To walk down the streets of Lima, Peru's capital city, is to experience a nation re-engineering itself. The fall of the Iron Curtain was not only a sea change for U.S. geopolitical realities, but it has also had a ripple effect on developing nations like this Latin American country. Everything-currency, jobs, gender roles, social habits, spirituality-seems up for grabs.

In this context, Peru's evangelical church is growing at a phenomenal rate of 12 percent. But even as Peruvian evangelicals are in the midst of revolutionizing the country's spiritual landscape, the first wave of converts (from Baptist, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Assemblies of God denominations) is being challenged by independent charismatics and Pentecostals to throw out their old wineskins.

"This is a time of great definition for Peru's evangelicals," says Oscar Amat, a Peruvian evangelical sociologist. "The evangelical church is trying to find its way in a society in flux. It's as if we're caught between three major forces -the economic revolution, the Catholic church, and the charismatic/Pentecostal movements."

The evangelicos are operating in an arena dominated by two major agents of change in Peru-President Alberto Fujimori and the Peruvian street vendors, both of which are directly connected with evangelical life. First, evangelical Christians helped elect dark-horse presidential candidate Alberto Fujimori to his first term in 1990. It was the first time that evangelicals played a key role in a Peruvian election. And though some evangelicos have since felt snubbed by the Fujimori presidency, it did not hinder Fujimori from handily winning a second term in April. Second, the bulk of evangelical growth is happening among the poor who almost all operate in Peru's street-vendor economy.

Despite a history of military coups, surrealistic inflation, food shortages, and mad car bombers, little changed in Peru's social and religious landscape during most of the twentieth century. But today, due in large part to forces unleashed by President Fujimori, Peruvians are frenetically creating and adapting to a new nation.

Fujimori created much of the framework for the changes with his pragmatic and autocratic leadership. He dissolved and reformed a gridlocked congress, reduced inflation from 5,000 percent to 10 percent, built over 18,000 miles of new highways, and emasculated the fierce political terrorist group Shining Path. These accomplishments have created a more stable business environment, making Peru the fastest-growing economy in the world (13 percent).

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Fujimori's policies are also aimed at energizing capitalist activity from the bottom up. His legalization of Lima's sea of sidewalk merchants has unleashed a tidal wave of economic activity generated by the hundreds of thousands of dark-skinned Andean migrants who have come to Lima from the impoverished Andes mountain region in hope of a better life.

As part of the new Peru, companies now stress user-friendliness and customer service-novel ideas in a country whose businesses had been infamous for their surly "I'm-doing-you-a-favor" view of consumer relations. The new customer-oriented approach is influencing many Peruvians to have similar expectations of their churches. This has set the stage for the explosive growth of charismatic and Pentecostal independent churches that, in the same way that Fujimori is stressing pragmatism over ideology, stress personal experience over theology.


To walk on Jiron Pachitea, one of Lima's countless street "malls," with its seemingly unending rows of vending stalls lining both sides of the street, is to see a sophisticated and grassroots job-creating machine in full operation.

On a rickety table on the sidewalk outside El Inca evangelical bookstore, a husband and wife team offers dozens of varieties of nuts and bolts as they read their Bible in-between customers. To their left, a mother breastfeeding an infant sells light fixtures, and to their right, a ten-year-old boy covers for his parents at a stand selling door hinges while they seek a loan from a street "financier." A shoe vendor, Victor Chagua, places evangelistic tracts inside the patent-leather shoes he has for sale. Two evangelical teenagers sell Jesus Te Ama bumper stickers and Bibles from their portable sidewalk kiosk while a Hare Krishna devotee walks by in search of someone with whom he can share his faith.

This is informal Lima-the economic lifeblood of Peru, the social milieu of the poor, and the country's faith bazaar. Its culture is referred to as chicha, in reference to a fermented purple corn alcoholic beverage native to the Andes of Peru. It is where many of Peru's evangelicos can be found. The informales, those who frequent this scene, have created their own unique structures that operate outside the established and formal economic organizations, political parties, unions, and churches from which they have long been shut out by the nation's white elites.

