A MATTER OF JOURNEYING – Some Challenges for the Church from Indigenous Peoples

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Pope Francis’ call for a “pan-Amazonian synod” fills us with joy. The word “synod” comes from a root meaning “journeying together.” And although we need the help of experts to guide us, it is important for all of us Christians to contribute what we can: our searching, our efforts, our errors and our successes in following Jesus, here, in the pan-Amazon. We believe it is necessary for as many people and institutions as possible to offer their knowledge, knowledge that springs from the heart, in the indigenous way of thinking. This gives us the courage to set down on paper some of the issues we would like to share. We do this with a dual purpose: first, because sharing ideas forces one to think about what is being shared, and second, to listen to others who want to contribute.

Journeying is a beloved metaphor for many Amazonian peoples. We will limit ourselves to the Kukama people, with whom we have journeyed together during part of our lives. The Kukama are a Tupí-Guaraní people who live in the lower reaches of the Ucayali, Marañón and Huallaga rivers, as well as on the periphery of Amazonian cities in Peru. We have accompanied the Kukama people on the Marañón River in Peru.

When a child is born, they say, “he is arriving” and “he arrived.” Similarly, when death nears, people experience it as a journey. When a person is dying, what actually happens, from the Kukama point of view, is that she takes leave of her relatives on earth and her deceased relatives come to take her to live with them. It is like changing families: from the relatives living on earth to the ones who are beyond death. If a person travels far away and falls out of touch, it is a form of social death, because he has ended his social relationships with those he knew. His name will never again be spoken in public. Usually, however, someone who goes far away stays in touch somehow. Cell phones have made that easier. With Peru’s economic growth, which has been concentrated on the coast, many Kukama have migrated from their communities to Lima or other coastal cities. They generally join some relative at their destination. With cell phones and wire transfers, the family continues to play an important part in their lives. It is a way of keeping social death at bay.

Distances and time have become compressed. Some people who have migrated to Lima return to the Marañón River to be treated by a shaman. And when their health is restored, they go back to their workplace. The matter of cell phones is delightful, as we found in the case of a Yagua family. The aunt lives in Iquitos and is a catechist in our parish. The grandmother lives in Pebas, downstream on the Amazon River in Peru, and the 20-something grandson lives in Lima. We’ve seen how the grandson talks in Yagua via WhatsApp with his grandmother, who uses the aunt’s cell phone when visiting her in Iquitos. This poses new challenges, including for the church. If we seek to “journey together,” we now have many more communication networks than we had just a few years ago. We need to know how to take advantage of the opportunities.

These networks, however, are not new. Long-distance trade has always been possible, even in pre-Columbian times. Examples include the use of Tikuna curare by groups on the upper Amazon, and the Ucayali and Napo rivers, and linguistic relationships among the Jibaro, Kichwa and Waorani.

One period of upheaval in the Amazon was the rubber era, which scattered many indigenous peoples. In the case of the Kukama, we know that a stream and a community in the department of Madre de Dios bear the name Cocama. We know the story of a Kukama woman who married a Kichwa from Pastaza and has lived ever since in Ecuador. It is known that part of the Kukama people relocated along the Amazon River, as there are Kukama settlements in Brazil and Colombia, as well as in Peru.

A pan-Amazonian synod must bear in mind these dispersions, which are the fruit of history; the church can help establish ties between members of the same peoples who live in different territories. Many people live on both sides of national borders. That makes the concept of a pan-Amazonia especially important. It breaks with the idea of the nation-state and establishes higher alliances. The church, a global institution, can again connect indigenous peoples who were broken apart by the configuration of nation-states and the hecatomb of rubber.

This “pan-Amazonian synod” raises questions for us, and we believe it is crucial that we all contribute what we can and establish more solid networks, where information can circulate more horizontally. We have planned a series of eight short essays, which will follow this introduction, and which will take a closer look at the issues that concern us. Obviously, there are many more topics, but that is the scope of this series.

For Amazonian peoples, everything has a spirit. What distinguishes some beings from others are their bodies. A second introductory note will look at how we became convinced of the need for an indigenous ministry and its importance for the church. We will consider various situations: The case of a woman who, on her deathbed, married “a broomstick,” which is perfectly understandable from an indigenous standpoint, although it puzzles us westerners. The case of another woman, who married on her deathbed in an effort to ward off sorcery; she was not successful, but at least she died in peace. Our accompaniment of several indigenous organizations in the case of the Amazonian hydrovia and the challenges posed by major infrastructure projects.

The questions and observations that have arisen in our discussions with seminarians, and challenges for the pan-Amazonian church. Intercultural (mis)understandings about the sacrament of Confession, so as to be able to accompany those who seek it, especially in cities, as a very large percentage of indigenous people live in Amazonian cities. The many twists and turns we have encountered while accompanying the Kukama people in their defense of a healthy environment in an oil-producing province. And a final essay about the devil in an urban neighborhood, a topic that does not receive the attention it deserves, and which for indigenous peoples involves an enormous challenge of “otherness.” There are many more topics to discuss, but we decided to begin with this short series of essays. We do not expect everyone to agree with us; that is not the purpose. Rather, we hope this will start a conversation among many people We hope that we will encourage one another to “journey together,” as the word “synod” calls us to do.


By: Miguel Ángel Cadenas y Manolo Berjón

Translated by: Barbara Fraser

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