Ethnicity And Identity


Tearfund’s Director for Latin America persuaded me to go to Bolivia and Brazil in 199? to accompany 3 seminaries in some strategic planning. As I arrived in Sucre with my minute grasp of Spanish I wasn’t at all convinced that it had been a good idea to accept the invitation. On the Sunday evening before planning began I attended a service in a Quetchua village outside Sucre with a missionary who was from my area of Wales and who was living in the village in order to better master the Quechua language. As far as I could tell the indigenous liturgy was rich and the Indian music was definitely superb. To my amazement when the preacher got up to speak he preached in Spanish. I asked my missionary friend whether the congregation could understand the preacher and she answered that many could not. I then asked whether the preacher was Quetchua and she said he was. So I asked why a local man was preaching to his own people in a language they could not understand. I’m prepared to admit that my memory of that whispered conversation may not be very precise by now but the answer to the final question is indelibly burnt into my memory: ‘He’s been to theological college!’ 

It so happened that the college he’d been to was the one that I was visiting to accompany faculty and board through some strategic planning. I now understood why my colleague had asked a Welsh theologian without much Spanish, who had been involved in a small way in the struggle to get proper recognition for Welsh in the educational system in Wales [in the UK], to visit a college in Bolivia. I could certainly empathise with those village believers as they sat listening to one of their own preaching in a language they could not understand. I had suffered cultural humiliation myself on many occasions.

Now the college was the fruit of the work of a very reputable evangelical mission agency. Many churches had been founded as a result of its labours – so much so that it became necessary to establish a college to train pastors to serve the churches. So, why was the training given the pastors making those trained less able to serve their churches? The simple answer is that the mission didn’t think that ethnic identity was a matter of any significance. The message this sent out to Quetchua people is deeply humiliating. It says that their place, history, customs and language are inferior and best forgotten. They really are just ‘dirty Indians’ as many call them and the sooner they became ‘Spanish’ the better. But, then didn’t God promise Abraham that all nations on earth would be blessed through him [Gen 18:18]. The ‘nations’ here in Genesis are much more like what we call ethnic groups or ethnic identities today and I just can’t see how having my ethnic identity rubbished can be any sort of blessing.