Most informales live in pueblos jovenes, shanty towns, on the foothills of the Andes, which surround Lima like stadium seats around a playing field. Out of the straw shacks, hastily erected to claim squatters' rights several decades ago, has emerged a burgeoning metropolis of two million-envisioned, developed, and run by its inhabitants with minimal help from the government or outside social agencies. One of these cities, Villa El Salvador, which means the Savior's Settlement, functions on the energy of dozens of community efforts, including daycare centers, soup kitchens, youth clubs, job-training services, outdoor markets, public transportation, and home and storefront churches.

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According to economic experts, such as renowned Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, these peasants' spontaneous, chaotic, and decentralized urban development efforts could be a strategic force in Peru's quest for prosperity and social development. While the Left looked to Marx, the Right to trickle-down economics, and the Shining Path to bombs, the new city dwellers have been applying the principle of minka, which is the Andean concept of communal cooperation that touches every aspect of community life.

When Andean migrants come in contact with evangelicalism-with its belief in the priesthood of all believers and empowerment of the laity-they find a set of beliefs quite compatible with minka. "Informality is an alternative to an institutionality that is not responsive to today's Peruvian reality, where the law is out of touch with how people really live," says Peruvian theologian Samuel Escobar. Escobar, who teaches missions at Eastern Baptist Seminary in Philadelphia, feels this divorce of church teaching and practice from people's realities is why many Catholics have become evangelicals. But now, asserts Escobar, Peru's 75-year-old evangelical church is losing its edge and, as a result, its numbers to the new wave of charismatics and Pentecostals.

"In the Catholic church, people were passive spectators," explains Escobar. "The evangelical church offered them a chance to actively participate. By the eighties, however, the mainstream evangelical churches had established their own traditions, and this time it is evangelicals who are feeling uncared for as the church grows and gets more institutionalized. In this context, the charismatic and Pentecostal groups arrived with a modern style, a simple language, without theological complications."

Adds Tito Paredes, the Peruvian president of the Latin American Theological Society: "Mainstream evangelical churches have an imported ideology from the North American church as expressed, for example, in songs that are simply translations rather than indigenous. The Pentecostal churches, on the other hand, Peruvianize their services."

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Indeed, as with the economy, the informales are recreating spirituality in their own image.


On Sunday morning, in a tent on a dusty field in a pueblo joven, an exuberant service is under way as people feverishly worship God, some to the point of fainting. The informales' powers of assimilation are clearly reflected in their clothing: Worshipers in cheap, dark Western suits mingle with Christian brothers wearing ponchos and chullos (Andean caps with ear flaps) and sisters wearing bowler hats and multicolored skirts.

This is only one of countless services taking place across Peru. The gatherings vary in size from a dozen to a few thousand. Indigenous pastors, most with stories of divine and miraculous callings, lead their congregations in ecstatic praise and dancing, testimonials of healing from sickness and addiction, and then make altar calls for salvation and more healing.

The infectious spirit of celebration using Afro-Caribbean, Latin, and Andean tunes is a refreshing respite to Peruvians worn down by their daily battles. While the music might be the initial drawing card, the spectacular visitations of the Holy Spirit where people are healed from various ailments from colds to cancer are reasons to stay.

Humberto Lay, pastor of Iglesia Emmanuel, one of Lima's fastest-growing charismatic churches, explains that not only are non-Christians finding salvation and renewal, but long-time Christians are "finding a freedom in their services they don't find in their churches."

Manuel Marzal is a Catholic priest who has studied informal religious expression in Peru. In his book, "The Religious Paths of Migrants to the Greater Lima Area," one woman tells Marzal how God saved her and her children from starving. She recalls a dream she had that she should change the goods she offered at her vegetable stand from tomatoes and potatoes to Chinese vegetables and spices. Her formerly floundering business prospered, and, with the earnings, her daughter and son-in-law were able to build a modest home. "Mi Papa me enseno la mercaderia-my Dad [God] showed me my products. We are a poor people; now I have the blessing of the Lord. The Lord is good; you give your heart and you have everything you need."

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This is not prosperity theology, however, but a trusting in God to provide our daily needs. For this vegetable-stand vendor, "everything" means having enough to eat and a roof over her family's heads.

