In Colombia, women use new faith to gain equality

Pentecostal women are demanding more of their husbands and themselves as they move beyond civil war.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Adelina Zuñiga, a farmer's wife, said nothing when her husband called her worthless. Even after she became a Pentecostal – and prayed that he would stop drinking and sleeping around – she didn't object when he forced her to go dancing, though he knew secular dancing is against her beliefs. She was uneducated and dependent and she let him.

But not anymore. Today, she is the head pastor of the Remanso de Paz church and a point of reference for other peasants in her community who have been displaced by Colombia's decades-long armed conflict.

"We have to end this discrimination against women," she tells a group of women gathered in the palm-covered pavilion before a recent Wednesday night Bible class. "If I have an obligation to fix breakfast for my children in the morning, my husband has the exact same obligation."

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In a country where machismo surfaces at all levels of interaction, Ms. Zuñiga attributes her personal transformation entirely to her Pentecostal convictions, which taught her that she is equal in her home, and later put her in a position to be a church leader and a community organizer for the tens of thousands of rural poor who have flocked to this city after fighting between leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries pushed them off their land.

Pentecostalism is often characterized by its socially conservative stances. But in Latin America – particularly in the poor areas where the movement grows fastest – religious conversion has brought a sense of liberation to women. It's a freedom based on biblical interpretations and moral codes, and that is empowering them in their homes, churches, and beyond. Pentecostal converts aren't necessarily any more effective at breaking down gender barriers than other women, but observers say their shift in mentality is giving them a tool to improve their own lives.

The trend is perhaps most dramatic in conflict-ridden areas of Colombia where whole villages have had to flee burned homes, land mines, and massacres. Of those displaced, women are overwhelmingly the victims and the survivors.

Here in Sincelejo, the population has ballooned by a third since 1995 as displaced people fill the shantytowns along the fringes of the city. And Pentecostal women, such as Zuñiga, are pursuing peace and justice.

"Pentecostal women have not been left behind; they have had to respond and carry the tragedy on their shoulders," says Ricardo Esquivia, a well-known activist in Sincelejo who collaborates with different religious groups working toward peace. "It is an example of how the [Pentecostal] churches can change and how they can impact the rest of the country."

Colombia is widely considered the most conservative "Catholic" country in the region. Separation of the Roman Catholic Church and the state was not mandated by the Constitution until 1991, and, according to the US State Department, the Catholic Church still "retains a de facto privileged status."

The Pentecostal movement has been slower to take root here than in Brazil or Guatemala, but Protestants now make up 12 percent of the population and the number of Pentecostals is growing rapidly, according to the Colombia Evangelical Council (CEDECOL).

Women fill the pews

Pentecostals throughout Latin America have been effective at reaching out to the region's poor, those most in need of solutions that conversion promises to provide, and women are no small part of that, making up the majority of membership from the smallest store-front houses of worship to the biggest megachurches.

This is particularly true when they are marginalized. And Colombia's conflict has produced more internally displaced people than any nation in the world after Sudan, according to the Washington-based group Refugees International.

Forty-eight percent of displaced households are headed by women, and widows outnumber widowers 6 to 1, according to a new report by Refugees International. Many are also single mothers whose husbands had to relocate for safety or left them under the stresses of the conflict. Many have been abused or raped, and almost all at one point have been terrorized by violence inflicted by both sides of the conflict.

In Sincelejo, which, according to Mayor Jaime Merlano Fernandez, has received the third-largest number of displaced in the country, many have no idea what to do when they arrive. They look to their churches, or join new ones, for orientation.

The churches become zones of empowerment. Unlike the Catholic Church, where most faithful attend mass once a week, most Pentecostals take on a rigorous schedule that includes services several times a week, Bible studies, and committee meetings – all of which lend space to talk about problems.

"In general, in the Catholic Church, there are not a whole lot of places where people want to listen to your sob stories. But evangelical churches are all about that," says John Burdick, an anthropologist at Syracuse (N.Y.) University. "It's all domestic issues all the time."

The neatly swept dirt floor of the Remanso de Paz church was a garbage dump when Zuñiga and her family arrived in Sincelejo seven years ago, after one of the country's worst massacres hit her hometown. They cleared the debris bottle by bottle, and founded a congregation that today is almost entirely composed of the displaced. The church has become the community's meeting point. People stream in all day, every day. They come for training. For advice. For bus fare. Or just simply to talk.

"This community of women helps me get rid of my pain each time I come here," says Bienvenida Vuelva, whose adult son was killed as a result of fighting in 2003. She converted to Pentecostalism after being displaced; her husband and other children have not. "For me, the party has ended; this is what I have now."

Getting husbands to shape up

But Pentecostal churches are more than just support networks for women. Elizabeth Brusco, an anthropologist at Pacific Lutheran University in Washington State, published a pioneering book called the "The Reformation of Machismo: Evangelical Conversion and Gender in Colombia" in the mid-1990s, arguing that the strict moral code of Pentecostalism redirects a man's priorities to the domestic sphere, which in turn boosts women's status. When they no longer drink or cheat, the couple's goals align, which forms a type of "strategic women's movement."

"In and of itself, it is a transformative social movement," Ms. Brusco says.

Women are also able to hold prominent roles within the church. Unlike in the Catholic Church, women can serve as copastors with their husbands or even as head pastor, as in Zuñiga's case. It's the first time many women say they have ever held leadership positions or even felt comfortable talking in public.

