Two weeks from now, I’ll be in a remote village in the Chicaman region of Guatemala, with a team of Alaskan Providence Health and Services employees, helping build sanitary latrines. And I can’t wait.
This isn’t my first trip to Guatemala. In my final year of college at Pacific Lutheran University, I spent a semester in Cuernevaca, Mexico, with the Women and Development Issues in Latin America Program (through Augsburg College, Center for Global Education). During those incredible, life-changing and heart- and mind-stretching months, we spent two weeks traveling through Guatemala and Nicaragua.
I returned to Guatemala again for a three-week language program in Quetzaltenango (Xela) during seminary and again for about a week for a course on the Prophets, to Lago Atitlan.
I’ve been home sick all weekend, and have spent much of that time rereading I, Rigoberta Menchu, the powerful story of a Guatemalan peasant woman who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. I’ve also been rereading my journal from that semester in Mexico and Central America, and remembering.
Rigoberta Menchu describes the things her parents told her when she turned ten, moving into adulthood in their culture. She writes
“They told me I would have many ambitions but I wouldn’t have the opportunity to realize them. They said my life wouldn’t change. It would go on the same — work, poverty, suffering. At the same time, my parents thanked me for the contribution I’d made through my work, for having earned for all of us … My father said; ‘You have a lot of responsibility; you have many duties to fulfill in our community as an adult. From now on you must contribute to the common good.’ “
And as I traveled with my companions through Mexico and Central America, hearing the stories of refugees, mothers, activists, teachers, I witnessed the truth in Menchu’s words. Within days of the beginning of the semester, before we even crossed the border into Mexico, meeting with people who were part of the sanctuary movement and with representatives from INS and the Border Patrol, I wrote,
“What strikes me a lot, again, is how much U.S. citizens think! Other countries seem to concentrate more on survival, on the basics, and I think it’s another sign of our wealth, the luxury of time.”
I heard stories from women who told of their own experiences or experiences of their family members being kidnapped, tortured, killed. One woman asked us why we were there, what would we do with the information we were receiving. Her question still haunts me — “What will you say to them about us?”
I also wrestled with religion, faith, the Church. I saw the impact of religion at its best and at its worst. I wrote in my journal, after a long meeting of processing and discussion (did I mention nearly the entire group of women in my group were women’s studies majors?),
…And then I wanted to say I’m thinking about the ministry, that it’s where I’m being called, and I can’t even escape it here. And that this is why I have to ultimately become a pastor, because I am a feminist. Because I care about social justice. Because I care about the environment. Because I care about and love people, and I love these women I’m in community with. After hearing these stories I realize how lucky, how blessed I am, what a healthy environment I’ve grown up in, and I see my strength. As a woman, as a person, as a caregiver. And maybe this is why — maybe I’ve been given strength for this purpose.
She also writes about what she and her community learned studying the Bible together, “That being a Christian means thinking of our brothers around us, and that every one of our Indian race has the right to eat. This reflects what God himself said, that on this earth we have a right to what we need… we realized that it is not God’s will that we should live in suffering, that God did not give us that destiny, but that men on earth have imposed this suffering, poverty, misery and discrimination on us.” (p. 132)
I was able to spend a couple weeks living with a Mexican family, and my family members were also very involved in a similar small group Bible study. I attended some of these gatherings with them, and wrote after one, “When we prayed after the first (Base Christian Community), my (host) father prayed for me, that I would learn here, that I would learn from this community, that I would understand that ‘we are not rich, we are not poor…’ ”
My host father and I would compare Martin Luther and St. Francis of Assisi, and he would talk with me about the importance of community, and raising consciences, the need for unity among Christians, that we must not dehumanize others. I wrote,
I’m learning so much here, and everything speaks to me so strongly — I don’t know how another person would react — I just know it’s good for me to be here.
And so soon I will return to Guatemala. I’m grateful to be going with a well-established program (we’re partnering with Medical Teams International, which has roots in Chicaman. I’m glad we will be doing something useful. If you’d like to be a part of this experience, we’re also raising money toward the work and supplies that we’ll be bringing to these communities.
Thanks to the tremendous generosity of friends and family, I’m looking forward to going past my goal (only $20 to go as I write this!) … know that ALL the funds we raise will go toward these projects — building sanitary latrines, installing stoves in homes to improve air quality and combat the respiratory illnesses that are the number one killer of children in Guatemala).
**Update: Within an hour of posting this blog, we blew past my goal … THANK YOU for your generosity! Thus, I set a new goal … I wonder if we can get to $1500?
But more than that, I’m looking forward to meeting people in Guatemala. Watching for beauty. Hope. Strength. Joy. In them, in me, in us.