THE SOCIAL CONSCIOUSNESS AND INVOLVEMENT
OF THE FULL GOSPEL CHURCH OF GOD OF GUATEMALA
Richard E. Waldrop
The physical, social and spiritual needs of the people of Guatemala have been great in recent history, but especially within the past two decades has the socio-economic situation worsened drastically. There are, of course many factors which have had a deep and strong impact on the social context of Guatemala today. Here, it would be easy to generalize in an attempt to find a quick explanation of the current situation, especially in light of recent social and political developments. However, historical development and cultural traits are both elements which contribute heavily to the disposition of the people to advance socially and politically. To these, one must consider the purely physical factors of climate and geography which have a great influence over the way people think and relate to one another over long periods of time.
How has the Full Gospel Church of God met these challenges through the years and up until the present time? In this paper, we will attempt to answer the above question by way of a brief historical review with emphasis on the church's involvement, or lack thereof, in the social and political issues and needs of Guatemalan society. Again, this paper is brief due to the church's relatively recent and limited involvement in this area. There are a few examples of early social ministry, as we will see, but only in past two decades has the Full Gospel Church of God of Guatemala begun to develop a social consciousness with a view toward overt and concrete action related to what might traditionally be understood as Christian social responsibility.
Theological and Historical Antecedents
Although the Full Gospel Church of God of Guatemala has enjoyed a high degree of numerical growth and is one of the more prominent evangelical denominations of the country, there yet exists a great need to continue to develop a soundly biblical basis for social awareness and involvement. This would strengthen the sorely needed incarnational dimension to an otherwise reasonably healthy growth.(1) The recent phenomenal growth of the church gives us a broad base with which to work and provides a plurality of expression and practice open to investigation.
Theological understanding is foundational to a church's conception of the Christian mission and the particular role it must play within that mission. The Full Gospel Church of God is solidly Pentecostal and Evangelical entity and as such reflects as a number of basic presuppositions in its life and ministry. Certainly, priority has been given to evangelism and church planting while Christian education and social concern have by and large been addressed when the church has seen the need and the opportunity has arisen. The strong fundamentalist and dispensationalist theology implanted by the early pioneers with its escapist view of eschatology, caused the early church leaders to emphasize the immediate and personal aspects of salvation and the life hereafter. Recently, however, voices have been raised within the church decrying the lack of social involvement and calling for a new identification with the poor and oppressed. This has resulted in a new awareness and action in some sectors of the church.
Some of the failure to broadly accept social responsibility can be attributed to the fundamentalist milieu of the early pioneers of the movement, Charles T. Furman and Thomas A. Pullin. However, many of the North American missionaries who followed them were even more negligent in their social outreach than were the pioneers.
The ferment and division caused by the fundamentalist-liberal controversy in the United States of America which helped create the dichotomy between evangelism and the social transformation in the early part of the twentieth century(2) has had, and continues to have, a great influence in the life of the church in Guatemala. This has been an unfortunate development and an imposition from outside the Guatemalan church. Hopefully, the church is making some progress toward a more integrated understanding of its responsibility in and to the world. The early pioneers, however, were not totally devoid of outreach in the physical and social spheres. For example, Carrie Furman, wife of pioneer missionary Charles Furman, was an enthusiastic preacher and evangelist, one of whose most outstanding missionary projects was a primary school in the Department capital of El Quiché. The efforts met much opposition in the beginning from superstitious and anti-Protestant elements in the town but was later given endorsement by the governor of the Department and considered as one of the highest quality schools in the area. It was called La Esperanza, Hope School.(3) The most valiant efforts towards social amelioration, however, have been the result of the concern of Guatemalan pastors and church members who, because of a deep affinity and identification with the needs of the suffering and oppressed, have been able to make some positive steps. Indeed, the Pentecostal movement has been compromised of some of the poorest of the poor and has served in many ways as a social protest movement.(4) Several sociologist have also pointed out how the Pentecostal movement in general has served as a "refuge of the masses".(5) These points are all partly true of the Full Gospel Church of God of Guatemala, but do not give a definitive explanation. In this context it is somewhat difficult to speak of the need for social involvement and ministry to the poor and oppressed when the Pentecostal movement has been and continues to be, in many parts of the world, those very same people. Therefore, any social involvement Pentecostals may engage in will be the result of the participation of the poor in their own destiny.