Religious ideology is often viewed with suspicion by feminists, who see it as a way to institutionalize patriarchy. But Jasper Rodriguez, Zuñiga's husband, who has a dazzling smile and a flirt's ease with compliments, says he is proof that the faith can help fight against machismo, and all its chronic problems.

"In the Afro-Colombian culture, men like to exert control," says Mr. Rodriguez, who converted eight years after his wife.

He stopped drinking, smoking, dancing, and seeing other women. Above all, he says he learned to defer to her more often because the Bible states that men and women are equal before God. "I had to learn, through being Christ-centric, that I have to respect her wishes. Now we have the same goals."

"Now he is the husband of the pastor," says Zuñiga, winking.

Many couples say that both their relationships at home and their roles in the church helped them to transition in Sincelejo when they suddenly found themselves in the midst of extraordinary role reversal.

Role reversals

Before, men in the countryside were the ones with the money and authority. But most aren't trained for anything but farming, so here in the city they rely on the woman's knowledge of cooking, sewing, or cleaning to make ends meet. It has been an emasculating experience for many, and in many cases led to abuse, drinking, and abandonment.

"My husband had to go back [to the countryside] because he couldn't find work. Now I am the one who works," says Marelis Padilla, a member of Zuñiga's church, during a recent fast in a closed room on the church grounds. It has been tough, but she relies on the teachings of the Bible. "We understand the role of men and women as equal," she says. "I would not have assimilated as well without it. There would be many more fights."

Many scholars say that the liberation ends there, that women's empowerment has not led to the type of Western feminism that has demanded equal access in the workplace or society. But in war-torn areas of Colombia, where people have to struggle to survive, women say the confidence that they have derived from their faith has put them in a position to take on roles outside the home and church.

Pentecostals have often been criticized for being insular, focusing on spirituality without taking participatory roles in government and secular life that they see as corrupt, says Hector Pardo, a pastor in Bogotá and past president of the Colombia Evangelical Council. "We closed our eyes to the world," he says.

Far too many still do, says Zuñiga. But when she opened her church, she realized immediately that focusing on the spiritual was not enough. They joined the efforts of international aid groups and other churches, such as the Catholic Church, which has taken a lead in humanitarian efforts for the displaced. "We stopped just praying the word of God," says Zuñiga. "If someone needed food, we couldn't just pray for them; we had to give them food. That is what we learned."

Responding to people's needs

Remanso de Paz church quickly opened a social services agency across the street in a small, square cement storefront. Its focus is training the displaced – in conjunction with the government – to do everything from planting vegetables in small pots to crocheting and assembling computer hardware.

Now Zuñiga is forming an artisans' group to help boost employment. Men will participate, but only the women will serve on the board of directors.

The church also belongs to a network under Justapaz, a ministry of the Mennonite Church in Colombia, which promotes training programs and nonviolent justice, such as documenting atrocities. The ministry named Remanso de Paz a "Sanctuary of Peace" for its commitment to peaceful reconciliation.

And as women have moved beyond the immediate emergency responses, they have found themselves reflecting on gender in a way they never had before.

Many are members of the National Ecumenical Network of Women for Peace, a tiny not-for-profit established in 2000 at the height of the crisis in this part of the country. There they attend workshops on truth and reconciliation and the need to forgive, how to organize, and how to start small businesses.

Moving beyond victimhood

"At first the Pentecostals saw being displaced as God's will," says Ana Mercedes Pereira, who heads the non-profit. During a recent retreat in Tolu, on the Atlantic Coast, a group of 15 women from different religious affiliations participated in a seminar on how to assume political and public roles. "Now they see that God is there, but they have to play a role, too. We make it very clear that they have to move away from seeing themselves as victims."

Now Zuñiga, who had two years of elementary school education when she was displaced, has begun applying biblical equality beyond church walls.

Now, the mother of five has heart-to-hearts with her 11-year-old daughter. "I say to her, 'How great would it be if when you got married you already had your own home? You could invest your money, and if you have any problems with him, you have somewhere to go.' "

"Crisis gave us the opportunity to apply the equality that we already believed in," she says.

But it hasn't been an easy road.

Zuñiga has been criticized by other pastors who question her sermons dedicated to female equality. Some church members refused to accept a woman at the helm and left her congregation.

Mr. Pardo says the debate about whether women should be head pastors rages on. He himself is undecided.

"The topic of gender is hard in the church because many women believe you still have to ask men permission. I work to change their points of view," Zuñiga says. "Some in the church didn't like it when I started talking about women."

Resistance to change

Even in her own home, her new perspective and activist schedule causes friction. "Sometimes she doesn't make me food all day," says Rodriguez. "She says, 'I had to go to this meeting. I had to go to Bogotá.' She doesn't remember she has a husband."

Still, he says he accepts it. "I don't want her [to stop what she's doing now]. I don't have that privilege anymore," he says. "We are helping the community." Pentecostalism gives him the privilege, however, of a different viewpoint – one he says he probably wouldn't otherwise be strong enough to hold. "If I weren't a [Pentecostal], I would have separated from her long ago."

Women here speak almost incredulously of the changes that have taken place in their own marriages and partnerships.

Most still dream of returning to the fertile fields where life is determined less by rent and grocery bills and more by the sun and the seasons.

Zuñiga is one of them. "I always imagine returning to our land," she says reflectively. But she says she will not return until there is justice for the victims who have lost so much. "That day it is going to be even richer. We will return to the same land, but with much more knowledge."

And then adds under her breath, "Our husbands will be a lot better, too," and lets out a belly laugh.

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