The Guatemala Experience
Pockets of Hope
"At the Protestant Center for Pastoral Studies in Central America (CEDEPCA) ,we believe it is impossible to transform Guatemala in one week but one week is enough time for Guatemala to transform the lives of people who come to it."
That certainly was the case for me. It is hard to imagine that in one week I experienced a full range of emotions that spanned from excitement about taking this trip, anxiety about what to expect, and then terrible sadness about the things we saw and heard.
I felt a deep anger towards those individuals in power who ignored the oppression of their own people or, worse yet, oppressed and abused people themselves. But then I felt tremendous hope and joy for the transformations we witnessed as CEDEPCA, with God’s love, changed the lives of so many.
CEDEPCA is an ecumenical, educational organization based in Guatemala that works to transform lives in Central America by providing training and education, as well as offering spaces for reflection to women and men from diverse Christian traditions and communities.
CEDEPCA’s mission is to promote the devolvement of innovative and transformative pastoral actions to individuals and communities for the construction of a more just world.
To accomplish their mission, CEDEPCA has four programs: Biblical and Theological training, Women’s Ministries, Disaster Ministry, and Intercultural Encounters. Wendy Wellington and myself were fortunate to participate in an Intercultural Encounter through CEDEPCA this past October.
It is difficult to describe how CEDEPCA has transformed lives without first understanding some context about Guatemala. Poverty is the reality for the majority of Guatemala’s population. It is estimated that 67% of Guatemalan’s live in poverty.
The public education system is under-staffed and under-budgeted. At the high school level 63% of the indigenous population leave school due to poverty. Very few Guatemalan’s have access to health care, and their nutritional needs are not met. Sixteen percent of Guatemalans are malnourished--a rate worse than in India. Water in Guatemala is generally unsafe to drink. The women in Central America and Mexico live in a patriarchal, violent and abusive society that transcends all socio-economical levels.
Teenage pregnancy rate is very high among girls 10-19 years of age and reports of rape and incest are generally ignored. Once a girl is pregnant, her body is not considered hers anymore.
Other types of violence against women include the media, which portrays women as sexual objects, institutional violence, which keeps women oppressed and political violence, which makes it very difficult for women to break into politics. There have been reports of women killed this year because they worked in politics.
So where is the hope and joy you might ask?
We found hope at our visit to Casa del Migrante. This is a house run by the church that helps people migrating through Guatemala. Here we met a few of the people that had to leave their home in Honduras and were traveling in a caravan to the United States. Their stories of violence and murder in Honduras were heartbreaking. We heard one woman say when asked about the dangers they may be facing on the trip, "If I die on this journey, I would have died at my home anyway.” The wonderful staff at Casa del Migrante were able to provide temporary shelter, three meals a day, counseling, and education about all the options available to the migrants. A temporary respite given by good people gave peace and hope for the people traveling in the caravan. At least for a short time--there was hope!
We learned about the biblical and theological program at CEDEPCA. Here both men and women were educated in Liberation theology. This puts biblical teachings in context as opposed to fundamentalist teaching. It is a reflection of the current reality and how to look at social issues in their community. They can then go to the Bible and read what it tells us in order to discern how we are called to do God’s work.
We were glad that we were able to share conversation with students in this biblical and theological program. We also had conversations about women’s role in the church and how that can be especially challenging for them due to cultural expectations. The pride and joy that the women felt was evident through their testimonies, laughter, joy and sparkle in their eyes. There was hope!
After graduation from the program, pastors are called to work in their communities to try and change the present views of oppression, to teach women ways in which they can stand up for their rights, as well as other biblical teachings. Both men and women showed such pride in their achievements with this program. There was hope!
We learned about the Tamar project, which teaches young girls how to take steps and leads them to a path to follow when abuse occurs. The girls gained much strength and learned how to advocate for themselves. There was such joy when they reported stories of advocacy for themselves and others. There was hope!
We learned about the Eco- Filtro water filtration system that provides clean drinking water. Fifty dollars can provide a water filtration system for a family that lasts for two years. There was hope!
