José García’s tie is the first thing you notice when he walks into his church. Books of the Bible, the names on spines — John, Mark, Proverbs — are stacked on the tie’s brown fabric.
Soft-spoken with thin-rimmed glasses, he holds a Bible under his arm as he shakes the hand of every member of his congregation, no matter how many there are.
“God bless you, sister. God bless you, brother.”
García, a Guatemala native, has lived in the United States for 32 years, 12 of them in Chattanooga. He started his church, Iglesia de Dios Evangelio Completo de Santidad, on March 10, 2000, he said, with only his wife and two sons as members.
Today he rents the Olivet Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Boulevard, where his congregation of about 80 Latin-American immigrants, most from Guatemala and Mexico, gather for a two-hour service three times a week.
Guatemala has the highest per capita representation of evangelicals in Latin America and, as the Guatemalan immigrant community grows in the Scenic City, so does the number of churches.
Since the late ’90s, small Protestant Hispanic churches have spread like wildfire, said Mike Feely, a local pastor who works closely with the Hispanic community in the area. He estimates there are close to 100 congregations in the area, including several along Dodds Avenue and Rossville Boulevard.
“These churches are independent and adapt to change very quickly,” he said. “It gives you a place to belong.”
The percentages of Protestants in Guatemala vary widely, but the Roman Catholic Episcopal Conference of Guatemala in 2010 estimated that 65 percent to 70 percent of the population is Catholic. Alianza Evangelica, the official umbrella organization for Protestants in Guatemala, estimated that 35 percent to 40 percent of the population is Protestant, according to the U.S. Department of State.
What makes Guatemala different from the rest of Latin America?
Guatemala has a long history of Protestant missionaries coming from the United States, one that begins in the late 1800s and early 1900s, said Timothy Steigenga, chairman of social science and humanities at the Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University. He studies Guatemalan religion and politics.
The missionaries planted “the seed,” Chattanooga’s García said. “Now the majority of Hispanic pastors here are from Guatemala. What the United States sowed, the harvest is now coming here.”
And about 50 percent of [Guatemala’s population] is indigenous Mayan, said Steigenga. It is the only Central American country with such a large percentage. Many Mayans practice costumbres, a mixture of Catholicism and traditional Mayan religions, Steigenga said.
The high Mayan population and the missionaries combined with the religious underpinnings of a 36-year civil war that took place in Guatemala between 1960 and 1996, adding up to a country that is fertile ground for Pentecostalism, he said.
During the civil war, the Catholic church was accused of supporting the guerrillas, while Protestants were seen as being in favor of the military, all oversimplistic accusations, said Steigenga.
Protestant Erick Muñoz, once a Catholic, is the pastor of a massive interdenominational church in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. The church, now one of the biggest in the city, started in someone’s living room in 1984 and has grown to more than 3,000 members, he said. The worship area alone is more than 43,000 square feet.
“Many communities might not have running water, but they will have a church,” Muñoz said.
Despite the growth of Protestant denominations, Catholicism remains strong, especially in areas like Antigua, Guatemala, which hosts one of the largest celebrations for Lent and Holy Week in the world.
María Bennett travels from Guatemala City to Antigua, a three-hour bus ride, every year to help her family decorate the streets for the Holy Week processions.
“Even the ones who stopped talking to each other become friends again,” she said.
The Catholic Church is being revitalized, offering more activities and classes to its parishioners as a response to the growth of Protestant churches, she said.
The largest Protestant group is the Full Gospel Church, followed by the Assemblies of God, the Central American Church and the Prince of Peace Church, as well as many independent evangelical groups.
Source: U.S. Department of State
“There are even people who had converted to another religion and are now coming back,” she said.
HOLY WEEK AND LENT PROCESSIONS IN GUATEMALA
The night before a Lent procession in Antigua, Guatemala, chatter is heard on the streets around 8 p.m.
Families and neighbors get together to work all night on making the alfombras, or carpets, meticulously drawn patterns of colored sawdust, fruit, pine needles and bougainvillea petals, carnations and roses, laid in the middle of the streets.
They spend hundreds of dollars just on flowers, but it’s all worth it, the devout say, to give thanks to God.
Lent is 40 days long and begins on Ash Wednesday, in February or March.
People walk up and down the streets of Antigua as early as 3 a.m., and by 6 a.m., the whole city is awake. Entire families go street by street, taking pictures of the alfombras before the procession begins and the carpets disappear beneath hundreds of penitents who walk over them.
Processions re-enact Jesus Christ’s steps to the cross. The sound of a flute usually announces the beginning of the procession, with the music of an entire brass band following.
Cucuruchos, men dressed in purple peaked hoods, carry massive cedar wood floats with images of Christ and the cross. The floats can weigh up to 7,000 pounds, according to Elizabeth Bell, author of “Lent and Holy Week in Antigua.”
Antigua hosts the second largest celebration of Lent and Holy Week in the world, only smaller than Seville, Spain.
Usually 45 men on each side carry the float for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. The men have to go to their local church and buy their turn to carry the float.
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...