The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Short of electricity, food and water, Venezuelans return to religion

CARACAS, Venezuela — The lights in Petare had gone dark. Again.

The people of Venezuela’s largest slum were used to the blackouts that halt the flow of water, exhaust their supplies of expensive candles and fray their already thin patience.

But this would not be like any other lightless night in the hillside barrio. Amid the darkened alleyways, a strange, joyful sound emerged between the zinc-roofed homes. Tambourines jingled, maracas rattled, drums throbbed. Voices called all who could hear to salvation.

“Cristo sana y salva . . .” 10 members of the Restoring Hearts church sang against the darkness. “Christ heals and saves. . . .”

Buffeted by political and humanitarian crises, one of Latin America’s least religious countries is turning to faith. As the political stalemate between President Nicolás Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaidó grinds into another month, and shortages of electricity, food and water reduce life to a daily struggle to survive, leaders across religious traditions are reporting a flood of worshipers, lapsed and new, searching for comfort and answers.

“All my Masses are full, which has never happened before,” said the Rev. Jesús Godoy, a Catholic priest at the Good Shepherd parish in the Chacao district of Caracas. He says he’s seeing more than 2,000 people each weekend.

“They beg for help,” Godoy said. “They want God to give them the tools to live in crisis.”

In this deeply polarized country, analysts are watching for signs that this growing faithful could emerge as a political force.

Already there are indications: Clergy members hold forth on the country’s woes in homilies and sermons. Churches, synagogues and mosques increase their services to the poor. Priests and nuns attend rallies for Guaidó in their clerical dress.

“To be a spiritual actor in Venezuela today is to express solidarity with people that are suffering and feeling powerless,” said Geoff Ramsey, assistant director for Venezuela for the Washington Office on Latin America. “That in and of itself is a political act.”

But an organized, faith-based movement in response to the political impasse between Maduro and Guaidó has yet to emerge. Analysts say they see no evidence Maduro is more concerned by religious leaders or groups than he is by the general opposition to his rule.

Venezuela’s socialist government has a complicated history with faith.

Hugo Chávez, who launched the revolution two decades ago, saw potential in using Christianity as a tool of the state, and he invoked its imagery as part of his public appeal.

Early on, some religious leaders were open to his promise to improve the lives of the poor. Now, many are critical.

The Pentecostal televangelist Javier Bertucci, who leads a 16,000-member megachurch in the city of Valencia, ran for president last year as an alternative to both Maduro and the opposition — and managed nearly 1 million votes.

Venezuela’s Catholic Church, the largest and most powerful faith group here, has been vocal in opposing Maduro.

Godoy helps connect people on the streets with jobs, housing, food, social workers and psychologists. He sees his ministry as an essentially political project.

“We comfort them, but we also must denounce evil when we see it,” he said. “We cannot be an accomplice to injustice.”

Pentecostal pastor Carlos Vielma has watched attendance in his Caracas congregation explode in the past 18 months to nearly 3,000 at three services each week. He preaches regularly about discernment to combat disinformation and propaganda.

“It’s impossible not to talk about the situation from the pulpit,” Vielma said. “We are all living the same thing. We can’t avoid it, but we are encouraging, empowering and comforting them in the process.”

Maduro has taken note. In an unusual service broadcast on state television in January, he called himself a “true Christian leader” and asked Venezuelans to pray for him.

Jaime Palacios, a professor of philosophy at Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas, says churches, synagogues and mosques are plugged into the social and economic challenges of the communities they serve and can be organizing bodies for political action.

MULTIMEDIA: ‘We keep fighting’: Stories of Resilience from Venezuela

In this South American country of 30 million, signs of collapse are everywhere. Children and adults pick food out of rotting garbage heaps. Hospitals ask patients to buy and bring their own IV bags and gloves to surgery. Teenagers have been shot to death in their homes by masked men.

The country is divided and deadlocked. Maduro claimed victory in elections last year widely viewed as fraudulent. Guaidó declared himself interim president in January.

Leidy Villegas says her Christian faith helps her confront reality. She can barely afford food for her family and can’t find clean water every day. But the idea that there is something bigger and more powerful than her country’s crisis drove her to sing with her church in Petare.

“We found happiness for a few hours and went home joyful,” the 34-year-old mother of four said. “We even forgot about the blackout for a while.

“We know worse days are coming our way, but just like we did that day, we always find refuge in God’s glory,” she said.

