Church Hopping (And Trying Not To Fall) In Southern Mexico

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“Who here wants joy?” the pastor asked with outstretched arms.

His congregation shot up their weathered hands. Exchanging anxious looks, my wife and I realized we were on a collision course with an altar call.

We were in a poor, rural village on the outskirts of Oaxaca City, attending a Pentecostal service at a freshly painted, open-air warehouse.

“¡Venga!” the pastor shouted. ("Come!") His congregants poured out of their seats in tears, some shuddering as they shuffled their way toward the altar, ready to receive his blessing.

Sweeping down from the stage, he began praying in tongues and pushing on the foreheads of congregants gathered before him. They fell over quickly, some looking as if they were in pain, into the hands of volunteers. God seemed to be working a little like iodine––first the hurt, then the healing––and soon, the sanctuary was scattered with comatose worshipers, divinely napping on the concrete floor. 

Then, the pastor moved toward us—he was serious, brow furrowed, on a mission. His short build and dark complexion suggested indigenous roots, perhaps Mixtec or Zapotec. His movements switched rapidly from serene to jerky, as if he were being periodically stung by bees. He continued moving closer, and my wife squeezed my arm to signal her discomfort.

But perhaps he could see the cynicism in our eyes. Perhaps he knew we were not the type of Christians prone to falling over. He glanced at us, smiled a knowing smile, and moved back to the stage, flailing his hands and knocking people over remotely.

When he was done, Kathryn and I were some of the only people still standing. It felt like we had a giant, flashing billboard above our heads reading: GRINGOS, IMPERVIOUS TO THE HOLY SPIRIT, QUESTIONABLY CHRISTIAN.

We sat back down, waiting patiently for our hosts to recover from their spiritual slumber. After they regained consciousness, we exchanged some awkward smiles and nods, and drove home in relative silence.

Left to my own thoughts in the car, I marveled at the forces of globalization and mish-mashed ideology that had converged in that warehouse. The pastor had preached in Spanish (a language imported by Europeans), referenced a text translated from ancient Hebrew thousands of years before, and spoke in a Pentecostal style rooted in 20th-century California. 

I’ve been warming pews all my life. But not the normal, by-the-book kind of pews. I’ve grown up in churches on the periphery, the ones that, at times, have been almost indistinguishable from Grateful Dead concerts.
It might be my parents’ fault. They started me out in the rock-and-roll Jesus crowd, sending me off to school in a barn where spiritual warfare was taught with the same enthusiasm as arithmetic. More than once I tried to walk on swimming pool water, enacting the kind of faith that says such things are possible.

Now, tiptoeing into my adult life, I find myself somewhere left of the evangelical center. I talk a lot about social justice. I cringe at the kind of Christianity one finds at Wal-Mart––the kind you can buy on bumper stickers and bracelets.

And yet I am a Christian, one of those easy targets who believes ancient Hebrew texts still have a lot to say about our modern lives, and perhaps even a thing or two about Oaxaca, Mexico, my home for the semester.

For the last few weeks my wife and I have been trying to connect with those Oaxaqueños whose worldviews have the same ecclesiastical center as ours. Mexico is roughly 80-percent Catholic, but Protestant faiths (particularly the Pentecostal strains of our childhood) are growing rapidly. Yet we still have not found a place that feels like home.

The next week, we discovered a church right down the street from our apartment. Painted in bright blues and yellows, it looked small from the street, but once inside, we saw a massive auditorium. The size helped us feel a little less conspicuous, and we decided to sit off to the side, out of the pastor’s direct line of sight.

As we sat down, we were rushed by a very sincere, friendly man. He asked me about myself. In broken Spanish, I described my home and my studies in Oaxaca. When I finished, he repeated everything I said but insisted he had heard it all from God when I walked in the door. I could feel my wife rolling her eyes next to me.
The service was led by 10 prophets and a large team of musicians––two guitar players, a drummer, a percussionist, a bass player, and six back-up singers, all crammed onto the stage. They were loud and lively, and halfway through their set they were overrun by members of the church whose enthusiasm for the Lord carried them into something of a congenial mosh pit at stage left.

