Consuelo Santiz had to contend with an angry mob when she joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
At first, her new faith meant holding church secretly in her home at night. Later, as the Roman Catholic community learned a new denomination had entered the village, she saw members of her church family beaten and jailed. Breaking through the crowd surrounding a prison one evening in 2001 was the only way to deliver food to her imprisoned husband. His crime was becoming an Adventist.
Santiz, 32, is one of 254 Adventists in this village of about 2,400 people. In 1995 there were none.
The journey hasn’t been smooth, but it’s one that’s made her stronger, she says. Now her poise is apparent as she speaks with ease in front of an audience—unusual in this culture where women are typically shy in public.
“I can say that being a Seventh-day Adventist is something uplifting,” she tells her church family one recent Thursday evening. The Plan de Ayala Adventist congregation has gathered for an impromptu service to meet a visitor who has come to learn their story.
Since 1940, more than 33,000 Protestant Christians in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas have been persecuted for their faith, Adventist Church leaders say. Though religious freedom is guaranteed by the national constitution, that right is often usurped by local tradition.
In Chiapas, home to some 180,000 Adventists, that tradition is Catholicism. And veering from that tradition is not perceived as just a different choice of belief, but as rejecting the community and its culture.
New Protestant converts declining to participate in monthly festivals of the saints can be brought before the police. Others are required to perform community service for not contributing funds to Catholic events.
“In this region, religious customs and traditions are law to these people,” says Hortencio Vazquez Vazquez, Public Affairs and Religious Liberty director for the Adventist Church in Upper Chiapas.
He has reported numerous cases of religious persecution over the years to local government leaders, who then urge to community to allow religious liberty. Despite some improvements, their efforts can often go unheeded.
In 2000, ANN reported that Adventists in this village held their church service next to the site of 14 destroyed homes. Vazquez says the government agreed to support religious freedom, even paying to have the homes rebuilt. Later, though, the homes were again destroyed.
Today the Plan de Ayala Adventist Church congregation is flourishing along with many others.
“We’ve observed that the places with the most violent intolerance, more people join our church in the end,” Vazquez says. “Once the situation is overcome, the church just flourishes.”
Yet many congregations are still struggling to gain acceptance, or even tolerance from the community.
In the nearby town of Mitzitom, fences on the properties belonging to Pentecostals lay scattered on the grass. Vazquez says they were torn down by community members.
“When was that?” a visitor asks.
“Fifteen days ago,” he says.
A few miles away in the town of Yasha, the Adventist congregation meets under a corrugated tin roof propped up by six-foot sticks and boards.
“This is not a church,” says their 33-year-old pastor, Julio Cesár Jimenez, who also oversees 23 other congregations.
About 75 yards off the road behind their temporary place of worship is the site of what would be their permanent church. But for a year now, the surrounding community hasn’t allowed them to finish construction. Piles of settling dirt still sit next to holes, some with unfinished iron rebar sticking out.
“Since the beginning I knew we had to suffer,” says Agustin Garcia, 64, a farmer, like other members of the Yasha congregation. He’s seen the rage from the community throughout the years—he and his children were beaten and imprisoned. But now it’s no longer the entire community, just the core leaders who still oppose freedom of belief.
His fellow church member Isidro Santiz, 53, is affable and almost easy-going as he describes a similar struggle while becoming an Adventist. He spent more than two years studying the Bible before telling his wife, “We should be willing to accept what we believe as truth.”
Several miles away, in the town of Bajocu, Genaro Vasquez, 40, stands in the corner of his father’s house. He joined the Adventist Church while living in another town and brought the faith back to his home community.
“When my wife and I accepted Adventism, we understood the responsibility of sharing our faith. She said ‘you have to go back and preach to your father.’” His father, then an alcoholic, almost refused to speak to him, insisting he would remain Catholic. Now his father is an Adventist Church member and seated at the evangelistic campaign finishing up at the church a few hundred feet away.
Many who once refused to grant freedom of belief have become supporters and members of the Adventist Church. Jorge Hernandez, 39, commissioner for the local community here in Plan de Ayala, first learned about the church through his father. In 2001, he sided with Adventists who were mobbed and beaten in public meetings.
He’s now an Adventist.
At the Thursday evening impromptu service, Hernandez addresses the congregation, citing their hope of one day practicing their faith unharmed. “That hope paid off with the growth of this group in this beautiful church,” he says.
Santiz, the woman who once crossed a mob to care for her husband, can’t withhold tears as she recounts the experience of encountering a faith of grace. “They’re tears of joy,” she says. “I want to emphasize the power of the Lord was in action in the midst of the crowd.”
Nine men line the platform to perform a song on classical guitars, smaller requinto guitars, and one big guitarron providing deep bass. The song title perhaps encapsulates their story: “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe you would see the glory of God.”
A crowd of congregants surround a visitor while leaving the church after the service. On the porch in front of the concrete building, Felipe Gomez Alvarez asks if more people will be able to hear about the commitment of his church members.
“Please carry the story of this church to your own church,” he says, explaining his wish to inspire people in other parts of the world.
“Please, take them our regards.”
—Raul Lozano contributed to this story