Two ideas compete for space in this post. The first is a thought about all those people who are missing when Church claims about membership numbers are compared with censuses like those of Mexico or Chile. The second is about belonging to the Church as a minority in a non-voluntarist society.
How did these two ideas get so intertwined that I cannot seem to separate them this morning? Well…
I went to Bolivia the end of January to document the rather complex set of rites around the annual feast of the Virgin of Candelaria, which falls on February 2, in the ancient and important pilgrimage center of Copacabana. For many years I have done sporadic ethnographic fieldwork in Copacabana and environs on topics such as the growth of non-Catholic religion as well as on other social movements. Last year, I did a bibliographic search and realized very little has been written documenting the mainstream rituals that draw probably hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and tourists annually to this small town on Lake Titicaca. While, over the years, I have seen many feasts there, I have never documented them as part of my work.
In August, I attended the annual feast of the Virgin of Copacabana. It was massive; the town was overwhelmed with visitors from all over central and southern Peru who came in devotion to the Lady of Copacabana. A number of anthropological themes seemed pressing, such as the cult of fertility, including a cult to the toad, and the social organization of devotion that extends from the image in Copacabana to much of the southern Andes. I returned six months later for the feast-day of the Canary Island Virgin of which Copacabana is a advocation, the Virgin of Candle-mass, as Candelaria is translated, although the Lady of Copacabana has developed great power in her own right.
While the first feast depended on the pilgrims from many areas of Peru, this feast emphasized the social order of the town, and the ties still held by people who either used to live there or had kin ties there. It also had a wide draw; people came from as far away as Spain and Los Angeles. These are just people I spoke with. There obviously were many others with whom there was no chance to speak.
My ethnography of the feasts could easily take over the post, at this point. It is a very rich and demanding topic in its own right. And, I suspect, it is intriguing to Latter-day Saints given the strong contrast with our religious tradition.
However, the reasons for writing this note took place really on the edges of the Catholic feast. Copacabana has no LDS ward or branch. The nearest branch is on the other side of the mountain in the Aymara-speaking community of Huacuyo. Yet the first mayor after municipal reform in the nineties, as well as one other mayor, have been Latter-day Saints and several members reside in the town. I know most of these people. They are my friends and have been over many seasons of work.
Ok. Enough context. Now a story. So, one morning, early, I am talking with one of my friends. I shall not give his real name, but for stylistic reasons let’s call him Remigio. I have known Remigio since he was a teenager and he is now in his mid-forties. He is a member of the Church.
This morning, as most mornings of the fiesta, he is hung over. His face is drawn with anxiety and pain. What’s wrong, I ask him. “At night, when I drink, I don’t sleep. I walk the patio all night long. I feel a knot of pain in my stomach.”
I thought he was going to describe a stomach ulcer or some problem with acid reflux. Instead he said the pain was “a feeling he had done something wrong”.
The next day, late afternoon, I leave the annual bullfight to go to the home of the prestes, the main sponsors of the fiesta. Being preste is a major responsibility, an enormous cost, and brings honor and respect to the people who assume this rotating burden. They had invited me to come to their celebration. Around town there are perhaps eight celebrations of lower level prestes who are feasting all the people who came to dance through the streets with them, often spending three and a half months income on costumes and accoutrements in order to do so. But I am going to the home of the main sponsors of the entire feast under which the other eight take place.
As I get to the gate of the home, Remigio is in the street with a couple of people. He is drunk, like you can only get from three days of drinking from dawn to well past dusk. He sees me and grabs my arm. “This is David. He is my friend. You are my friend, aren’t you?”
I meet his companions and he ushers me into the home. Before climbing the stairs to the main hall, he holds me and talks with me. He says, “I am so happy. Yesterday Moises was here, you know. He stayed and got really drunk. We drank together. I asked him if I could get permission to build another story on to my house. For a long time now, when I ask for permission, they block me in the municipality. Moises said yesterday, since it is you, I will give you thirty days to do the construction. If you do it and finish it, we will not see it and you will have it. I am so happy. He will let me finish my house.”
Moises, not his real name, is a prominent public official in the town, and he is a returned missionary. I was not there when this conversation happened, but I was at the gathering earlier and Moises was drinking. Lest you think Remigio’s drinking is unusual, let me note that almost everyone at the celebration was as drunk as he was. Remigio almost never drinks, but on feast days like this, when his family or close friends are celebrating, he feels enormous social pressure to drink, as does Moises.
Some years ago Moises told me how before he entered local politics he could get by without drinking, that is with keeping the Word of Wisdom, but that as a leader in the town he had to accept the offered drinks, he had to participate in the feasts.
We can argue with Moises, perhaps. But Copacabana is a town whose society is tightly integrated by feasts and obligatory drinking. To be anything but marginal requires drinking. In La Paz, the country’s capital, a city almost a third larger than the Wasatch Front megalopolis, it is possible to find spaces where one can live without drinking. One can build a social network outside of he dominant order of feasts and drinking. But even there it is hard, if one still has friends and family who feast and drink. In Copacabana that option is almost not available, unless one wishes to be marginalized.
So, my second idea. When we, here in the US, think of becoming a member we think of a person in a voluntarist society, who is basically a free agent and can make choices about groups to belong to and identities to take on. On the whole, Bolivia is not that kind of society, although voluntarism is increasingly an option. Nevertheless, for most people, becoming and staying an active member means becoming marginalized by breaking ties with family, friends, and local society. Unless the people are fortunate to live in a space, a social niche, where such independence is fostered, the constant challenges of being marginalized are likely to wear them down and draw them back into the social mainstream. Long term, active members are those who have found the social support and inner strength to accept such marginalization and magnify it to find meaningful lives. This is a very different task than is faced by most of us who are members in the US.
My first idea. It is not surprising, as a result, that most people cannot find the inner and outer resources to succeed at this task. Indeed, it is an almost impossible task. But, that they do not manage to stay “faithful” does not mean that their Mormonism does not have meaning for them.
A student accompanied me to Copacabana on this trip. He is from Utah and recently spent two years as a missionary in Bolivia. We were discussing the Saints in Copacabana and their challenges and Michael, the student, told me that on his mission at least weekly he and his companion would run into someone on the street who was drunk and was a Latter-day Saint. They would approach the elders, often crying, because they loved the Church and considered themselves Mormon, but had to drink.
If nothing else, their experience as members of the Church, even if they could not live according to Church standards, marked them. It provided a complication that made their drinking different. In Bolivia it is ordinary to drink. For them, it was not because they were Mormon.
I do not know if this is part of the knot of pain in Remigio’s stomach, but I suspect it is. The anthropologist Kaja Finkler writes about how people in Mexico experience the tensions and contradictions of their life as body pain: the social-psychological stress she calls life’s lesions is somaticized as bodily pain, morbidity. Given a similar propensity in Bolivia to somatize depression and psychic distress it is likely Remigio feels stress about his commitment to Mormonism which conflicts with his social obligations to the people around him who enable him to live meaningfully. And that may well be a big part of the knot of pain in his stomach.
These days that he was drinking, he talked about the Church. He also talked about his older brother, now deceased, whom he adored and who was a leader in the Church. He felt anguish at betraying his brother. His inactivity in the Church was part of that betrayal.
I do not wish to overemphasize this point, but Mormonism brought a tension, a complexity to Remigio’s life, which was not present in most of the celebrants. It also has brought a complexity to Moises’ life, though he has not spoken to me about it for many years. His wife has, though. Of course, I was one of the missionaries who taught her family the gospel, even though I now return as an anthropologist.
In any case, attending the fiesta in Copacabana earlier this month not only provided me with a rich set of data about Copacabana, it also gives me pause about the study of Mormonism. I think we need to look more openly and positively at the lives of people who may figure on the Church’s roles but who are not active. Sociologists may discount them as part of an effective membership, given the dedication to an institutionalist bias. But, like Remigio, many if not all of these inactive members are still LDS, if not in outward Church activity at least somewhere in their inner lives.
I also think we need to be wary of the voluntarist assumptions of our theories of religious change and, as a result, have more scholarly empathy, as well as Christian empathy, for the challenges people face when they enter the waters of baptism. Life is long and a person’s actions do not solely depend on his or her will and choices. They also depend on the context of possibilities afforded them.
This post is already too long. I shall leave the philosophical argument for another post. For now, I just wish I could take you guys with me and introduce you to Remigio, Moises, and Moises’ wife, lets call her Marisol. They have taught me lots about life and left me with lots to think about. But, yes Remigio I am, and will always be, your friend!