Here, God's answers are: A husband stops drinking and is more loving toward his family; a wayward mother comes back to her home; children begin to do well in school. While the Catholic church often taught the poor to accept their lot in life, the informal evangelicals and Pentecostals preach a life-transforming gospel that affects every area of life-from the soul to the pocketbook.

"The grassroots Pentecostal churches offer instant community and identity to a people who, as migrants, feel displaced in their new surroundings," says Oscar Amat. "The opportunity to lead, despite one's lack of education, is also a strong attraction."

"People aren't initially interested in salvation," says Juan Capurro, pastor of the 5,000-member charismatic Agua Viva, the largest church in Peru, "but they do respond to the message that Jesus loves them, and that he has concrete answers for today."

Among informales, religious activity is as eclectic and decentralized as the street-vendor scene on Jiron Pachitea. Despite the obvious benefits to those involved with the Pentecostal and charismatic movements, given their decentralized and autochthonous nature, many mainstream Peruvian evangelicals express concern with possible syncretistic practices and lack of accountability. Still being closely tied to their roots, the Andean people have a history of incorporating into Christianity their Andean cosmology rather than discarding certain pagan practices. For example, Catholicism in the Andes is heavily influenced by ancient Inca beliefs, and in places, the crucifix is carried side-by-side with sacrifices of llama fetuses on the way to worship of the sun and mountain god.

While Pentecostal churches do not, for the most part, ascribe publicly to these syncretistic practices, individuals within the churches will often still use pagan rituals, such as rolling an egg on their stomachs, to get rid of evil spirits or illnesses. "The Andean migrant is a very pragmatic individual and will do whatever to address the obstacles before him or her," says Paredes.

Those observing the new charismatic movement in Peru also have reservations about the effects that its emphasis on emotion and experience is having on the quality of discipleship among its members. Amat explains that "these new groups grow rapidly but have a low rate of baptism, while traditional evangelical groups grow more slowly, but almost all their new adherents are baptized."

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Adds Escobar, "At many of these informal churches, the teaching system is simple. And after a while, many leave because they are hungry to deepen their spiritual experience and understanding."

Through sermons and bulletins, mainstream evangelical churches warn of the informal churches' weaknesses and deviations from orthodoxy. Concerns, depending on the church in question, vary from the teaching of prosperity theology to dancing in the sanctuary to loud music that can be damaging to eardrums. But the greatest concern for theologians is, as Paredes says, "their putting Scripture aside" and "providing an escapist one-dimensional gospel that fails to see the whole person."

Even the Pentecostal Assemblies of God is out of the charismatic/Pentecostal loop. And their critique of these informal churches is that they are too focused on emotionalism. "There's a danger of confusing an emotional experience with a spiritual one," the denomination's newsletter warns.

The informal churches, however, are also seen as having a positive effect. Oswaldo Fernandez, Latin American Church history professor at the Evangelical Seminary of Lima, believes that they can be credited with stimulating a renewal in worship among mainstream evangelical churches.

Still, according to Escobar, unless the mainstream church attempts to reach the people where they are, it will continue to lose its numbers. "In relation to these challenges, the evangelical church in Peru is theologically defenseless," he continues. "Critical years lie ahead where we need to develop a theology that responds to today's needs."

As evangelical theologians and mainstream evangelical pastors face these challenges, the Pentecostals offer a telling story of how church can empower a people. Sociologist David Stoll suggests that Pentecostal congregations have become a way for marginalized Latin Americans to reform themselves, their relations to each other, and perhaps their relations to the larger society.

Nevertheless, the pragmatism that underlies the informal evangelicals' faith makes for an often unstable movement where there is little denominational loyalty and where developing one's spirituality is not as urgent. For the Peruvian church, this is one of the most important questions: Will converts be turned into disciples?

These are crucial issues. For the moment, however, Peru's religious trends give us a broader picture of how God operates: he does not always work through our cherished religious structures, and his gospel is meant to be holistic. Once again he is working outside the formal religious structures to bring in those who have been shut out and to breathe new life into those within the formal church whose faith has begun to lose its passion.


Andres Tapia, an associate editor for Pacific News Service, is from Peru.


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