Dr. Juan Carlos Esparza Ochoa is a leading expert on religion across Latin America and the Global South. He joined the Baylor faculty at the start of the 2019-20 season after managing the Pew Research Center’s religious demography projects. In this Baylor Connections, he paints a picture of the impact of religion on Latin American life and culture and shares his Baylor journey.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with people shaping our future. Each week we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors and more discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith and our guest today is Dr. Juan Carlos Esparza Ochoa. He serves as director of the program on religion, Latin American studies and assistant research professor at Baylor's Institute for the studies of religion in Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, a leading expert on religion in Latin America and global religious change and impact. Dr. Juan Carlos Esparza Ochoa has taught in Latin America for more than 20 years. Prior to coming to Baylor, he managed data for the Global Religious Demography Projects housed at the Pure Research Center. He's the co-director of the project on religion and economic change where he measures the impact of Protestant and Catholic pastoral care, missionary activity and humanitarian work on education, health, economic development and political outcomes around the world. He joined the Baylor faculty in the last year and he is with us here today. Dr. Juan Carlos Esparza Ochoa, thanks so much for joining us. It's great to have you on the program.
Juan Carlos Esparza Ochoa:Thank you very much for the invitation Derek. I am so honored to be able to be with the public and to be able to think together about all these issues.
Derek Smith:Well, it's exciting to get to know more about your research and kind of shine a light on areas of the world and religions impact there that many of us haven't been able to see firsthand. So we're looking forward to diving into that here over the next 20 minutes or so, but let us start off by asking you, what are the questions that drive your research, that you find most intriguing as a scholar and a teacher?
Juan Carlos Esparza Ochoa:I would say there are basically two main questions. One of them is, how religion, religious experience, religious organizations, religious participation has been shaping life quality in Latin America and the global south. Meaning how this has provided tools, coping strategies, learning experiences, even techniques and abilities. Like for instance, dissemination of Bible and Bible reading led all the printing enterprises in many places in the global south. So how this has been deeply significant for life quality and now that we are particularly interested in Baylor for human flourishing, that would be one of the ways of calling this kind of influence. The other one would be, how would they make up sense of their own identity and their own, let's say, definition from religious experience and religious sources. So one of them would be, more observable life quality situations. The other one would be more like the interior experience that we from Christianity call, spirituality. That is spiritual way towards feeling close or finding that loving father.
Derek Smith:Well we're going to dive into that, but before we do, I want to get to know you a little bit better and learn a little bit more about your path to higher education. So what did that journey look like for you?
Juan Carlos Esparza Ochoa:I think that the best way of defining that in one word was, providence. When I was going back through some ideas for recovering my own experience, I would see how religion was always important to me and growing up in a Christian family that was almost the natural way but after some time working and serving as a missionary, then I look for an other way of being a missionary, not only directly working with the people but more from the field environment of education. Then trying to spread that kind of deep feeling experience that I had during my missionary work but also keeping in touch with those kind of experiences. So I would say that the academia was another way of keep doing what I was doing from before.
Derek Smith:As a young person, were there family members or ministers or teachers who played a particularly meaningful role in shaping your direction?
Juan Carlos Esparza Ochoa:Yes. Yes. I would say there were like three important moments in my life. One was when working at the hospital in Tequisquiapan, close to Mexico City.
Derek Smith:Is that where you're from originally?
Juan Carlos Esparza Ochoa:No. I'm from Chihuahua but I was studying there. I studied theology in Mexico City and then when I was there, I was serving during weekends at that hospital. I remember the first day that I got there and I was supposed to give a talk to the people there and I remember that after the talk I was so proud of being there and whatever, and I asked one of the sisters who was working there from the [Verg] of Charity, and then I ask her, "How was it, sister?" And she like, "Well, you will probably be learning", and then would be one teacher, one great teacher that I had when studying theology. I liked his way of combining this scholar like, really a discipline, seriously taken as a theologian but at the same time also always in contact with people, with pastoral work, with involvement.
