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Ecuador

It is 6:00 a.m. on a Monday morning in the city of Cuenca, colonial jewel of Ecuador's southern sierra. From the city's exquisite Cathedral, whose balanced cerulean domes challenge the equatorial sky's beauty , church bells begin their persistent peal, encouraging the faithful to hasten to the first mass of the day. Scattered throughout the city both near and far, Cuenca's dozens of Catholic churches, many dating from the 16th century, echo the call. Silent forms file down the cobbled street: men, women and children, most wearing broad-brimmed felt hats and bundled under hand-woven woolen shawls against the still chill mountain air. Soon the plangent tones of women's voices - distorted by the rudimentary amplifiers which are standard equipment in churches - replace the knell, their plaintive 5-tone scale suggesting - to the unaccustomed ear at least - the sorrow rather than the joy of this earthly realm.

Twenty-five years ago, the Catholic church and the people of Ecuador were indivisible. And although it is erroneous to suggest that Catholicism is moribund, or even seriously ill, the image of this monolithic behemoth as ubiquitous and unassailable is equally false .Today, a host of new and astonishingly diverse images flood the spiritual landscape of Ecuador.

On any evening in Cuenca, if you wander down Gran Colombia Avenue, and approach the corner of Tarqui, you are hit by a swelling wave of "hosanna" music spilling out onto the street through the wide-open, welcoming double doors of the Asemblea de Dios, a simple white stucco structure nestled beside a small shop, whose lettering identifies it as Pat Robertson's "Club 700". At the doors of the church , waiting to usher you in, are 2 men who are, perhaps, in their 50's. The very image of successful North American entrepreneurs in their somber suits, white shirts and conservative ties, they waste no time in asking you what church you belong to and if you have found Christ. Inside, on a small raised platform are a slender, blond, American vocalist, 2 "plugged-in", guitar-playing colleagues - and an enthusiastic drummer, a pubescent blond youth who counterpoints his playing with what British sociologist, David Martin calls "tonques of fire" , the babble which indicates that the divine spirit speaking through the faithful. The congregation - animated by the enthusiastic rhythms - leaps into the air, abandoning themselves to the joy of having chosen - or been chosen by - Christ.

I write to learn and one subject whose fascination never diminishes for me is that of religion. In 1993 I had commented to my editor on the work of David Stoll, Is Latin America Turning Protestant? a study on the rise of fundamentalism throughout what once was a Catholic redoubt. He was immediately keen to have me do a piece, and I was interested, but reluctant because the W & I inclines to the right, while I incline left and I feared my work would suffer in the editing process.

I traveled throughout Ecuador that summer, even managing to fly into Makuma in the Amazon basin to visit the Shaur a substantial number of whom are Protestant converts. What I discovered was an army of evangelicals, American for the most part, with Madison Avenue savvy and an indomitable determination. What I also saw was the divisiveness that inevitably ensues when people are urged to take sides: whole towns divided into Catholic and Protestant camps.

The work I did ended up as a photo essay rather than an essay with photos, saving me the struggle that political correctness entails.

Ecuador: a Spiritual Landscape Divided was published in The World & I in June of 1996

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