I spent Thursday afternoon and Friday morning in itty bitty Decatur, Mississippi, with the fierce and friendly church ladies of Mississippi’s United Methodist Women discussing the curriculum of a new missions study on Latin America. As we visited and learned, I couldn’t help reminiscing about my time in Guatemala and Mexico as a seminary student. It was only ten weeks but I’ll be chewing on the experience for the next ten years and beyond. It was a different world from the one where I was born and raised, but just the same, too. We have so much in common as Christians and Americans that we take for granted, so many shared experiences, so many lessons to learn and re-learn. There jagged bits of our history that can serve one another if we’ll take time to sit down, have a cup of coffee, trade them back and forth and tell the stories. Like the one about Jesus Negro.
I expected that the Catholic Church would be very popular in Central America based on my limited knowledge of World Christianity and the history of missions before I left for my trip, but I didn’t expect the relationship with the Church that I witnessed. My Spanish teachers, host family members, and tour guides who talked about their Catholicism radiated a deep internal, emotional connection to the Church and its leaders, but they seemed to feel little attachment to the Bible. Over and over again folks would tell me that they didn’t read their Bible because it’s confusing and they couldn’t understand it. They consciously chose to avoid it outside of the Christian community. Instead, they opted to rely on church leaders to interpret it for them and to guide them in decision-making about behavior, beliefs, traditions, etc.
There was such a tremendous trust and affection for church structure and hierarchy among the people with whom I’ve spoken, and while this small group certainly cannot represent the entire Catholic community of Guatemala- or even the small city of Xela where I studied- most of my new friends said they felt that their feelings seem to be the norm among members of their church tradition. One woman expressed her confidence in the priests because they are required to attend seminary and study the Bible, which told me that she had a high view of the importance of healthy, Biblical theology despite what I might have been tempted to believe from her initial hesitance to crack open her Bible. She also shared that she has great confidence in the accountability created by the church hierarchy that she feels is absent from many other church traditions. I agree with her about the benefits of church structure, which is one reason I have chosen to stay within the Methodist church where I was raised and to go through the long process of ordination, but it concerned me greatly that at first glance the Word of God seems be irrelevant to many people here. As usual, though, there’s more to the story. This goes alongside a tremendous respect for the body of Christ, especially in the context of the Eucharist, so perhaps the hesitance to venture into Scripture alone is also a matter of respecting the body of Christ; just as the congregations in that area would often only take the wafer in communion for fear that the wine, the sacred blood of Christ, may spill and be defiled, they also did not attempt to read Scripture, another form of God’s incarnation, without the support and guidance of the church community and its leaders for fear of misunderstanding and defiling that form of Christ’s body. Coming from a society with great emphasis on personal Bible study and a sometimes arrogant confidence that a person can interpret Scripture well without the benefit of the church or historical interpreters serving as checks on our own desire to read what we want to hear, this difference is refreshing even as it is a bit concerning for the tremendous power it grants to priests and other church leaders.
I have to tell you, the love folks had for their priests startled me. I didn’t see it coming. Frankly, I was impressed by the fact that Catholicism has such staying power despite its well-known history in the area as the religion of oppressive colonialists who exploited the Mayan people. However, it seems that the people there have truly made it their own and connected directly with God in terms that are relatable to them without the necessity of excessive colonialists´ intervention by integrating symbols and elements from their own tradition. We saw it in the use of sacred Mayan colors in the church of San Andres. We saw it in the presence of a statue of a jaguar (a Mayan symbol of power) sleeping atop the steeple of San Cristobal Cathedral to indicate to all who saw that Almighty rests there, that the God of the Bible is the God of power. I saw it most clearly and poignantly in the presence of Jesus Negro as an icon in the Church.
I was and continue to be most intrigued by this last figure, a depiction of Christ on the cross with dark skin, because it stands out among the many Aryan figures of Jesus, the Holy Family, and various saints and apostles in the churches and homes we visited. Honestly, look at the painting next to him on the wall for evidence of what I’m talking about friends. Without fail, every single church we entered (and we visited A LOT y’all. Remember, this was a group of seminarians) was decked out with statues, paintings, and stained glass images of disciples and saints and angels with pale skin and European features that look nothing like the people who worship within the sanctuary walls. That is, until we came across Jesus Negro in La Catedral de la Conquistadora (The Cathedral of the Conquistador), a church that was specifically built by European invaders to give themselves a place to worship away from the native inhabitants of the area. Our tour guide there told us that Jesus Negro is considered the most important Christian figure in Guatemala and that the change in his complexion from white to black is considered a miracle, even though it occurred over hundreds of years as the direct impact of colonialism has somewhat decreased. In that particular cathedral, the smoke of the candles on the altar had accumulated over time, turning the Savior statue’s white skin to black, transforming him through the process of worship to more closely resemble those whom he loves, those who have been wrongly excluded in his name, those who suffer as he suffered. Through worship, we look more like Jesus, but we also begin to recognize how Jesus looks more like “others” than we used to think. The conquistadors thought they had brought God in their own image, but God would not be content to stay that way. God is and always has been a God of the people whom God has created in a rainbow of skin colors and shapes and sizes and need not be brought anywhere. God is present already. And if we are going to get technical about it, Jesus Christ would have been more easily mistaken for Mayan than European. How ironic that the conquistadors missed that, the way they had already seen the Savior’s image transform to reflect themselves, seen God appear in the way they could mostly clearly see. How sad that they failed to honor this gift to themselves by encouraging it for others, instead mistaking their own reflection for God’s.
Looking at the dark crucifix in this surprising location, I wondered if its transformation is something akin to the miracle it would take to find a Black Jesus in a church in my home state of Mississippi. Part of me considered that the slow change of the icon in Guatemala may be so shocking as to be called miraculous because the people with whom I’d spoken seem to feel a certain inaccessibility to God, whose words they do not read directly, so perhaps a Christ who resembles them is disconcertingly familiar. But that is certainly not the case in Mississippi, where the iconography seems to suggest that God is infinitely accessible first to the white man and then only subsequently to people of other ethnicities and races if they are willing to be in relationship with him by embracing a white Jesus. It sets up an unbalanced dynamic in which the victims of racism and hate-crimes (which are unfortunately still rampant in Mississippi and other parts of the United States) are forced to acknowledge and deal with their perpetrators within the Church, even among non-white congregations through the presence of Caucasian iconography, while those who directly or indirectly oppress their neighbors based on skin color can hole up in the Church blissfully unaware of the harm they’ve caused or are causing. I am still seeking to understand what the presence of Jesus Negro means for the Catholic Church in Guatemala where there a still discrepancies between the treatment, participation, and leadership opportunities for indigenous peoples and those of conquistador descent, but even as I learn more about the situation there I can´t help wondering what the presence of a Black Jesus could mean for the Church in Mississippi, especially for the white members of the body of Christ. How might God move through the presence of this figure among a small white congregation in the Mississippi Delta where “the n-word” is still a commonly accepted form a speech or a well-to-do white megachurch in the city where congregants only encounter people of color briefly on the drive to church from the suburbs? I think it could mean remembering that Jesus sides with suffering. It could mean becoming unable to detangle the image of a dark-skinned Christ with the people who are so abused for that very complexion. It could mean seeing each other as we are, the image of God, rather than seeing God in the image of ourselves. Undoubtedly this figure would provoke a different response from black members of the body of Christ in Mississippi, and I can´t pretend to know what the significance of these encounters with a Black Jesus might be, but within my own narrative and tradition, I believe Jesus Negro could potentially be a transformative gift from Guatemala to promote reconciliation and healing in my home state. And for that I am thankful.