Derek Smith:Well you've taught throughout Latin America, you worked with the Pure Research Center. You came here to Baylor. What attracted you to Baylor and made you want to come be a part of what's happening here?
Juan Carlos Esparza Ochoa:Well, it was again something providential. The position was a closed appeal and I had of course all that great experience but then was looking for a good environment for working, not just for a place for working and even I was looking for some opportunities out of the US and Latin America to get involved again more direct missionary, pastoral work, but then when I received after being talking with some people here, at Baylor, particularly at the ISR, when I received the letter, the invitation to me was like this is a call, this is something that is worked to follow because makes sense in my whole career. I would say that now I feel somehow complete in terms of the environment for me and the main issue was that we see in your trajectory a strong Christian identity that corresponds to the identity of the university, and to me being in such an environment, in a family is something that means a lot. It means the possibility of being lots more productive, lots more enthusiast and lots more committed, not just with a material institution, which is also part of that but mainly with spirit that we share here. So to me, the Pro Ecclesia, Pro Texana started being a way of synthesizing my own career in terms of committing to doing something significant for Christian communities but also for the social reality in which we could be involved.
Derek Smith:We are visiting with Dr. Juan Carlos Esparza Ochoa here on Baylor Connections and as we talk about your research and the role of religious life in Latin America, I'm going to start by asking you, what do you find most beautiful about expressions of religion in Latin America and the role of religious communities there?
Juan Carlos Esparza Ochoa:Well I would say that the most beautiful thing that I've been able to feel, to observe but also to feel that you can somehow in your skin is the loving attitude of people in religious environments. So even in the middle of suffering, in the middle of violence, persecution, in the middle of problems, poverty, hunger they can still live with this hope in God. I would say Christian identity is very deep in Latin America and is gaining contents in different ways but has been always somehow enacting with different expressions but always expressions that are very warm, very full of care, tenderness and that's something that characterizes those religious expressions, always close to... Like for many indigenous communities, even ways of approaching God in their prayers, it's a very caring expression full of love, full of very close and feel heart to heart relationship.
Derek Smith:Talking with Dr. Juan Carlos Esparza Ochoa here on Baylor Connections and asked you at the top of the show, what some of the main questions that drive your research are, but when you are researching in the field, when you are visiting a community, what are some of the questions you're asking or some of the things that you're observing so that you can really get to the root of some of these broader questions you're examining?
Juan Carlos Esparza Ochoa:I'd say the first question or the first challenge is what's going on here, and how can I get somehow out of the box from my former thinking, hypothesis, perspectives, etc. So, I think each time I've been in a community, I have been able to learn from them if I am open to see what's going on there and then the first issue, it's trying to get rid of all preconceptions of all prejudices and all pre-notions and try to put them [for a little while], in order of understanding what's going on, what they live, what they feel, what they do from themselves as much as possible. Of course, we never can get as close as we would like to and some people know that, that would take probably years to be really in a position for understanding that, but at least having that internal disposition helps us to be closer to the long understanding of faith, of God and God in their lives and how to live from that experience of God.
Derek Smith:Now, I know it could be different in different regions or different experiences, but more broadly can you talk about the impact of religious life on people sense of self and the way they serve in their communities? What stands out to you? What are some of the findings from your research about the way religion impacts people in communities, in Latin America that have been most interesting to you, most meaningful or helpful?
Juan Carlos Esparza Ochoa:Something that is amazingly interesting is that community dimension. From many things that we could also talk about the characteristic of global south compared to the US and European countries but also bigger community and as much as it is really a community, a face to face, a closer relationship, a place where neighbors are not just theoretically neighbors but those that we know are close and that we interact with them everyday and then when religious groups are able to provide an environment for this experience, that really makes a difference in people's life and even in people's health and in people's life expectancy, education. Even for social factors as, a brother, social capital, more interaction, more access to resources but also because they don't feel alone and they have better ways to cope with many things. So a community is something that means that you are not, as an indigenous community, not willing just to have the majority decision but the communal decision, which means there should be a consensual decision even if it takes lots longer than a democratic majority way of deciding things.
Derek Smith:That's fascinating. So what has been most interesting to you of watching some of those decisions take place and the impact that those decisions have on maybe affirming that sense of community?
Juan Carlos Esparza Ochoa:Yeah. For instance the first time I was invited to a communal meeting in a community in El Nayar western side of Mexico, and I knew that inviting me was a way of just honoring me because the whole meeting was there. So of course, even if I knew couple of words, I was not able to understand. I mean just standing there to me, was an exercise of keeping awake without understanding what's going on, during hours, and hours and hours. So it started, I think, on Wednesday morning and it ended on Thursday about noon. I mean the whole time of discussion, day and night, they take smoke break, they go and sleep one of them, they come. Like it's a completely different environment that one, that we could think in kind of a council or something like that. Over there it's like, we will get to the decision for the good of all of us but also in respect of each one of us, and then that dynamics to me, it's the best way of understanding what we're called to be as Christians and when are able to enlighten that experience with the light of Christ and the Gospel, it completes and plenaries that, because that's what I think Jesus came to teach us is that we should be community but that does not mean nullifying the individual but given himself or herself as well.
Derek Smith:We are visiting with Dr. Juan Carlos Esparza Ochoa here on Baylor Connection. He joined the Baylor faculty last year after teaching throughout Latin America for many years and working at the Pure Research Center and Dr. Esparza Ochoa what I ask at the end of the last couple of minutes here, I want to ask you about your role. We mentioned at the top of the show you teach at the School of Social Work, Diana R. Garland School of Social work and also are with the Institute for the studies of religion at Baylor, what does that appointment look like and how does that influence the work you do with students and the research you do?
Juan Carlos Esparza Ochoa:Again, if Baylor was like this big family where I was feeling like so pampered, so supported. In particular, each one of these two instances are not just offices but close families that have been amazingly supportive to my experience. The School of Social Work has been a great discovery in terms of understanding a particular style of recovery not just social work but the social work with a strong Christian identity, identity with strong spirituality, and also different from many social work understanding in Latin America that could end being more kind of bureaucratic than to me has been encouraging discovery in social work almost as similar to what I was understanding for evangelization of popular work in Latin America. On the other hand, ISR, The Institute for Religion, even if we are not the whole day there because it's not having classes or students, there is more like the instance for research it's also having close friends to want to be supportive to you and to see how they can help you to go on and keep going, and even if some of my colleagues are real figures in terms of the study of religion in the US, and at the world level, some of them their humility, their close relationship, their kindness is the best way of showing what kind of a spirit is the one like leading and enlightening their own work. So it's been like, being at home in both places in different ways. School of Social Work also has provided me the opportunity of being closer to students, even if I was not teaching this semester, I will be next semester but it was a way of being closer to students but also some of the students, close to the research of religion had been approaching at the Institute Studies of Religion and one of them a great student, it's a close colleague which is a great guy and working with me and of course at ISR also my deep friend and colleague Dr. Robert Woodberry who has been... I've been working with him since I was a graduate student and we've been like building up, not just friendship but also a very fruitful project to be understanding this Christian activity over the world.
Derek Smith:Well that's very exciting, exciting to have you here and to see the fruits of some of that research in the work you do with students as you move forward. So Dr. Juan Carlos Esparza Ochoa, thanks so much. It's been great to have you on the program here.
Juan Carlos Esparza Ochoa:Thank you very much again for the invitation and hopefully this helps a lot to enlighten people to make sense of their lives in terms of building up communities.
Derek Smith:Absolutely. Thank you so much Dr. Juan Carlos Esparza Ochoa, director of the program on religion Latin American studies and assistant research professor, Baylor's Institute for the studies of religion and Diana R. Garland School of Social Work. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder you can hear this and other programs online. Baylor.edu/connections. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.