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A theology rooted in balance.

PALENQUE, MEXICO In the Mayan tradition, when the world was new, men and women sprang from the corn plant, the source of sustenance even today for original peoples throughout Mexico and Central America.

In the Andes Mountains, the god Viracocha emerged from Lake Titicaca onto the high plain where Quechua and Aymara farmers still cultivate dozens of the varieties of potatoes that their forebears knew. So important is the potato to survival, and so central to ritual, that the late Fr. Domingo Llanque, an Aymara theologian, once called it "the face of God."

Throughout Latin America, native peoples have woven legends and livelihoods into a spiritual and cultural identity that helped sustain them in the face of colonization, annihilation, urbanization and other outside pressures. Now, they say that spirituality, rooted in equilibrium with the natural world, can help a Western society that is seriously out of balance.

"For thousands of years, we have preserved the life of Mother Earth, the Pachamama, without harming, exploiting or selling her," said Vicenta Mamani, an Aymara woman from La Paz, Bolivia, who is also a Methodist theologian.

"The indigenous worldview teaches us that the Pachamama is our mother," Mamani said. "We are her children. We are also brothers and sisters of Nature. We are part of Nature; we do not own her. She is our big house, our nest of gold and silver. In her, we live as one large family--indigenous people, black people, white people, everyone. But we don't always care for that big house."

Mamani is part of an ecumenical indigenous theology movement that extends from Mexico through Central and South America, exploring and celebrating indigenous people's experience of God in everyday life and the world around them.

The movement emerged in the 1990s "with the awareness that indigenous peoples have our own theology, our own faith," Mamani said. While members of church hierarchies sometimes view the movement with suspicion, it includes Catholic priests and sisters, Protestant ministers, academics and laypeople.

There are continental encounters every four years and more frequent national or regional gatherings, but the most important theological work grows out of the experience of God in daily life and work, according to Ernestina Lopez Bac of the Guatemalan Conference of Bishops' National Indigenous Ministry Commission.

"We draw on the way God speaks and lives in our people," Lopez Bac said. "We don't [do theology] by asking questions, such as, 'Who is God for the people?' We participate in their celebrations, their rituals, their everyday activities. They start their day with God. They walk throughout the day with God. They work with God. People experience God all day long, in all their activities."

While most indigenous cultures stress reciprocity and complementarity between the sexes, women play a special role in keeping the flame of indigenous spirituality alight.

"It is the women who have safeguarded the culinary traditions, language, oral tradition, stories and mythology, traditional dress and music, and who have nurtured seeds, the environment and the relationship with Mother Earth," Mamani said.

That has become especially important with the relentless northward march of indigenous men from the Mayan regions of Mexico and Central America in search of jobs. Migration has struck such a blow at indigenous communities that it served as the theme for one indigenous spirituality conference.

Migration and uprootedness are part of Mayan history and mythology, says Holy Family Sr. Albina Gaspar, a Q'anjob'al Maya woman from Huehuetenango, Guatemala. Her ancestors migrated from what is now Mexico, in search of a better life, or what the Paraguayan Guarani people call the "land without evil."

"It's all connected," Gaspar said, "because life is sacred--life is a gift from God, and God's plan is not being fulfilled. There is no harmony. Families are disintegrating. The father must leave because there is no work, there is no food. People are in great need. Theology sheds light on the migration that our peoples continue to experience."

The breakdown of families and communities is a sign that the world is out of balance. The Mayan worldview, like that of most indigenous peoples, is rooted in equilibrium and harmony--a lesson the Western world would do well to learn, indigenous theologians say.

As Gaspar puts it, "God wants a new dawn for all people."

Indigenous theology itself was an awakening for Micaela Mendez Vasquez, 32, a Chol woman who is a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity in Palenque, Mexico.

"In this area, there were many large estates," Mendez said of her native Chiapas state. The landowners "took away our language and insisted that we learn Spanish. Over time, people began to lose their language, their identity, their traditional dress."

Mendez grew up in a Chol village, but by the time she was a teenager, she was feeling pulled away from her roots.

"At that age, when you go to the city, you face major challenges," she said. Mestizos, or mixed-race Mexicans, often look down on indigenous villagers. She wanted to change her identity or "hide who I was, and never admit that my parents were indigenous."

But those were the years when Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia was working to build a church with an "autochthonous" face--an indigenous face--in the San Cristobal de las Casas diocese. Mendez worked with women and catechists in villages, and gradually felt called to religious life.

With that call came a return to her roots, especially because the Franciscan sisters work mainly in the region's remote indigenous communities.

"I realized that I was rich, because I knew the language, I knew the culture," Mendez said. "I realized that is who I am."

Now she participates actively in the Mayan indigenous theology movement in Chiapas and encourages young people to rediscover their identity as she rediscovered hers.

"We are recovering our indigenous roots, our identity, rites, myths, sacred drinks. We are going back to the caves," the hearts of the hills that are her people's holiest places, "places of prayer and silence," places of refuge in times of violence, and places where there is water, the fount of life for subsistence farmers.

In rituals, the interweaving of the indigenous and the Catholic is unmistakable. Crops on the plot of land behind the sisters' house did poorly the first time they planted, but produced abundantly after indigenous elders "planted" a wooden cross in the field.

With its arms outstretched, the cross is a protector, Mendez said. "It will call on God, it will intercede."

The Mayan worldview is also based on a cross, which extends toward the four cardinal points. Its colors--red, for the fire and blood of life; black, for darkness and rest; white, for wisdom and communion with those who have gone before; and yellow, for the fruits of the harvest--are vivid reminders of the sources of life.

Two additional points--in green and blue--represent the earth and the sky, and are reflected in the Mayan invocation to God, "Heart of the earth, heart of the heavens."

It is this communion with the Earth, the heavens, the heart of the universe that sets indigenous theology apart, proponents say.

"Western theology is more from books," says Lopez Bac. "That's not bad; it's just different. Our theology is a theology of life, with life and for life."
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Title Annotation:SPIRITUALITY
Author:Fraser, Barbara
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Jul 22, 2011
Words:1210
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