We visited the Corazn de Mujer Weaver’s collective. This is a collective run solely by women who produce beautiful weavings. The products are sold, and profits help support themselves and their families. We were able to share a meal with these women and learn more about their experiences and more about the collective. There was hope!
We were encouraged to meditate in the morning and reflect as a group at night on the following passage:
Mark 8:22-25 (NRSV)
They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.
I must admit that many times on this trip my faith was challenged by hearing about the oppression of women in Guatemala. It was challenged by the horrible living conditions so many people face. It was challenged by talking to people in the caravan and wondering how people faced so much violence that they had to leave their home and country. It was challenged by hearing about the corruption that takes place in the government.
But through my meditation and my reflections my eyes were first partially then fully open. I saw God’s love as he worked through good loving people to help those who faced terrible adverse situations. My eyes were open as I witnessed the transformative change CEDEPCA is making in Guatemala through God’s love.
I know that God can transform something new and beautiful out of disastrous conditions. I know that God’s love never stops blazing no matter how many times the human race falls. My eyes were opened as I reflected on how I personally react when I experience challenges in my own life. When I challenge my faith, I know the God remains faithful. I pray that God’s love can work through me to be of service and help to others, as CEDPCA helps the people of Guatemala. There IS hope and love in this world.
More Pockets of Hope
Cheryl's and my mission trip to Guatemala was not your typical mission trip. We didn't help build a church or a home, nor did we create more green spaces or build a water filtration system for a community. This trip was about encountering a world, seemingly so different from ours, connecting with real people from that world, and learning from this experience what I could do to become a more thoughtful, compassionate disciple of Jesus Christ.
This intercultural encounter impressed on me how critical education and acting from a place of love are for building a healthy community. I learned firsthand how the lives of many individuals had been changed through the education and loving support they received from CEDEPCA.
The people we met shared with our group how the education and support they received from CEDEPCA had made their lives better: their self-esteem had grown, and they felt empowered to stand up for themselves. Despite their horrendous experiences, they focused on the positive changes in their lives. They all felt hopeful in a world still broken around them. This felt like the peace of God. I reflected several times during my trip on how each individual transformed by the education they received, and the love they felt from God, through CEDEPCA, was inspired to share what they learned with others, to spread that peace, creating more pockets of hope. They aren't shouting from the rooftops, but quietly and persistently sharing, teaching, and supporting each other. They are building a healthier community through education and sharing the love that God has for them.
Those of us visiting weren't the only ones learning from others. One woman at the weaving cooperative we visited really engaged Cheryl in conversation, through an interpreter, to learn about Cheryl and her church back home. She was so amazed to learn that our church gives money to the Presbytery of Baltimore, who then gives money to CEDEPCA. She seemed to feel more connected with the world, perhaps not feeling so alone. Perhaps CEDEPCA's existence felt more solid when she had actual faces, living bodies, that help CEDEPCA to exist. She was so amazed that as soon as her conversation with Cheryl was over, she stood up and shared this with the rest of the women from the cooperative.
Now that I am back home, I find that I am noticing pockets of hope all around me. The radio news cast encouraging everyone, leaders and individuals, to back down the verbal fighting. The poem read in yoga class encouraging us, in every action we do, to do so from a place of love. In a poem by Howard Thurman, read at Session, titled Peace of God. Being reminded each weak that Winter Relief continues at various churches. A record number of women being elected into various offices. Being able to share thoughtful insight during a political discussion with my dad, not to mention my husband being impressed with the reasoning I used. The ACT group successfully getting AACPS to schedule water testing at schools.
This intercultural experience has given me hope for our world. It has reminded me, shown me, that I do need to pay attention to the current reality around me, to rely on the Bible for guidance about that reality and what to do, then taken action. My desire to work with individuals through the Anne Arundel Literacy Council is affirmed – while it seems like a small, insignificant act, it will create a pocket of hope for others. We all must remember that it is the little wins we see that foster hope and are more perpetual than we realize.
I leave you with this Bible verse that several of the women supported by CEDEPCA shared as the most meaningful education they received. It spoke to me and I present it for your discernment. What might it be calling you to do?
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect - Romans 12:2