The final leg of our Great American Road Trip included visits to New Hampshire and Maryland. The former was for the ordination of my brother-in-law as a Deacon in the Roman Catholic Church; the latter for my niece’s Bat Mitzvah.
The juxtaposition of these two family events got me to thinking about one thing you bring with you as an expat: your faith. As the famous philosopher Buckaroo Banzai once said, “wherever you go, there you are.” In the context of being an American expat, you bring your faith with you to the new environment, and it will almost certainly be an environment very different from the States.
Take Mexico, for example. Mexico is an overwhelmingly Catholic country: 91% Catholic according to the 2010 census, making Mexico second only to Brazil worldwide for numbers of Catholics. Every Mexican town has a Catholic church in the main square, and that church is the center of town life. The festival for that church’s patron saint is a major party, and other saints have similar festivals which involve early morning bands, parades, parties, and day or week-long fireworks. Some churches broadcast daily prayers, like a rosary, over loudspeakers for the whole town to enjoy. So Mexico is noisily Catholic.
While Catholicism is prevalent in Mexico, it is not overwhelming. There are growing numbers of younger Mexicans who are culturally Catholic, but whose beliefs and practices more closely resemble the “Nones” NOB. The missing nine percent from the 2010 census belong to a variety of other Christian churches, which have proselytized in Mexico for years. Most importantly, the Catholic church in Mexico has had a contentious relationship with the federal government in Mexico City, going all the way back to the Mexican War of Reform (1857-1860). During the revolution in the early 2oth century, the Church opposed the socialist groups which consolidated power, and the eventual winner, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) returned the favor by expropriating Church property and outlawing public displays of religion. By the 1920s, this led to the Cristeros rebellion, which was especially brutal. After this inconclusive conflict, both sides remained combative, but over time a gradual truce developed where the Church was left alone as long as it stayed out of politics. So Catholicism in Mexico may sometimes be out of sight, but rarely out of mind. Learning all this was quite enlightening to this Irish Catholic, and put the culture wars NOB in a different perspective, since the culture wars down in Mexico were real wars!
When choosing where to live as an expat, you’ll need to consider how your faith will fit in with your new country. Lakeside is unique for Mexico in terms of the number and diversity of faith offerings for expats. Having a faith community to welcome you can be a big boost psychologically, and can provide important assistance during the critical early transition period. Likewise, not understanding local religious practices can lead to a rocky start. I have heard more than one expat complain about the noisy Mexican patronal saint celebrations, expressing surprise at something that happens every year on the same date, usually with a big build-up in the weeks preceding!
Especially for Americans accustomed to faith being a personal or private matter, it can be a challenge adapting to other cultures where faith is something very public and shared! Not insurmountable, but still one more thing to consider in deciding to go the expat route.