As measured by commitments such as attending weekly services and prayer, Venezuela is one of the least religious countries in Latin America, according to polling data from the Pew Research Center. Few Venezuelans would say they were atheist or agnostic; instead, they express belief in spiritual rather than religious terms.

No one keeps national attendance numbers. But leaders across Venezuela’s faith traditions — Catholic, evangelical Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Buddhists — say they’ve seen crowds at services jump in recent months. Several estimated a spike of at least 30 percent. They say newcomers have taken the place of the millions who have left the country.

“It’s something new to me, to see so many people coming down from their homes on Sundays,” said the Rev. Manuel Zapata, a Jesuit priest. “People have a huge spiritual need this year.”

David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, said the return to religion makes sense.

“Not having water, not knowing if you have anything to eat — these are existential challenges,” he said. “That’s precisely when religion starts to seem interesting.”

The Rev. Alfredo Infante, a Jesuit priest in Caracas, is glad people are rediscovering their faith. But he worries for the country.

“It concerns me that during the prayers of the faithful, the things children are asking of God are changing,” Infante said. “Instead of praying for toys or to win their soccer match, childish things, they are scared of not eating and having to emigrate.

“It’s awful. We are in danger of children losing their childhoods.”

‘Why are you crying, Mami?’ In Venezuela, the search for water is a daily struggle.

Brother Guayanés has seen a dramatic increase in visits to Petare’s Callejón de los Brujos.

Here in Sorcerors’ Alley, Guayanés, whose birth name is Carlos Márquez, and six other spirit healers charge cash for a date with the divine.

Guayanés says he sees 300 to 400 people a week seeking healing from his idiosyncratic mix of Santería, Catholic, indigenous and New Age ritual.

A young couple brought their 3-year-old daughter to the silk-robed healer. She has asthma, and her parents can’t afford her medicine.

The family has always believed in his power to heal, said Giovanni García, the girl’s father. But now the ritual is indispensable to their precarious lives.

The family sat before an altar of saints, melted wax and the bust of a cacique, an indigenous tribal chief.

“In the name of the Father, of the Son . . .” Guayanés began, bathing them in smoke from his cigar.

The sobs of a sick baby echoed in the shabby reception area, where at least five others were waiting for the healer.

“Everyone comes here with a different problem,” Guayanés said. “But lately, people are suffering from nerves, anxiety and depression. There’s an imbalance in the spirit.”

Guayanés took a swig of local liquor in front of a statue of Simón Bolívar and Changó, a deity of the Yoruba religion.

“We are a boat adrift. There is no captain,” he said. “Here, we peddle hope.”

In Venezuela, Guaidó and his supporters weigh growing threats from Maduro

In the Andean city of Mérida, the Buddhist Center offers a different approach.

“We will never get away from suffering completely,” said center director Vajranatha, who goes by one name. “So instead of trying to escape from it, we turn toward it and accept that suffering.”

Attendance there is growing, too. Through meditation and study, center leader Carlos Luis says, Buddhists old and new are learning to transcend and liberate themselves from Venezuela’s misery.

At Restoring Hearts church in Petare, the Rev. Felix Uribe shepherds a small pantry of items donated by congregants: threadbare clothes, a wheelchair, crutches, a few bottles of medicine.

The evangelical minister supplements this modest store with Bible verses about God’s promises to bring a lasting resolution to their country’s earthly anguish.

“These are the final days,” he said. “The Bible is full of stories of suffering and loss, but there is a promise. And that is eternal life. This will all pass away.”

Villegas holds on to one particular promise: God will provide.

Eight months ago she was pregnant with her fourth child, but complications required a risky early delivery. With shortages in medical supplies at hospitals, her doctors told her to buy pricey, hard-to-find drugs she could not afford.

She burst into tears. Her faith waned.

Then she started to pray. Within minutes, someone donated what she needed to deliver her son, ­Diogber.

She thumbed the yellowed pages of her worn Bible and pointed to Psalm 91.

“Here God promises me that he will be with me in times of anguish,” she said.

Villegas and others here say they don’t waste time blaming any political figure for Venezuela’s turmoil.

Gladys Torres, 73, had never been to a spiritualist. The lifelong Catholic said she invokes God now more than ever before. But it had been six months since the diabetic had taken insulin or the hypertension pills she needs to keep her blood pressure under control.

She’s losing weight. She’s been feeling weak and hopeless. Her neighbor suggested she visit Guayanés.

Torres says she prays regularly.

“¿Dios mío, hasta cuándo, hasta cuándo?” she said. “Oh Lord, until when?”

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