Religion as hope – visiting a youth gathering in the poor neighborhoods of San José

Posted on September 3 2011 by frank

At four thirty on a Saturday evening I am waiting in the Park Morazán as agreed. Soon somebody calls my name and I step into a car quite unaware of our destination. We drive away from the center of San José, into one of its slums. There among the simple houses is one with the Salvation Army logo painted on the wall. Inside I find twenty or so young people hanging and waiting for the ceremony to start. I sit down in the back-corner of the room and wait to see what is going to happen.

What should the role of religion be in one’s life? This is one question that everybody in search for a good life has to answer. Religion is found to give hope, allow people to better tolerate misery and personal disasters. Religion is able to provide a sense of meaningfulness to the otherwise senseless do-abouts of the Lady Fortuna. I once heard a therapist remark that she has yet to meet a parent who has lost his or her child who would not have become at least somewhat religious. In addition, many argue that religion provides the necessary basis for our moral lives.

On the other side, the institutionalized religion has been used to control and subjugate people. Many are the wars and campaigns against people of different origin or opinions that are justified through religion. Nowadays the church often acts as the conservative force of discrimination against women and intolerance against people who don’t fit the accepted norms, for example because of different sexual orientation. Through the absolute justification that religion gives to one’s views and acts one can grow deaf to understand the perspective of the others. This might make one unable to learn from those who hold different worldviews and unable to empathize with their point of view.

When the gathering started I soon realized that at least in this neighborhood, among these young people, religion is a force for good. One father of the children was a psychologist and spoke good English and he told me that these are very poor neighborhoods with very few positive opportunities for the children. In this context the Salvation Army provides the children with one place in which they are accepted, in which someone listens to and empathizes with their joys and sorrows; a place in which they can be without fear.

Salvation Army gathering
The youth enjoying a band in the Salvation Army gathering

In the first part of the ceremony the communal function of religion was strongly present. The adolescents played some games together, sang and played music together, socialized and laughed a lot. In a life where they perhaps needed to assume more grown-up roles than they would have wanted in order to survive and prosper, the walls of the Salvation Army building offered them a place where they could be children again. After that it was time for some confessions: those who wanted could stand up and tell some moments from their lives that they wanted to share with others and others listened to respectfully. As a weekly ceremony, this provides a good opportunity to sum up the past week and is clearly building the youngsters ability to empathize with others. All in all, the doors were open, people went out and came in, the atmosphere was welcoming.

The contrast between the darkening streets outside and the mellowness inside was remarkable. In fact, the harsh reality of the outside world once entered the ceremony when a man dressed in rags ran into the room chased by another man. Fortunately, his chaser respected the church and didn’t follow in but contented himself with yelling some insults – that were not translated to me – through the open door. The presence of the escapee was tolerated for a while and when the coast was clear he was politely ushered out. Few other men of the streets had also joined in to listen to the ceremony. They sat in a corner quietly and respectfully and their presence didn’t seem to bother anyone.

Although the sense of community is the part of religion I embrace we must remember that religion is not only about community. At least Christianity is also about a direct relation with the God. The final part of the ceremony concentrated on this part. The lights were dim and some emotionally loaded music was heard in the background when the group leader – a woman in her fourties – took the floor. She started out quite peacefully but the force and determination in her voice steadily increased until the climax in which she repeatedly shouted in ecstasy “Sancto, sancto, Dios, sancto!” The children so playful a moment ago were strongly taken by this ritual; I heard how some of them cried, I saw how some of them assumed a deep praying position or hugged each other firmly. This was no longer a play, this was serious religious trance.

As a philosopher, I undersign Terence’s words: “I am a man, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” Yet, accustomed to the much calmer Lutheran masses, this kind of ecstatic spiritual dedication is something into which I have a hard time to leap into. I attempted to let the situation take me but found myself mostly making observations and analyzing the acts of the others. I thought how strong and primitive emotions are unleashed in these rituals. They clearly reveal something about humanity that finds usually no expression in our everyday life. At the same time I thought how these emotions could be used for many purposes both good and bad. Whatever the spiritual leader would be stating in these situations, the crowd would take it into their hearts.

So what are the take-aways of my visit in terms of good life? Firstly, religion can give hope and it can offer important sense of community for people. It is important part of the good life of many poor people for whom there exists no similar other institutions that could offer the same benefits. Secondly, there is something within us humans that responses to spiritual gatherings. Otherwise it could not be explained why different forms of spirituality could have developed in virtually all human societies from the most primitive to the most sophisticated. This is a dimension I need to investigate more in the future. Thirdly, the strong emotional reactions generated by such spiritual gatherings are not good or bad in themselves. Their goodness or badness is dependent on what they are used for. As in dealing with any strong force we thus need much responsibility in making sure that we use it only for good purposes.

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