Sunday, September 02, 2007

Blogging from Cochabamba

Okay, we’ve been back in Bolivia for a month-and-a-half, and I’m finally getting around to writing a bit about some observations since arriving. There are various topics. I’ll start with the most recent one – I don’t want to spend the whole beautiful afternoon at the computer.

Ecology Day/Pedestrian Day

Today is Ecology Day – or “Pedestrian Day” – in Cochabamba. This was started several years ago. It’s a day when no cars are allowed on the streets. As I recall the first few years there were also groups, including “premilitary” units (kids who do an army reserve kind of service in high school instead of doing their regular, otherwise-mandatory military service later), organized to go around to different parts of the city and do environmentally friendly things like picking up litter. But mainly, it’s a rare day of quiet, when families go for walks and bike rides and play games in the streets.

Bad ecumenism or good civics?

One glaring (blaring?) exception to the general peace and quiet today: the evangelical church a few doors down from our house has decided to put a tent and big speakers out in the streets and blast their music and hallelujahs for the whole neighborhood to hear.

Rocío went and asked them to turn it down, and they said, “It will just be an hour or so,” and actually turned it up. Then a less-polite but (I think) justified neighbor from across the street started screaming from his balcony: “Hey, Evangelicals! Turn down the volume!” They paid him no mind, so he came out and walked over to them and began yelling at them, shaking his finger at them and at their amplifiers, “Every day you blast your music, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday (this is true – they have amplified daily services, with the doors open to the street so that all of the neighbors can hear them) – now it’s Sunday, a day for quiet, a day for God and for family, and you are out here in the street making twice as much noise! You have no right! This is a public street! Turn it off! Go inside if you want to pray and sing! Not here! I can’t read, I can’t write, I can’t hear my radio! You have no right!” They told him to have some respect and lower his voice and he said, “I’ve tried talking to you respectfully – I’ve been over here 10 times! I’ve talked with your pastor, I’ve asked politely, and you don’t listen! You have no respect for anyone!”

This neighbor, an older guy, happens to be a foreigner like me. He’s clearly lived here a long time, but he’s white and has a bit of an accent. Then other neighbors got involved. But it didn’t take long before some other people started making odd remarks like, “You’re here every day! The bible says that Sundays are for God!” (Even though today is Sunday, they were implying that the services held on weeknights are inappropriate, not because they are loud and obnoxious, but because the bible says church should be on Sunday). On the other side, the people from the church and some other neighbors who were listening in started saying things about foreigners telling Bolivians what to do. Furthermore, the church people were defending what they were doing by saying they were evangelizing. This is where I get very uncomfortable – I don’t want to argue with Bolivians who have decided to play the gringo card, and I don’t want to debate missionary theology with the evangelicals (at least not in the street in the middle of a heated argument that ought not be about theology in the first place). Anyway, they didn’t bring their stuff inside as had been suggested by several of us, but they did stop using the amps and speakers.

About an hour later – as our baby was taking a nap – they started blasting their music and rantings again. I went out, and there was the guy from across the street and some of the other neighbors who had complained, all walking toward the church tent. There was now a crowd of kids there watching a puppet show and a woman in a
crummy Winnie the Pooh costume.

The old neighbor guy started yelling at them, which was a little awkward in front of the kids. But I talked to a woman who was leading the show and simply asked her politely to please stop using the speaker. I pointed out that the crowd of kids could hear perfectly well without it, and that the speaker was actually aimed away from their audience (so that the rest of the neighbors would hear it). I pointed out that my baby was trying to nap nearby. The man in charge then came over, and I repeated that the kids didn’t need the speakers in order to hear. I told him I was a Christian missionary (basically true) and meant no disrespect, but that it was really unfair and unnecessary. He said, “But this isn’t only for these kids – it’s a show for the whole neighborhood!” I told him that the rest of the neighborhood didn’t want to hear it, that his show held no interest for my baby napping two doors down. In response to this he looked me in the eye, smiled, and said, “Maybe when he’s older!” Then he explained, “We’re evangelizing the children!”

At this point another neighbor started to say something to him about, “We’re Bolivians!” and I wasn’t sure which side he was on, whether he meant, “You and I are Bolivians and don’t need to listen to these gringos,” or, “You may not care what this gringo says, but there are others of us here who are Bolivians and also want you to be quiet.” Either way, I felt like my presence there was no longer helpful. The old guy from across the street continued arguing with someone else while I made my way back to the house.

Civics and ecumenism both have a ways to go here – like most places, I suppose.

As of now, about 20 minutes later, they are still quiet. But the man across the street wants to start a signature campaign to have the church booted from the neighborhood. As for us, we’re gathering the kids and going for a Ecological Sabbath Day walk. As the sticker on my sister-in-law’s front gate reads: God is green!

No comments: