Finding Their Voice

Our last two days in Guatemala held meaningful, eye-opening encounters and information. On Thursday morning we left Guatemala City, this time heading west to the town of San Juan Comalapa in the state of Chimaltenango. Our trip took longer than expected because a protest was blocking the road – a minimal inconvenience that we did not mind much, especially since this wave of protests has been described to us as the Guatemalan people “finding their voice.”

Once we reached our destination we heard another story about “finding voice” at the Cooperative of Mayan Ancestral Art. Fifteen or so women welcomed us, eager to share about their journey of the last three years as they have organized this cooperative. Their aim is to preserve (or recover) their traditional art form as well as improve and market the products they weave. They have learned the meaning of the symbols and colors they use in their weaving, they have improved the quality of their work, and they are on the verge of acquiring the legal status that will allow them to market their weavings more widely. They now call their work “art” rather than “handicrafts,” a word they feel minimizes their effort and artistry. They now have the confidence to speak up, they told us, whereas before they were silent.

Dona Martita, at 70+ years of age, is the best weaver and the mentor for the group. She does not read or write, and one of the cooperative’s plans is to “digitize” what is in her head for the benefit of those who follow.

After hearing their story, we got to see their beautiful works. Weavings are plentiful in tourist markets throughout Guatemala, but knowing the artists and the amount of time that went into each piece made our purchases there particularly sweet. Collectively we bought a bright red weaving that we shared with our congregation today on the communion table.

Friday was our last full day with a lot squeezed into it! In the morning we visited the Casa del Migrante (Migrant House), a place of welcome run by the Scalabrinians, a Catholic order founded in Italy whose mission is to be migrants with the migrants. The soft-spoken administrator shared with us at length about the migrants who come through the Casa on their way north toward the United States. Some are fleeing threats to their lives by drug-related gangs, some are LGBT people rejected by their families and church, many are made so desperate by lack of opportunity that they leave all they know to seek “the land of plenty.”

We were informed or reminded of the many ways that the policies of our government feed into the suffering of migrants. High walls at the border, the militarization of the Mexican and Guatemalan borders to the benefit of weapons makers, the privatization of U.S. prisons…the list goes on. The problems seem intractable, yet in that Casa in Guatemala City, people are being treated with kindness and dignity, and we felt a sense of hope.

Our last visit was to the Historical Archive of the National Police. Now why, you ask, would we want to see police records? It’s a fascinating story (which I won’t tell in detail because this is too long already!), which began with the accidental discovery in 2005 of millions of administrative police documents dated between 1882 and 1996. The Guatemalan government had denied their existence, especially when the United Nations and the Catholic Church was investigating human rights abuses committed during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war.

With outside funding, the painstaking work of identifying, classifying, and scanning these documents is being carried out, allowing killers to be brought to justice, and allowing family members of victims to know what happened to their loved ones. “We need to remember what happened,” we were told, “so that it will not happen again.”

I’ve been back in Indianapolis for a day as I finish this blog, and I’m struck by how much we have seen and heard and smelled and touched and tasted and felt. I am grateful to my wonderful co-travelers, to all the remarkable and ordinary people we met in Guatemala, and to our good and generous God.

I’ll end with the blessing song that we learned and shared along our journey, and which seems like the right prayer for today:

Bendice, Señor, nuestro pan.

Y da pan a los que tienen hambre,

y hambre de justicia a los que tienen pan.

Bendice, Señor, nuestro pan.

Lord, bless our bread.

And give food to the hungry,

and hunger for justice to those who have bread.

Lord, bless our bread.

Linda M.

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An Experience of Spirituality in Guatemala City.

We returned to Guatemala City on Monday where we are staying at the Centro Mariopolis Santa Maria de Focolarinos, a retreat center run by five nuns in a suburb of Guatemala City. We drove from the dirty, noisy streets of Guatemala City into a place of quiet, green grass and flowers. It is so peaceful. The beds are hard, but the food is excellent! The chicken, pea pods, salad, pancakes, and good coffee are such a change from the beans, corn, rice, and tortillas of Santa Maria Tzeja.

On Wednesday, my back hurt from the long rides in the van, so I decided to stay at the retreat center rather than visit another NGO. I had been unable to find the chapel, so I asked one of the nuns. We ended up talking for two and a half hours. It was the highlight of my trip to Guatemala.