The Pentecostal movement has historically emphasized divine healing and the supernatural in its life and ministry. People have been and continue to be healed of all kinds of diseases. Alcoholism, a great social problem, is dealt with in a practical way in the churches, and many people have found deliverance. The spontaneity of worship and expressive patterns in the Pentecostal church service fill many felt needs of the people, including the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual ones. This strong emphasis on this type of liberation constitutes a contextual approach to the Gospel, fitting well into the general world view of the Guatemalan people in general and attracting thousands of men and women to the saving message of Christ and to the Church.
As we re-read the early history of the Full Gospel Church of God of Guatemala, there is also an interesting case of what might be called civil disobedience. In the decade of the 1920s, Baltazar Chacaj, an early Indian convert and second pastor of the Chuicacá church, spent considerable time in jail because of his refusal to be pressed into forced labor on the construction of a railroad line sponsored by the government. While in jail he continued to preach the Gospel and one of his converts proved to be a useful worker in the emerging movement, founding a strong Indian congregation in the village of Chivarreto.
The majority of progress toward overt social involvement, however, has been made over the past twenty years. There have been several events and developments that have brought the church to where it is today in this important facet of its mission.
Racism and the Indian Church
Racism is an are of social concern in Guatemala which is slowly being approached and understood by the church. The marked racial distinction between ladino (of mixed Spanish and Indian descent) and indígena (of pure Indian descent and culture) has always been prominent in Guatemalan life. The church has mirrored this tendency and sometimes allowed it to develop to the extreme. The pattern has been one of prejudice and exploitation on the part of the ladinos and withdrawal, isolationism and latent or open rebellion on the part of the Indian community. Unfortunately, as of yet, few Indian pastors have been promoted to a position of natural leadership in the church, although the Full Gospel Church of God of Guatemala has its historical roots in the indigenous communities. The church has grown extensively among the Indian groups since its inception and today there exists a need to return to this emphasis on ethnic groups, especially among those who are receptive to the Gospel.
There has been very little attempt on the part of the foreign missionary personnel and even less on the part of the ladino church leaders to learn one of the several Indian languages or otherwise identify with Indian culture. This can be seen readily in the lack of Bibles and other study materials in the Indian tongues, although some assistance is being offered in this direction by the Summer Institute of Linguistics - Wycliffe Bible Translators organization. There have been no programs launched to reach the Indian community exclusively. There is, on the other hand, no lack of evangelical outreach to the Guatemalan ladinos. Why should the Indian groups be neglected when they have demonstrated amazing receptively to the Gospel, especially in recent years? For example, thousands of Kekchí tribe have been brought into the non-Pentecostal churches in the Verapaz region of the country. In general, the entire Indian population across the nation is open to the Gospel as never before.
Emergency and Relief Work
In 1976, Guatemala was devastated by one of the worst earthquakes of its history. Thousands of human lives were lost and millions of dollars worth property destroyed. The Full Gospel Church of God was hit hard by this natural disaster with two pastors and scores of members killed plus many thousands of dollars worth of damage done to churches and members' homes.
This major event, perhaps more than any other in the history of the Protestant movement in Guatemala, served to open the church's eyes to the urgency of relief and development work, and the whole field of social concern in general. In effect, as the church become a victim of natural disaster
the door was opened in order to become more involved to this new area of concern. In the Full Gospel Church of God, thousands of dollars, from outside and inside the country, were spent on emergency relief efforts representing a Christlike concern to reach out to those affected. This same concern continues on today in the national life of the church and in cooperation with other evangelical relief agencies.