Before long, an altar call brought much of the congregation to the front of the stage, where the outstretched hands of the prophets seemed to gravitate toward their foreheads––a little push and down they went.

Then, someone grabbed a microphone and announced in Spanish: “Will the two Americans please come up for a blessing from the Lord.”

Damn. We looked at each other, locked hands, and obediently approached the stage, settling into a dark corner to the left. Instantly, we were surrounded by prophets. Six or seven pressed their small, warm hands against us.

We leaned shoulder to shoulder for support and Kathryn translated their prayers: God loves us and is happy we’re married; it’s all part of a larger plan that will culminate in some kind of world-changing event; we just need to be obedient. I was perfectly still, wondering what it would feel like to fall over and what would happen once I was knocked out.

But our legs were too stable. Or perhaps our minds were too cynical. We stood there, received their blessing, and returned to our seats.

Nothing is pure––beliefs, languages, traditions. The churches we discovered here are complicated fusions of authenticity and eccentricity, reflecting the fact that those of us who truly believe in Jesus are, by default, a little crazy.

Later, as we walked the four blocks home, I asked my wife, “Do you feel any different?”

“I feel exhausted,” she said, always one for honesty.

“Do you think God wanted to knock us over today?” I asked.

“I think God wants us to go home and take a nap.”
We arrived home and collapsed on our bed into a sacred siesta. God granted us rest in Oaxaca not on the concrete floor of a church, but with each other, at home, the breeze pouring through the window like a hymn, the sleep nothing short of divine.


Posted on 4/29/2009 by

Cody Adkinson

Very nice write up. I lived and studied in Costa Rica for four months and have traveled throughout Nicaragua, Panama, and El Salvador. I can relate with your story in so many ways. Every service my friend and I went to they would call the gringos up to say something special to us (never did fall down either). We did feel like celebrities though. The faith of those people that I met in those Central American churches have taught me things about my faith and my image of God.

Posted on 7/10/2009 by

Brittany Peterson

Brittany Peterson

Sounds a lot like my experience in Argentina. The people all around seemed really joyful or faithful or something, but it's kinda like the "cry night" alter calls from middle school youth retreats. It seems all novel, enticing, and the proper way to experience God since that's what all the other faithful people were doing, but then you get to a time where you recognize that you can sometimes experience God in a much more profound manner by sitting silently in the back of the pews, or outside in the fresh air. Away from distracting expectations of a certain way in which the Spirit can manifest. Yet somehow, secretly praying that God will give you enough faith to let him knock you over. When you find yourself praying this, stop, and tell God that you believe that he could knock you down if he wants, but even more so, you believe that he can comfort the suffering, and may he work in that profound manner to bless many rather than in this little act that would prove to the church that you're submitting to God.

Posted on 10/23/2009 by

Nse Umoh

Nse  Umoh

Fabulous article! Really well written & explores an experience that I'm finding is rather universal. I'm experiencing it here in Lagos, Nigeria & I've experienced it in Providence, RI. Nothing & nowhere is pure.

Posted on 11/03/2009 by

Lilia Cornelio

Lilia Cornelio

I love reading your article. I feel your pain. I'm a Roman Catholic living in the Philippines and I have seen and experienced a lot of these "suddenly overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit I'm about to swoon" kind of things. One time, I unknowingly became a forced participant in one of my own church's masses. After I was "blessed", the priest forced my eyes to close and pushed me down. To others it would look like I was swooning. I really didn't know what to do. I mean, should I stand up? Should I stay down? Should I laugh? Should I control myself? Anyway, after that I stopped attending any kind of church functions. It's not that I don't believe in God, but I do not want to believe in something that is fake. I said to myself, "I'll find my own God, thank you very much." Thank you for sharing your experience. I'm not the only one who feels like that after all.

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