I was sitting on the dirt floor with about a dozen of my seminary students. Bugs crawled along the walls of the shack constructed of discarded wood, cardboard and plasterboard. Empty plastic bags and trash littered the flimsy structure, hugging the hut as if they were adornments. The "owner" of the house, an indigenous woman who had been aged prematurely by the ravages of poverty, patiently engaged us in conversation.
Routinely, I bring my students to Cuernavaca, Mexico on missionary trips. Usually, the purpose of missionary trips in these parts is to evangelize "non-believers"; to convince them to accept the doctrines of the missionary, worshiping and believing like North Americans. My missionary trips are somewhat different. We go to be evangelized by the poor; to learn from the disenfranchised and dispossessed who God is. We go to "get saved."
Our host welcomes us into her home and offers us hospitality. She prepares a snack of jam on stale saltine crackers, giving what she can barely afford to give. As in past encounters, I encourage my primarily Protestant Euro-American students to ask this poor, illiterate, Catholic indigenous woman about her faith. With me translating, my students begin asking, "Who is God? Who is Jesus? Who is the Virgin Mary? What is the Church?" Like a teacher instructing the young, she begins to provide us with her understanding of faith, doctrine and church teachings.
As I translate her responses, I am struck by how illogical, uninformed, superstitious and syncretistic is her faith. This mixture of local indigenous teachings, medieval Roman Catholicism and a sprinkling of self-help New Ageism is more than my trained theological mind can handle. I fight the urge to correct her, to reveal the incongruities in her beliefs. I find myself slipping back into the traditional missionary role of becoming her savior and righting her theological wrongs. Although I continue to faithfully translate her words, I begin to contemplate how I can challenge her with the "truth."
Just then, her 9-year-old son returns home. A dirty, undernourished boy shyly enters the hut barefoot and meekly interrupts his mother. He hands over about 15 pesos which he collected -- during school hours -- selling Chiclets at a downtown street corner. The mother places all but one peso in her pocket. This one coin she places on a box in the middle of the room that serves as a makeshift table. After a while, I ask her what she plans to buy with the peso she set aside.
"Oh that," she responds, "That's for the poor."
In that moment I learned more about God than I had from all of the theology books I had ever read. When those who have so little do their faith by providing for those who have even less; those of us privileged by class should be profoundly humbled. It is the privileged who see the oppressed and do nothing that are the ones that do not know God. I may have had the educational training to tease apart the inconsistencies in this woman's beliefs, but she knew far more about God than I did. This is not a romanticization of the poor, for surely there is nothing romantic about poverty. Rather, it is a theological truth that I learned directly from this poor woman's actions.
When we all get to Heaven, we will discover how wrong we all were. No group has a monopoly on truth. So in a sense, orthodoxy -- correct belief -- is not that important (I say as a working theologian!). What should take precedence is orthopraxis -- correct action. Calling oneself a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, curandera/o or santero/a is less important than living one's faith, and each of our traditions instructs us to care for the poor and marginalized members of our societies. This reminds me of the New Testament passage found in the book of James: "You say you believe in one God -- big deal; even the demons believe and tremble with fear. You idiots, don't you know that faith without praxis is dead!?" (2:19-20, my translation)
This column is an excerpt from 'My Neighbor's Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation.'