A Tale of Two Religions

by Alice Walton:

In the village of Emberá-Druá, men in bright loincloths paddle canoes full of wide-eyed foreigners through the Panamanian rainforest on tours of their tribal home. Women and children walk through the seemingly static and serene village wearing beaded garments and colorful wraps.

But the tribe of 24 families is split between two strong factions of spirituality. About one-fifth of the members of the Emberá tribe adhere to a strict code of Pentecostal evangelism. The rest follow their indigenous traditions, led by the village witch doctor, or Shaman. Within this small community, religious tensions are mild until religion flirts with culture: evangelism, a foreign import, does not always accommodate the indigenous traditions that the Emberá strive to maintain.

The local Shaman, in traditional dress, stands before the marketplace where tourists buy homemade trinkets in Embera-Drua (Walton/TYG)

Standing in the shade of the communal market where visitors buy hand-made baskets, bracelets, and figurines, the local Shaman explained that he cures maladies like epilepsy and heartburn and considers himself a pastor of miracles. “I work with spirits to grant spiritual protection to people in need,” he said. But he is also a practicing Catholic.

Shamanism in Emberá-Druá is not solely an indigenous institution; its adherents embrace Roman Catholicism, the majority religion in Panama. Evangelist converts, on the other hand, are strictly confined to their faith. “Most of the town follows la brujeria [witchcraft]. But some have decided to follow evangelism, those people are forced to abandon their culture,” said the Shaman. Most notably, the Pentecostal church forces evangelists to abandon their distinctive style of dress, effectively ostracizing them from the rest of the tribe, who spend their lives taking foreigners on paid tours of traditional life. In a village dependent on its cultural tourism, evangelists cannot practice the customs upon which the town’s industry thrives.

“You have to understand that some villages are more steeped in cultural tradition than others,” said Darrell Tolliver, pastor of Bethany Holiness Church in Sand Springs, Oklahoma and a board member of a missionary group called the School of Gospel. “Everything has to do with the chief. Some of them don’t want their people becoming Westernized and when a chief isn’t open to the gospel, you don’t get in.” Tolliver has regularly performed missionary work in Panama over the past 20 years and noted that, in his experience, the chiefs themselves rarely become believers but welcome missionaries because “they like the results of people whose lives have changed to accept Christ.”

The first step for missionaries arriving in a new village, said Tolliver, is to attract children from the town. “We give candy and toys to the children, and after gaining trust we begin to teach them songs from the Gospel,” he explained. Then parents are invited to join the congregation. Emberá’s first evangelical church was built in 1987; its second, joining the first atop the hill overlooking the village, was completed this past February.

Alonso Caisamo, who was appointed pastor of the church by the mission group of 1987, is now tasked with maintaining Pentecostalism amid a tribe of “non-believers.” Although he lives in a traditional palm hut adjacent to the churches, his home is the extent of his ascription to traditional culture. “The town believes in the evangelist church, and we don’t always get along with the Catholics,” he said, sporting a t-shirt and shorts as he sat in the folding metal chairs that serve as makeshift pews. “God won’t tell them not to follow their culture, but the evangelists decree that they may not go about nude. Once I followed the culture, but when I found God I decided to leave that behind in His name.”

Caisamo’s rejection of the traditional style of dress is the only source of contention between the evangelists and the rest of the tribe. He is careful to use both Spanish and the traditional local language when giving sermons, and he regularly invites the entire town to the church’s celebrations.

Despite the intrusions of foreigners and modern technology, Emberá-Druá has retained many elements of its tradtitional lifetyle, surviving on a mixture of subsistence hunting and cultural tourism. But the infiltration of evangelism threatens the survival of the town’s indigenous roots. Not only does Pentecostalism alter spiritual traditions, it also imposes upon the very culture the Emberá celebrate and profit from. While the thriving town center bustles with traditional villagers and tourists, the evangelist families isolate themselves from the culture, living in their reclusive sanctuary atop the hill.