Brazilian Missionaries Try to Understand Indian Religiosity

How can missionaries and religious people work with the indigenous people, whilst respecting their religion? How can a mission that is almost 100 years old change its path and start to strengthen another religion? 

To start with, it is necessary to understand the other religion and comprehend how it has been transformed, whether this is through changes in the indigenous life style, or through the very presence of the mission.

Faced with these challenges, 20 religious and lay people have been together since Tuesday, September 12, in Santarém, in the Brazilian northern state of Pará, studying the religion of the Munduruku people, who live near to the Tapajós River, in Pará. 

"We do not study another religion to believe in it, but to understand it," said anthropologist Lucia Rangel, advisor at the meeting.

"In general, indigenous religions have different conceptions of live and death, body and soul, and the link between religion and work to those held by Western belief systems. These are not fragmented activities. While they are working, the people pray. While they are eating and drinking, they transcend. It is an integrated world," Rangel claims. 

In the same way, the events in the Munduruku social life are strongly related. Hunting is an economic activity but it also has social value, because the skills it requires are the same as those needed for war, and this is traditionally a warrior society.

The hunt is linked to religious activities because of the rituals that are involved, since the animals also have spirits. The spirits of animals are feminine: each animal has a spirit-mother. Thus, hunting is a masculine activity, but the women have to protect the hunt. They are different, yet complementary roles.

The group intends to better understand the spiritual forms of this people who were warriors, farmers and hunters for many centuries, and who are now living off other forms of production such as latex extraction, cattle raising and prospecting.

These activities have brought changes to the daily life and, therefore, to the social relationships between the Mundurukus, which have led to the readjustment of their religious aspects. 

Mission Re-evaluated

The Francisclarian mission that works with the Munduruku was built by the Catholic Church around 100 years ago. Ever since 2003 it has been undergoing an intense evaluation process.

The changes began with internal adjustments: the work which had previously been carried out by Franciscan monks and by sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary has started to be coordinated by the two groups together.

All the aspects of the mission’s work – in health, education and evangelization – have been reviewed. The intention for the mission’s school is to be managed by the indigenous people in the future and they have been trying to offer a bilingual education, already before the evaluation started, respecting the language learnt by the children in their own houses. Now, they are working on developing indigenous language teaching materials.

Cimi – Indianist Missionary Council

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