by Luis Miguel Modino (English translation by Rebel Girl)
January 28, 2016
Woman, indigenous person, and theologian are categories that are apparently hard to combine. That is the case of Vicenta Mamani Bernabé, an Aymaran woman in the Methodist Church, trained in theology, who is currently rector of the Instituto Superior Ecuménico Indígena de Teología in La Paz (Bolivia).
In this interview, the Aymara theologian offers us a vision of the challenges she is facing in her daily work, the worldviews of the native Andean peoples and their relationship with Christianity, helping to understand their interrelationship and how they can mutually enrich one another.
What is the mission that the institute you direct is attempting to carry out?
It's a place where senior technical staff in Religious Studies and Theology are formed, so that men and women can serve in the churches, social organizations and in society itself.
At the Institute, a biblical pastoral program is underway that organizes groups of lay men and women in the local churches to train in areas of Bible, gender and other issues, as well as training of graduates in the issues of highlands and lowlands and the training of professionals who are working in institutions and NGOs. We offer public lectures, workshops and meetings on different topics. What cuts across the institution is the issue of gender, intercultural and interfaith dialogue, theology of creation, religious and theological decolonization, and ancestral spiritualities.
How do you combine being an indigenous woman and a theologian? Is it difficult to enter the world of theology as an indigenous woman?
The study of theology used to be reserved for males and now in the theological institutes and universities, we women are gradually going into this area of training, but it's not easy to study in a sexist, male-centered environment and, incidentally, studying theology isn't economically profitable. One studies it because of vocation, because of a commitment to serve in the Church, knowing that we women are the ones who mostly do the service work.
Not just studying how to fill places of responsibility. Is it difficult to fill the places that were always filled by men?
The institute where I work has already been in existence twenty years and in all that time, it has always been men who have led the institution. But now I'm in that position as rector and it's a great challenge to be able to bring this institution forward. And as a woman, I think I'm facing many internal problems but also with the confidence that it will succeed. I have support from my colleagues, the board, from many members and partners of the institution for it to go forward.
Between Latin American native peoples and Christianity and its traditions, what are the similarities and differences?
The Andean peoples, in this case the Aymara culture, we can say that we can't stop being Aymara to be Christian men and women. We have to remain Aymara men and women. Many values that we read in the Bible -- loving your neighbor, visiting the sick, being in solidarity with one's brothers and sisters -- all these values are present in the Aymara culture. Accompanying our brothers and sisters in their difficulties in the community, you have to laugh with those who laugh, you have to mourn with those who mourn, if a person is sick in the community, you have to go visit them, if someone is hungry you must also support them with food, if someone has no clothes, you have to detach yourself and give some to them, when there's community work to be done, you have to be like one man or one woman, if someone gets married, everyone must be there celebrating, and if someone dies, you must also participate to say goodbye to the person. So all these community human values are Gospel values to me. They complement each another. Gospel values strengthen the Aymara experience.
That relationship with the forces of nature which is so present in Andean traditions and spirituality, what does it mean for the Aymara?
For us this Pacha, the universe, nature, the Pacha Mama is our Great Home, it's the temple of God, and so the Pacha Mama is our mother who feeds us. Here we find the plants, water, animals. Everything in nature has life, has a spirit and, therefore, we live together as brothers and sisters of nature, if you like, as sons and daughters of nature. But we humans can't feel superior to nature, rather that we are a part of those beings that exist as subjects in nature. We relate to the goods of nature as subjects -- subject to subject -- we don't see the things of nature as objects.
Has Christianity managed to become inculturated in the Aymara tradition, in the tradition of the Andean peoples?
The Andean people have appropriated many Christian elements that support our life. The Bible, the Cross, prayers and other symbols and other values of the Gospel are already integrated into our lives. All that does not undermine our lives is appropriated.
How is the coexistence between the different Christian denominations and Aymara tradition?
Christian churches for the most part always preach a message that they are the bearers of truth and therefore they often divide the communities. In a community, there are the Methodists, the Assembly of God, the Catholic Church and other religious communities. Sometimes this doesn't convoke us to unity, but to division, and that's not right.