Street preaching in Barcelona and the reshaping of the Catalonian religious landscape

Photo by Eran Menashri on Unsplash

Despite the fact I grew up in Spain, a country with deep cultural, political and historical ties to Catholicism, religion was never a particular concern. My father was brought up in a Spanish communist family, so he thinks religion is, as Marx (1843) eloquently put it, “the opium of the people”. My mother does not hold a higher opinion of religion either. She never willingly participates in religious events and despises Catholic priests, who she reckons harsh to children. As a result, I was never baptised in the Spanish Catholic Church, unlike most of my friends or cousins. Nor did I receive my first communion, a traditional collective ritual very popular with children and parents that includes joyful large family gatherings and gift-giving to those who pass through this rite of passage.

When growing up, I struggled to understand why people believe in things they cannot see and thought religion was the byproduct of irrational beliefs. Accordingly, I reckoned religious ceremonies were folk-like practices doomed to fade away someday. However, my perception of religion drastically changed when I took my first sociology module at university in Madrid. I was impressed by the attention the foundational work of authors such as Max Weber and Emile Durkheim gave to religion in their sociological theories and was fascinated by the prominent place religion took in their observations regarding the genesis of the modern world.

I learned two two basic, yet insightful, lessons from my first readings in the sociology of religion. The first one is that for sociologists, religion is hardly ever only religion. On the contrary, the study of religion opens the door to interrogate other critical aspects of the social, such as the emergence of modern capitalism (Weber 1904) or social cohesion (Durkheim 1912).

The second lesson is that, instead of judging religion to logic or rational standards, sociological analysis excels when it finds and explains what religion does in social life. In other words, how and why people cleave to faith and under what circumstance they do so.

In my 2020 Peter B Clarke entry essay for the Sociology of Religion (Socrel) study group of the British Sociology Association, Street preaching and the rise of Latin-American Christian Heroes in Barcelona: A sociological approach[1] — which followed from fieldwork I carried out as part of a project funded by the Spanish Government titled ‘Religious Expressions in the Urban Spaces of Madrid and Barcelona’ (PI Dr Mar Griera, Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona) — I examined the outdoor preaching and recruitment activities of Pentecostal Christian migrants in Spain. Drawing on a qualitative approach, I conducted in-depth interviews with church pastors and engaged in regular observations of street preaching.

As I experienced during fieldwork, Barcelona-dwellers often ignore — and sometimes even react aggressively to — preachers and believers that approach them. In my analysis, I aimed to understand why some Latin American believers engage in low-efficacy recruitment activity. I also sought to comprehend why they are so driven and committed to the cause of spreading the Gospel in the streets. Not even the Covid-19 global health crisis has seemed to discourage them. Most churches that participated in my fieldwork — which finished before the pandemic hit Spain — affirmed they would resume their street-preaching activities after Covid restrictions are lifted.

For my essay, I reworked the two lessons I learned when studying sociology at university. Concerning the first lesson, I discovered outdoor religious activities provide personal meaning and a sense of vital purpose. Street preaching fosters social, affective and moral cohesion among believers and acts as a critical medium through which some evangelists gain prestige in their congregations and communities at large.

In contrast to its limited effectiveness in recruiting new members, street preaching reinforces boundaries and brings believers together vis-à-vis an increasing secularised Catalonian population. Street preaching also prompts highly significant face-to-face encounters for believers where dualistic schemes that divide humanity into those who live under God’s domain and those ruled by the devil are often reproduced.

Regarding the second lesson, I found that, far from being just being a religious activity, street preaching is a practice that seeks to reshape the Catalonian religious landscape and make a claim on the redemptive impact of Christianism on migrants’ lives and behaviour. The foreign identity of street preachers in Barcelona is quite significant here. Historically, Latin Americans, the recipients of missionary projects led by Spanish Catholic Christians, are now active religious subjects who preach the Gospel in Spain. Being a foreigner allows Pentecostal Latin American immigrants to consider themselves as part of a wave of renewal of Catalonian Christianity against a decadent native Spanish Catholic Church.

Moreover, the selection of spaces to preach the Gospel with a vital moral and cultural significance for Latin Americans — such as street areas where young Latin gangs gather — shows how street preaching enhances positive self-representations concerning the Christian immigrants’ beneficial role in city life. Through street preaching, believers not only seek to recruit new members but also address issues such as youth violence that generate anxiety and stigmatisation for Barcelona’s Latin American population.

In the title of my essay, I utilised the word “hero” to describe the status of street preachers within some Pentecostal Christian communities. I did so because street preachers embody ideals of bravery and venture on quests where they pursue religious feats winning souls for Christ. However, Christian heroes differ from the hero type often described in classical Greek mythology. Street preachers are held in high esteem within their congregations and admired for their determination to spread the Gospel and strength in the face of adversity.

However, they never pursue feats for the sake of glory and honour or seek celebration from legends or popular culture in the way main characters in heroic epic poetry do. Street preachers in Barcelona think of themselves as anonymous “soldiers of faith” — this how many of them like being called — battling at the front line of a ‘spiritual war’ against the evil forces that inhabit the city. They usually reject any celebration of their spiritual qualities — including the word “hero” itself — and depict themselves as humble servants of Christ.

Even though I do not share their conservative morals or religious beliefs, I must admit I am deeply touched by street preachers’ resolve and spiritual commitment. Because of their growing presence on the streets, it is fair to say that Pentecostal preachers’ outdoor religious practices are becoming intrinsic to Catalonians’ urban experience.

Bibliography

Durkheim, Émile. (2001) [1912]. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marx, Karl (1970) [1843]. Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Cambridge University Press.

Weber, Max (2001) [1904]. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Routledge.

Dr Antonio Montañés Jimenez is a St Leonard’s Associate at the University of St Andrews and a member of ISOR (Research in Sociology of Religion) at the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona. He was the recipient of the 2020 Peter B Clarke Memorial Essay Prize, which is awarded to a postgraduate member of Socrel.

The socoiology of religion study group at the British Sociological Association. https://www.britsoc.co.uk/groups/study-groups/sociology-of-religion-study-group/