Martita Blanco was born in Argentina. Her order, the Focolarinos, are a community built on Jesus’ teaching to love God and your neighbor. Today there are 158 communities around the world who live together, but work in the world. They were founded on the principle of unity and will partner with anyone to help the people in whose midst they live — Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, rich or poor — anyone who will work with them to make the lives of the people better. They believe in the unity of all forms of Christianity; not just the Catholic way, but the way of Jesus. It is not just the “thinking” way, but also the “doing way”.

Martita shared that the order exists to SEE Jesus in each person and to BE Jesus to that person. They believe that you can’t say that you love God if you do not actively love your neighbor. It is important, but not enough to say the right things. Their community here includes the retreat center, an elementary school, and a school of human promotion which teaches women skills with which they can make a living such as cutting hair, embroidery, and dress making.

Early in her career, Martita was teaching elementary school working for a man she called her “enemy”. Given all that Martita had told me up to this point I was shocked and asked her to repeat what she had said because I couldn’t believe that she would call anyone her enemy. The problem was that the head of school was very controlling and required that the teachers teach the old way. Martita was not allowed to use any of the newer methods that she had learned in school; but she used them anyway, and he would yell at her. She said that it became a cold war because they stopped talking to each other. She did what she wanted and he was angry.

Knowing that she had to change, she wrote her boss a letter telling him that she would start to teach his way. She did not hear back from him, and she went to inquire about him. She found out that the man was in the hospital and was very sick.

Martita thought, ” This is my chance!” and headed off to the hospital. She said to herself, “Remember you are here to love; to see Jesus in this person.” When she arrived at the hospital the man was lying in bed, but Martita did not know what to say. A busy nurse came in with food for the man and asked Martita to feed him. After spoon feeding him, the man asked “Why are you doing this for me?” Martita answered, “ I thought I was a Christian before, but I was not. If I am a Christian then I must love.” The wall between them came down and their relationship was changed. The man had not gone to church for 40 years and had claimed that God did not exist. He went back to the church that Christmas. She credits Jesus for this chance to witness.

After her encounter with her boss, she was feeling full of life. She decided that she wanted to live with others who were living the Gospel. She wanted to live in a Focolarino community. She left her family at age 23 and travelled to Rome for her 3 years of formation. In 1968 she completed formation and was sent to Asia where she worked for 40 years in various Focolarino communities in many Asian countries. After her many years in Asia, Martita was sent to Guatemala as part of a new Focolarino community.

Focolarino communities are focused on unity of all people and live in community spirituality. I was not familiar with this term. Martita explained that when the nuns gather at the end of the day to share experiences of that day they each have stories of seeing God in other people. Through this sharing they are awed at Jesus’ work in the world. This heightened sense of awe among the group is what they call community spirituality. Martita acknowledges that being Jesus to others is hard, but says that it is a way of living that becomes easier with practice.

We are all drawn to Martita. She is serving us by showing hospitality through shelter and food, she answers our questions about living a life serving Christ where you are, and she prays for us each day. She is a beautiful woman truly living the call of Christ to love God and to love our neighbor by being Christ to them. Martita has shown us a path to live Jesus much more fully.

The Uprising Against Corruption

In a previous blog post Lori talked about some of the history of Santa Maria Tzeja. I am going to tell you about what happened since to create the exciting climate for reform that we are experiencing in Guatemala City this week.

When the refugees of SMT returned from Mexico they found that the government had given their land to new settlers who were supportive of the government. Can you imagine coming home from another place to find that someone else was living in your house and supporting their family on your land? The returning refugees were forced onto land that was farther from the church and selling/shopping area. This land was even more hilly (everything is hilly, this was just way more hilly) and the jungle had not been cleared for farming. The villagers are subsistence farmers. They had to start from the beginning by clearing the jungle. This happened all across Guatemala for years.

While we were in SMT we walked for breakfast (rice, beans and tortillas) in a host family’s home. The walks were sometimes 25 minutes up and down steep hills in each direction. This process was repeated at dinnertime to another host family’s home for more rice, beans and corn tortillas. Did I mention that we ate a lot of rice, beans and tortillas? Each time the family wants to go to church, sell something, buy something, get transportation to a larger town, etc. they walk that 25 minutes and continue to pay the penalty of resettlement.

