Yes, churches in Argentina and especially in deprived neighborhoods, like the villas, are spaces where the community can speak freely and share ideas about what they want to organize in terms of politics and social activities. All of this is possible thanks to los curas villeros, priests that belong to these areas and who aside from preaching their religion, also advocate for justice and equality, representing the community.
This interesting relationship arose in the sixties when Argentine priests of the catholic church formed a movement called Movimiento de Sacerdotes para el Tercer Mundo, in which they decided to move to the villas and start helping the vulnerable communities with their basic needs and everyday struggles. Carlos Mugica was its main advocate and to this day is considered as the one who paved the road for the upcoming priests that continue with his legacy. He was murdered in 1974 after delivering mass in Villa Luro. It is believed that he was killed by La Triple A, a parapolicial organization of extreme right views.
Since then, it has become a normality in las villas to associate their churches with active work and support for their causes. This intersection between religion and politics, that in many cases could only bring problems, has on the contrary, created a positive atmosphere for the community. A strong social and political participation is vital for deprived neighborhoods since they can’t rely on many tools to prosper and who often times feel forgotten by society or abandoned by the government.
The cura villero is perceived then, both as a spiritual guide and as a political leader. Neighbors see churches as a refuge where they can pray and feel protected by god but also as a place where they can fight for their rights. The priest becomes a person from the community, a neighbor, another human who makes them feel like they matter, like they are the ones who shine in the spotlight.
It's important to mention that many of the members of this movement were peronists and that some of them joined revolutionary guerrillas. El Movimiento de Sacerdotes para el Tercer Mundo was dissolved due to the State terrorism that the country went through in the seventies during the military dictatorship. In fact, Pope Francis is a great supporter of the curas villeros and in various occasions he has identified himself as a one of them. He himself had to face repression and threats during the dictatorship when he worked as jesuit in Buenos Aires.
Once you get immersed in the Argentine culture and you witness first hand how politics has impacted its people, you understand this curious dynamic between religion and political activism. If you think of a country where everyone, even priests, were silenced and stripped of their rights to share not only their religion but their political views, it’s not so ludicrous to think of churches as political centers for the communities where everyone gets to speak out and find a way to let the State know that they exist and won’t be silenced ever again.