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Base Communities

Base Communities

"Basic Christian communities" or "basic ecclesial communities" (BECs) are probably the most accurate translations of the names given in Portuguese and Spanish to a new form of church organization that appeared in Latin America in the 1960s. More common in English, however, are the terms "base communities" and "small Christian communities." "Basic" or "base" refers to the social location of the participants: people at the bottom of society, the exploited workers whose labor is the foundation of the wealth and power denied to them. "Ecclesial" indicates the explicit affiliation with the visible church (understood denominationally or ecumenically). "Community" points to the sharing and solidarity expected of members.

Originally, base communities were predominantly Brazilian, Roman Catholic phenomena: groups of five to thirty Christian laypersons from among the urban and rural poor, usually without a permanent local pastor, gathering once or twice a week in one of their homes, or in a makeshift chapel in their neighborhood, to pray, sing, read the Bible, interpret it in relation to their own lives, plan appropriate action to improve their lives, and evaluate the fruits of previous endeavors. The exact role of the clergy and religious personnel in the launching, continuance, and dissemination of BECs—important indeed—has been much debated among sociologists of Latin American Christianity.

BECs started as a church initiative in about 1963, when Pope John XXIII encouraged lay experimentation and autonomy. BECs responded, first, to the scarcity of clergy. Second, they seemed one of the few available ways to counter the challenge of both Protestantism and Marxism, while revitalizing the church. Finally, there was a crucial contributing factor through the 1970s and 1980s in Brazil and Central America: As U.S.-endorsed dictatorships made it increasingly dangerous for workers to gather, organize, and/or protest while their living conditions worsened, the sacred space of religious meetings often became the only environments left where workers could still somewhat safely convene, organize, share information, and plan protests; but also, perhaps more urgently, they increasingly became vital places to find healing, mutual support, and occasions for the cathartic release of the pains and frustrations of daily life.

BECs contributed much to the education of those unable to go to school regularly. They also constituted a privileged place to become biblically literate, to build self-worth and leadership abilities, to question racism and sexism, and to internalize a democratic spirit of equality, dialogue, and collective decisionmaking—thus providing an arena for both the empowerment of the laity and a "new reformation" of the church, as Richard Shaull has suggested.

BECs thus repeatedly became places where liberation theology was transmitted to "the masses," and where their leaders got much of their energy, inspiration, themes, approaches, and examples.

In many countries, such as Brazil, Guatemala, and El Salvador, BECs became not just religious phenomena in the narrow sense (regularly serving as a platform for ecumenical and interreligious dialogue and initiatives), but also mainsprings of protests against poverty, exploitation, and the violation of human rights; BECs became loci for the democratization of society as well.

The backlash—from both churches and states—was overwhelming. From approximately 1966 on, hundreds of thousands of defenseless BEC members were killed by state-sponsored, U.S.-trained military, paramilitary, and police forces in no less than ten Latin American countries. Where church leaders clearly took the side of the victims, these forces did not spare foreign missionaries (even from the United States), local pastors, religious sisters and brothers, or even a few bishops. In the late 1980s, when the few remaining U.S.-backed military dictators in Latin America were being replaced by elected civilians, the probable cradle of the first Latin American BEC (the slum of San Miguelito, in Panama City) was wiped out by U.S. bombs.

At the height of the BECs' flourishing, in the mid-1980s, some sources estimated their number above a hundred thousand, and their membership at two million—most in Brazil, precisely at the moment in 1984 when the democratization of society, which they had fought for, finally started.

At the end of the twentieth century, BECs seem to be losing ground. Ironically, more than the bloody repression, the causes of this downturn seem to be twofold: (1) the further worsening of the poverty against which BECs emerged (a worsening so severe that it has crushed hopes of, and enthusiasm for, social change), and (2) the arrival of democratization for which the BECs had struggled, creating other venues beyond the churches and consuming much of the time and energies BECs used to attract.


See alsoBelonging, Religious; Liberation Theology; Religious Communities; Religious Persecution; Roman Catholicism; Romero, Oscar Arnulfo; Sociology of Religion.

Bibliography

Adriance, Madeleine Cousineau. Promised Land: BaseChristian Communities and the Struggle for the Amazon. 1995.

Boff, Leonardo. Ecclesiogenesis: The Base CommunitiesReinvent the Church. 1977.

Torres, Sergio, and John Eagleson, eds. The Challengeof Basic Christian Communities. 1982.

Otto Maduro

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