The faithfully lost sheep of South America

It was my second time to the Americas, as they are called. First, I spent time in Colombia two years ago – a trip many told me I should not take because of the “drug lords”.


By Paul Okumu

It was my second time to the Americas, as they are called. First, I spent time in Colombia two years ago – a trip many told me I should not take because of the “drug lords”.

Then I spent time in Peru, a country so beautiful it has its own Mountain Rainbow, yet so unequal the airport is right inside a slum.

Depending on who you talk to, some are happy calling it South America. Others call it Latin America, while others get offended that there should be any other America when the United States and Canada are really a country of migrant Europeans who got rid of generations of occupants and called the new territories North America.

Not many of us know the rich history of South America. Certainly not many recall the Maya Empire, once among the largest empires in the world – with its power extending as far as China – but which today is relegated to a small territory known as Mongolia.

Nor do many of us recall that South America, with over 67 million blacks, is the continent with the highest black diaspora, courtesy of slave trade.

I reported about my surprise encounter in Bogota, Colombia. Located right inside a vast valley and spanning over 20 kilometres, this city is famous for one place and one place only: Monserrate Sanctuary. At over 3,100 metres above sea level, this massive Catholic shrine towers above the city, visible from whichever corner you view the city.

It was my first encounter with a Catholic shrine on a grand scale, and at such great heights. What I did not know is that these shrines are a fixture of every corner of South America – a symbol of Spanish triumph and a Roman Catholic dominance over this continent.

In Lima, The Christ of The Pacific Statue (36 metres), standing at just 1.2 metres shorter than a similar image known as Christ The Redeemer in Rio, is supposed to be a perpetual eye of Jesus over Lima and greater Peru. Once you leave the old city and get to the famous beaches of Miraflores, the statue follows your eyes wherever you look – not even night time is spared – because the massive lighting ensures this statue is visible even during the darkest of nights.

One does not therefore need to stay long in Southern America, or visit several countries across this vast continent, to see just why God is dead, literally, in South America.

And it did not take me long to realise why Christianity is dead and may never resurrect in this part of the world.

To begin with, Central America, or Southern or Latin, whatever your geography tells you, is perhaps one of the most beautiful continents on earth.

While the rest of the world has rivers and mountains and animals, it’s the vast Amazon and the pacific climate that make Central America a geographical marvel.

It begins from the tip – near Mexico – and curves all the way down to Argentina and Uruguay, and still moves all the way East to Brazil, which is much closer to Africa.

That produces winter in Mexico when it’s hot in Argentina, or even just down in Peru. It also produces spectacular rainbow-coloured mountains in Peru that appear as if they were painted by God.

The mountains are many and massive. The variety of animals is fascinating. We know the Illama, or the so-called wild versions of the lamb.

But as you move from the upper side to the other end of Central America, you get modified versions of the Illama, and they are known by different names even though someone from outside can hardly tell the difference.

Lima, where I spent a week recently, is a combination of an old city and a new life. It’s not the 3,000 varieties of potatoes here that make it stand out. It’s not even the old port that is located right next to the airport, and which is now one of the largest slums on that continent.

And it’s not the fascinating three sectors of Lima – San Isidros, Mela Flores and Puebro Libre – that make one feel like a journey through continents. No.

Once again, like all South American countries, it’s their devotion to Roman Catholic and the thousands of shrines that dot almost every corner of the country.

Saint Francisco, perhaps the most loved saint after Saint Paulo, is honoured by a massive two acre shrine right next to the presidential palace. Enter inside and every corner has smaller shrines, dedicated to yet more saints.

I was once a Roman Catholic, but I never knew that beneath these shrines are hundreds and sometimes thousands of what they call relics – bones, skulls – all those skeletons that will haunt you for life, but which in these shrines are revered and form an integral part of Roman Catholic worship.

And at Saint Francisco Shrine (or church if you like), these bones are covered by nothing more than transparent glass, with open spaces to allow for intimacy with many of the saints whose bones are kept here.

To understand how South America got such a dark form of Roman Catholicism, you only need to go to the Lima Square and hear the tales of how it came to be an open space.

The square itself, and all the buildings around it, are protected Unesco world heritage sites, so they have remained intact for generations. Here, Spain opened its vast slaughter ground for anyone who refused to convert to Roman Catholic.

The rule was simple: once your army surrendered, all your citizens had to convert. Those who declined were taken to the open square where they were butchered by all means necessary until they were dead – very dead!

And so as Spain spread its wings, so did Roman Catholicism. In the end, all non-Catholics were dead, and so the continent shifted, except for one simple catch that makes this continent difficult to spread Christianity.

In order to rule these people, all they needed was to confess their new faith, without having to denounce any of their cultures. So these cultures simply became part of the Roman Catholic faith.

That is why South America has such vast arrays of Roman Catholic that it’s hard to know which one actually came from Spain, and which one is a mix of culture and faith.

On the day I arrived at the big square in Lima – on the 28th – a queue of over 10,000 faithful had snaked its way round the old city, with everyone waiting for their turn to enter San Francisco for the monthly “Blessing of the 28th of the Month”. If you are a tourist, no worry – you get to skip the queue since you have no offering and no prayer to make.

This beautiful continent is perhaps the most unfortunate.

Because they are nearly 98 per cent Roman Catholic, they strongly believe they are no worse Christians than all those going there to “evangelise”. And so they see no need for a new kind of faith.

And because nearly every television screen and every moment of their lives is filled with some Roman Catholic rituals, these people believe they are the most faithful.

Faithful…but lost!

Perhaps God wants us to begin looking beyond Europe and America, and take the gospel to these faithfully lost sheep of South America.