Several facts resound! There is a long history of corrupt governments taking land from indigenous people in Guatemala. The people had no civil rights. For many years Guatemala was controlled by dictators whose armies terrorized the people.

Eventually some brave people began to speak out; many were killed. People were not allowed to organize or demonstrate for their rights. Even so, a few embers began to glow. In SMT the parents felt very strongly that their children must be educated and go to college. Several of the first college graduates from SMT now play a large role in working for reform in Guatemala. The fire of the people’s quest for justice could not be extinguished….it grew and grew, and in recent years organizations working for justice have sprung up across the country. There is excitement in the air. The people are ready for change and are organizing to make it happen. The Ecumenical Council of Churches is a loud voice proclaiming the people’s right to justice.

Officially Guatemala is a democracy. They do have a constitution and an elected government. They have many political parties who all seem to be campaigning against corruption. Many of these political parties have had representatives elected to Congress. The next election is scheduled for September so there are many campaign signs and trucks driving around with blaring messages calling people to vote for their candidate. At the same time people are making demands that corruption be eliminated. The Ecumenical Council of Churches has a platform of requests.

In advance of elections the political parties in charge skim off huge amounts of government revenues to be used to finance their campaigns. This is money raised through a sales tax. There are numerous loopholes in the tax laws, which allow the wealthy to avoid paying any taxes so the government revenue is really coming from the people living in poverty. Guatemala is known for having one of the worst taxing systems in the world. Their taxing commission (the equivalent of our IRS) has been taking a cut of taxes before giving the rest of the revenues collected to the government for the government budget. Candidates are able to take money from government coffers, from companies, wealthy individuals, and even drug traffic-ers, and they do not have to report where they got the money or how they spent it. The people are demanding transparency and accountability.

Another area of corruption is that the parties in power pass laws to keep some people from voting. They are designed to limit the participation of women and to prevent the indigenous people from voting. The people are demanding a stronger Election Commission who will ensure that no one is denied their vote.

In Guatemala the media is controlled by the parties in power, so minority parties and the indigenous viewpoint are never heard. The people are asking for a free press, which is accessible to everyone.

When our group met with the Ecumenical Council of Churches we heard a very comprehensive and detailed presentation of all the various forms of corruption in Guatemala. I asked the presenter if he knew the total cost of corruption in Guatemala. In that discussion he said that he didn’t know if Guatemala was more corrupt than the US because the Guatemalans are very open about it and name it corruption. It caused me to consider efforts in the US for campaign finance reform, minimum wage laws, and the need for changes in laws that prevent every citizen from exercising their right to vote. These issues are called corruption in Guatemala.

In SMT I saw the people govern themselves using a very democratic (elections of completely new committee leaders every year) system to have justice in their small community. I was amazed. I have never seen a group of people manage themselves so effectively democratically. Each candidate is limited to one year in office and must wait for many years to lead that committee again.

The Guatemalan people are rising up against all these forms of corruption. They are standing up for justice. I pray for their safety and success. I will also be visiting my elected officials to ask the US government speak out for justice for all Guatemalans.


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Let Us All Love One Another

Someone has described Central Christian Church as the Island of Misfit Toys. To many of us this seems like an apt description – partly because Central has been good at welcoming some folks injured by other churches, and partly because many of us are, well, a little weird. My story might push the boundaries of weird just a little bit, even for Central.

You see, I have for more than 20 years studied Mayan and other spiritual traditions. Not just Mayan calendar and practices but also Goddess traditions, numerology, Sanskrit, non-canonical gospels and much more. I have gone to classes on these topics as well as esoteric healing and meditation. These topics connect with my professional life as a cranial-sacro therapist; I work people over with my hands and make them better.

So the chance to participate in a Mayan ceremony in a Mayan land led by a Mayan sprit guide was what attracted me to participate on this trip. Among our activities in the village of Santa Maria Tzeja, the group attended a Mayan fire ceremony. This traditional practice was stamped out by colonial invaders but is recently reemerging among Mayan peoples. Our guide through the two-hour ceremony was a relative novice but it was moving and striking and I very much appreciated being there. The time flew by as he touched on multiple elements of spirituality, and immediately after the ceremony ended a big wind came up! Afterwards I talked with the guide to learn a bit more.

