By Corinne Winter
Cuban American theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz asserts that Latin American women’s theology comes from the experience of “la lucha,” the struggle of everyday life. It is in that struggle, she says, that the women and men find God. Her description comes quickly to mind as I reflect on my recent visit to Cuenca, Ecuador. As I sit down to write about the visit, I have a strong sense of my own limitations. The reflections that I offer must be recognized as the responses of an outsider with some background from reading, but with very little time in Ecuador, and very limited Spanish.
First of all, expressions of faith were everywhere. Natives of Cuenca affirmed that religious participation is strong there — perhaps stronger than it is even in other parts of Ecuador. In just the central part of the city where I was able to walk, there were more than a half-dozen Catholic churches and I seldom saw one in which there seemed to be no activity. In front of the cathedral, no fewer than six vendors offered candles, rosaries, prayer leaflets and small statues. And the vendors almost always had patrons. Inside the churches, candles burned on metal tables before various altars, and I always saw people at prayer, a few even singing quietly. At one church, a side door led to a picture of Christ titled “Lord of Justice.” Around the picture, the walls were crowded with signs expressing gratitude for prayers answered. On Sunday, Mass was crowded — standing room only — and the participation was wonderful to see. There were musicians, readers and eucharistic ministers of all ages. Everyone sang along, and few seemed to need books in order to do so.
When I spoke to a young college student, a talented musician who lived in the city, he told me that he and his friends didn’t find a lot of time any more to play at local establishments in the evenings, but that he played weekly at church. It seemed, from my limited perspective, that many people found faith to be an important part of their daily lives, lives that, like human lives throughout the world, are surely marked by struggles with relationships, with health, with finances.
The Catholic Church is actively concerned about the life-struggles of the people. I had a chance to visit with Father Marco Martinez, the director of Pastoral Social, the diocesan office that coordinates social involvement. As I spoke with him, I was struck by his enthusiasm and his deep convictions about the needs of the people and the nation and the mission of the church in response to those needs. The diocese has programs to assist families struggling with separation because a member of the family has gone to another country in hopes of earning more money to send home. Sometimes those hopes are realized, and sometimes they are not. Sometimes families are left with overwhelming debt and fewer adults to help pay the bills and care for the children.
The diocese tries to support families in their relations with one another and help them obtain reasonable loans so they can keep their homes. Pastoral Social also coordinates efforts to help abused women and children and to develop Catholic communications, and is currently developing projects to promote the protection of clean water in the country. As an example of the way in which the work of the Pastoral Social is animated by prayer, Fr. Martinez gave me a copy of a Christmas Novena in which nine days of prayer are directed to the realization of the principles of Catholic Social Teaching.
Are the Catholics of Ecuador very different from us? Are they more devoted, more fervent, more active?
More likely, the opportunity to concentrate on seeing signs of faith in action while being separated from my desk here at school made me see things there that I sometimes miss here. And the differences in cultural expression also drew my attention.
But that doesn’t make the thoughts less valuable. As we experience our own struggles every day, and as we read and hear the news of struggle and suffering throughout the world, we must resist discouragement. We must continue to bring the struggles to prayer without expecting immediate resolutions. And we must know ourselves as members of the church to be instruments though whom God will be present with others in their struggles.
(Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)