Social Service and Community Development
Probably the most progress in the area of social involvement in the church has been in recent years in the field of community development. The Chuicacá congregation, for example, has served as a model for bootstrap community development involvement. Through the efforts of pastors and members, that small village has been transformed spiritually and socially. From a once poor, isolated farming community, Chuicacá has developed into a relatively prosperous, small business and farming township, largely through the efforts of the local church there. Certainly, the Indian sense of communal solidarity has been a very positive and decisive factor in this development. To that must be added the ingredient of biblical concern for the needs of one's neighbor, which being joined together have brought about social change. Formerly remote and inaccessible, new roads have been opened up into the village by the church people in order to encourage small business enterprises in markets around the country. Most recently, electric energy has been introduced into the community as a result of the concern of the church. As a result of this community development awareness there has been an increasing concern on the part of some members in the area of social justice and political violence. This will be dealt with in the following section.
During this recent 20 year period, other influences have been felt, which have advanced the cause of social service and community development. In 1979, the Projecto Evangélico de Servicio a la Comunidad (Evangelical Community Service Project) was founded under the auspices of the Bible institute (Guatemalan Center for Practical Theology), the principal theological institution of the Full Gospel Church of God of Guatemala. This organization has been responsible for a number of community service projects such as medical clinics, personal and community health campaigns, home improvement programs, children's feeding programs, and nursery facilities.
During that same year of 1979, the Guatemalan Center for Practical Theology conducted its first seminar on social involvement in conjunction with the Christian relief and development agency, World Vision of Guatemala. Also, the first formal course was offered in Christian Social Ministry by the Bible institute during the academic year of 1979. The course had previously been approved for inclusion into the theological curriculum by the National Theological Education Committee. The national administrative leadership of the church has also played a vital role in creating a social consciousness in the Full Gospel Church of God through their involvement in that field both personally and through speaking engagements throughout the church.
It was during this period that the Western Territorial Office of the Full Gospel Church of God, under the leadership of the Chilean expatriate overseer, José Minay, organized and established the first Social Action Committee in the history of the national church. Minay served as a catalyst for social awareness and involvement and did much to help the church emphasize that facet of its mission, even though he himself was a competent evangelist and church administrator. Under his leadership, the theme of integral mission and social service was addressed in the annual church conventions and business sessions. Talks on community development were included on the convention programs and speaking schedules in addition to the regular spiritual emphasis, Bible classes and sermons. Even more recently, a number of churches in Guatemala are beginning to open up evangelical primary schools for the Christian education of the children of the members as well as a means of outreach into the surrounding communities.
All of the above mentioned examples of social service and community development were initiated in the later part of the decade of the 70s, a decade in which the church enjoyed an accelerated rate of 217% numerical growth. This would tentatively indicate that numerical growth and social concern are not mutually incompatible areas of church life but rather part and parcel of the same mission. It should be interesting to observe the future relationship of these two areas and the influence that the one will have upon the other.
Violence, Politics, and Social Justice
With the Panzos massacre in 1978, in which over 120 Indian peasants died at the hands of the Guatemalan Army for demanding land rights, a new era was marked on the social and political scene. The guerilla movements renewed their long-standing fight against the military-oriented government while voices of protest were raised from the religious sector as well.(6) With this political intensification, the church has been forced to re-define her relationship to both the government and the dissenting groups. With the added challenge of two "evangelical" heads of state under the Rio Montt military government and the Serrano Elias elected government, the church was literally torn between taking a supportive position, on one hand, of the "powers that be" or in a few cases, speaking out against injustice and repression.
