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 worshippers, 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 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 about 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 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.
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.
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