I see a lot of overlap between Mayan spirituality and Christianity. When my husband was serving as pastor of a church I was very cautious about talking about these topics. I totally understood this but am glad now to be part of a Disciples congregation where we don’t have to have all of our spiritual understandings align precisely for us to worship together. As a denomination we have taken a position that we believe Jesus is the Christ, but our General Assembly has also rejected a proposal that we say that Jesus is the only way to know God. Let us all love one another.



We met one afternoon with five men who are among the survivors of the Santa Maria Tzeja village massacre of 1982. In their 50’s, 60’s, and beyond, they witnessed unspeakable horrors perpetrated by a dictator who feared all opposition. One saw his mother, his brother, and two cousins killed as they were all fleeing for the jungle to escape the indiscriminate killing. It was humbling to sit in the presence of these men who eventually returned to the site to reestablish the village and who have worked all these years to make Santa Maria Tzeja succeed as a community. Through good years and bad, and with the memories of the massacre and their losses inevitably haunting them, they pushed on for the sake of their children and grandchildren. These are great men and women who have carved out this home in the wilderness. These people embody the spirit of the Quetzal bird, a national symbol, a bird that dies when made captive.

The Mayan people, who make up about 40% of the population of Guatemala, are among the least powerful and poorest. The rich and powerful, most of whom are descendants of old Spanish colonial families, and those who are somewhere between this oligarchy and the Mayans, don’t want to hear about the atrocities that killed some 200,000 Guatemalans in the 1980’s and has generated some one million refugees. This is not surprising. Very few citizens of any country want to hear about genocide perpetrated by their own country and from which they personally have benefitted through the years. We who are white Americans certainly don’t have much appetite for it either, since the US supported the dictator who was behind all of this (just as we have little appetite for stories of how Euro-American politicians, soldiers and settlers brought genocide to Native Americans).

Remembering is important. It honors those whose lives were wasted. It honors those who live on with courage and commitment. It sometimes generates reparations. Perhaps most important, it helps prevent nations from repeating their errors.

I am reminded of another bird, the Sankofa. The Sankofa is an African bird that looks backward as it is flying forward. It is a symbol for the American Civil Rights movement and is usually depicted with a pearl representing wisdom gathered from the past held in its beak as it flies. It symbolizes the fact that, as the philosopher Santayna put it, “Those who fail to remember history are doomed to repeat it.”

The people of Santa Maria Tzeja, and some other villages, have sued the government for reparations, to hold accountable those politicians and generals who perpetrated the violence, to honor the memory of their loved ones, and perhaps most importantly, to help the whole nation of Guatemala learn from its mistakes.

The trial was delayed for years, but finally took place last year. The judge sentenced the former dictator to 80 years in prison. Some of the wealthiest have come to his aid and appealed the conviction out of fear that this former dictator will publicly reveal that all of them were complicit in the war and genocide.

But the people of Santa Maria Tzeja continue to hope for a just outcome. In any case, they have built a wonderful community that continues to improve its conditions. Twenty years ago, few got past 8th grade. Now 18 of their people have graduated from college.

They remember. And though much sadness lingers in their hearts for those lost, remembering has not led to depression or discouragement. On the contrary, remembering has made them stronger and more determined than ever. Now, they seek to offer this gift of remembering to the whole nation of Guatemala, whether the nation wants this gift or not.

Remembering is a gift, even as Jesus taught us.

Dick H.

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Chocolate and Cooperation

Cooperation: We returned from the waterfall Friday afternoon, and several from the group decided to wash our muddy boots and shower before dinner. Mindy came rushing up from one of the shower stalls to announce that there were several inches of standing water in the shower along with a host of spiders and one very large, black scorpion. I quickly went to the kitchen area to find a pitcher, which I used to scoop up the scorpion and as much excess water as possible. Dave found a corkscrew, which he used to remove the drain guard and eliminate the clog. While Dave was cleaning the trap, Dick, who was next in line for the shower, entered and in the excitement, he accidentally dropped the shower key. As if sensing that there was no longer a drain guard in place, the key fell and jumped right down the drain. (At this point, I should explain that the shower door locks automatically and there is not a spare key.) I thought “what next?” but others in the group sprang into action. Bev found some rope, a carabineer, and a Band-Aid to form a MacGuyveresque fishing line, and Dick, like a fishing pro, was able to snare the key and save the day.

