin around in a dance. They all sing and clap to an eight-piece rock band, working into a frenzy of "hallelujahs." And then they sit down to listen to a sermon on the importance of using their God-given talents. "God says this is a principle from the kingdom of heaven," says the pastor, "that we have to put to work the talents that God has given to us. It implies that each of us has some capacity. And if we put to work those capacities – our way of being, our capital, what we are – they are going to multiply themselves."