By and large, the Full Gospel Church of God, as well as most Christians in general, has always been respectful and supportive of the governmental authority. At times that attitude has placed the church on the side of the oppressive forces of injustice. At other times, the church has attempted to be supportive of the government in a general way, without endorsing the terrorist and inhuman tactics that have and continue to be employed by the armed forces. There has, however, arisen a basic questioning in some sectors of the church, mainly among the younger members who are secondary and university students, and by some of the Indian peasants in the countryside, of the validity of the government in power under God. Some of these church people have given tactical support to the guerilla movement in the more conflictive areas of the country, while a smaller number have joined the ranks of those actually fighting to overthrow the government. Under army repression, entire congregations have disappeared and some fifty pastors have been killed. Many others have been forcefully expelled from their homes. The guerrillas, of course, play the role of the liberators and are careful to present themselves in that light, usually avoiding, where possible, any direct or violent confrontation with the humble peasant and Indian people. In fact, it is quite difficult in many parts of the country to separate the guerrillas from Indian peasants.
Historically the unwritten position of the church is that its members should stay out of politics and concentrate on the "preaching of the Gospel." This is slowly changing, however, and the church is more and more accepting the fact that members are free to participate in the political process of the country, including that of belonging to a particular party or holding to a given political ideology, when these do not usurp one's loyalty to the church and to the Gospel. As a whole, the church would tend to take a more non-violent, peaceful stance against participation in civil strife, echoing the earlier
Pentecostal counter-cultural and pacifist tradition(7), although quite a few of the church's young men are regularly inducted into military service against their wishes.
The entrenchment of institutionalized violence on the part of the para-military and government forces, as well as the guerilla violence against the army and the rich, sadly has served to fuel the flames of numerical church growth and spiritual hunger which has benefitted the Full Gospel Church of God. Hopefully, it has also served to help the church to confront its social and political responsibility as well.
As we mentioned earlier, new voices are being raised and heard in the Full Gospel Church of God, and the call is going forth for the integration of spirituality, evangelism, education, and social transformation. We believe that the future will see a more holistic emphasis given to the life and mission of the church.
In a very powerful message to the delegates to the International Congress on World Evangelism, sponsored by the Church of God in Cleveland, Tennessee in the summer of 1983, José Minay called for a greater degree of social responsibility on the part of the entire worldwide movement, and a broader understanding of the difficult task facing the church in places like Guatemala.(8) We hope and believe that, given the social context of Guatemala and the new generation of leaders coming up in the church, God will continue to pour out his Spirit upon the long suffering people of Guatemala and give his church the insight to offer biblical and socially relevant solutions to the complex and pressing needs of the country.
1. See Orlando Costas' development of this idea of "missional incarnation" in Christ Outside the Gate: Mission Beyond Christendom, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1982) 47-48, and in "Dimsiones del crecimiento integral de la Iglesia", Misiòn: Revista Internacional de Orientaciòn Cristiana, 21:8-14.
2. Especially helpful has been Donald W. Dayton's treatment of this development and its implications for the Evangelical and Pentecostal church in Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (New York: Harper and Row, 1976) 121-141.
3. Pullin, In the Morning, pp 47-49.
4. See, for example, Bryan Wilson, Sociología de las sectas religiosas (San José, Costa Rica: Editorial Costa Rica, 1972) and Carmelo E. Alvarez, Santidad y compromiso (El riesgo de vivir el evangelio) (Mexico: Casa Unida de Publicaciones, 1985).
5. Robert Mapes Anderson, Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), Emilio Willems, Followers of the New Faith (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 1967), and Christian Lalive d'Epinay, El refugio de las masas, (Buenos Aires: Editorial La Aurora, 1972).
6. Carmelo Alvarex, People of Hope: The Protestant Movement in Central America (New York: Friendship Press, 1990) and Gordon Spykman, Guillermo Cook, Michael Dodson, Lance Grahn, Sidney Rooy, and John Stam, Let My People Live: Faith and Struggle in Central America (Grand Rapids, MI: William BG. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988).
7. Jay Beaman, Pentecostal Pacifism: The Origins, Development and Rejection of Pacific Belief Among the Pentecostals (Hillsboro, KS: Center for Mennonite Brethern Studies, 1989).
8. See the written version of Minay's address in "What the Bible Says about Social and Humanitarian Responsibilities of the Church" in the Conference Manual (Cleveland, TN: Church of God International Congress on World Evangelism, 1983).