What struck me most about this whole scenario was the quick and effective cooperation that I witnessed in my traveling companions. I also realized that what I am seeing here in Santa Maria Tzeja is an almost unimaginable level of cooperation and communication. Most adults in the village are committed to community service, and an impressive number attend the bi-monthly community meetings. Many serve on one or more of the numerous community committees and often take on leadership roles. I look forward to conversations at home about the how the civic pride and commitment to cooperation we have witnessed in SMT could help at us home in church and civic government.

Chocolate: Anyone who knows me well knows that I eat chocolate every day, at least once, and today, I was quite excited to observe and participate in the chocolate-making process. After breakfast, we arrived at the house of Dolores Cu. She had already begun roasting the cocoa beans, which she had harvested, cleaned, and dried the previous week. After she had finished roasting the beans, she let them cool for about 30 minutes, and then we helped her remove the husks. Once shelled, the beans were put into a hand-operated grinder. Sometimes she uses a grinding stone and stone rolling pin, but depending on bean quantity and room temperature, that method can take a long time. After all the beans were ground, we added sugar and did it all again. (Dick Hamm did this with real style, and for a price, you may be able to view the video.) After the second round, Dolores was not yet happy with the consistency, so we repeated the process a third time. After round three, the dark, rich paste was ready to eat. There aren’t really enough words to describe the taste! It was so delicious, but since it was too much and too rich to eat all at one time, we formed the remaining chocolate into balls, which we wrapped in banana leaves for protection and transport.

While walking back to the village center, Robin and I started a conversation about the labor-intensive nature of making chocolate and about how easy it is for us to just go into most stores at home and buy a chocolate bar with exactly the desired percentage of cocoa butter. It is my understanding that most chocolate produced in Central America is considered to be Fair-trade product, but I know that much of the chocolate produced worldwide is not fully regulated and some is produced using slave labor. I am now more motivated to educate myself further about what products, not only chocolate, are produced with humane working conditions.


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Experiencing God in the Waterfall

In tonight’s evening prayer our group discussed how we experienced God today. It was a wonderful discussion that gave us the chance to reflect on the beauty of this place, the people we have met, the things we have experienced, and the true sense of unity in our group. We could all agree that one place we saw God today was in our trip to the waterfall. This was a highly anticipated journey, and by the time we set off today I was so ready for a cool, refreshing swim that I probably would have crawled my way there if that’s what it took. Turns out, our trek was just as well earned, and we were reminded once again of how different this place is from our “neck of the woods”.

I knew going into this trip that we were visiting during rainy season and I had even been warned about the amount of mud that we would be encountering. However, it is more than safe to say that I completely underestimated the true amount of mud that stood in our path. It is also safe to say that the immense beauty of the waterfall that awaited us was far beyond what I had imagined, and God was no doubt present in that place.

I have found the landscape of Santa Maria Tzeja, and Guatemala as a whole even, to be very different than I anticipated. In my mind, I had painted a picture of a few roads with hut-like houses in close proximity to one another and busy streets. I had no notion of the amount of land each family would own and how important that land is. In this place, each family relies so heavily on their land to provide the food for their family as well as house their livestock, pets, children, and other family members. This means that properties are spread out throughout the village and stretch far beyond what we will have the chance to visit. We have learned that many people walk long ways to get to their land to farm everyday, and as we trekked out to the waterfall through the mud, bugs, heat and who-knows-what-else, I realized that this landscape was so familiar to the native people here and so very vital to their day-to-day lives, and that in and of itself is beautiful.

As I hiked my way to the brilliant waterfall today, and as I have hiked multiple times to the houses of families offering us meals or even as I have hiked the short distance to the bathroom, I have undoubtedly begun to understand the beauty and importance of this village and its landscape. I experience God in the way the people of Santa Maria Tzeja are a part of this land, being so familiar with how it works and using it to sustain life, as well as just the beauty of it all. For even in this hot, humid, buggy, muddy region, God planted a beautiful waterfall where we could come together as a group to cool off and marvel at just how special this place is.