“All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your saints shall bless you!”
Guatemala – 2011
I have to admit that there are personal benefits to traveling – getting to see how others live; encountering new places, cultures, traditions, struggling with language, customs that are unlike my own; experiencing being the stranger & foreigner; gaining a perspective on my own country, culture and priorities; and of course food! However, I know there’s more. Years ago a desire in my heart became a prayer – I wanted to see what God was doing in the nations & I have pursued that. My trip with 7 others from Michigan to Guatemala, May 21-28 to help “Impacto Ministries” work in Santa Clara near San Pedro in the Lake Atitlán area of Sololá was another glimpse. We helped build a house for a family of 9; distributed shoes to over 200 children and gave away around 45 soccer balls, shared the good news and were welcomed with great hospitality. Short-term mission trips have come under fire as “spiritual tourism” but in light of the challenges the people of this country face and the smiles on faces I saw, the giving and receiving of blessings & hospitality and practically changing the living situation of fellow believers is worth it.
The sheer physical beautiful of the cloud covered volcanoes; the abundance of coffee, papaya, mangoes, and pineapples; the brilliant color of the hand dyed and woven cloth in the open markets clash with jaw- dropping sights of dozens of people piled in the back of small pick-ups; a baby held only by a mom’s arm on the back of a motor scooter; makeshift scaffolding; rocks and blocks of cement used for highway dividers. The result is a large dose of culture shock for Gringos used to rules, regulations & campaigns about safety!
According to the “CIA Fact Book” Guatemala is the most populous country in Central America.* Besides Spanish there are 21 Mayan languages & 5 other indigenous languages spoken. More than half of the population is below the national poverty line and 15% lives in extreme poverty; 43% of children under five are chronically malnourished, one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world. The distribution of income remains highly unequal with the richest 10% of the population accounting for more than 40% of Guatemala’s overall consumption. Guatemala and the US trade more than coffee – it is a source, transit, and destination country for Guatemalans and Central Americans trafficked for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor; its proximity to Mexico makes it a major transit country for cocaine and heroin; with one of the highest homicide rates in Latin America.
All this is the backdrop for the everyday lives of people near the Tzutujil speaking area of Lake Atitlan. We helped lay block for a new house for Clara & Angel who worked hard on the project with us. They are parents of 5 children who have also taken in 2 other kids whose mother had been strangled by her husband. In the U.S., their old house of one room, 2 beds with a dirt floor, tin roof, no running water or electricity would be called a shed. Their new house is about the size of a small living room or our church building’s nursery space but it will have a floor and provide more room and privacy for the family.
Poverty takes on a different appearance when it’s the face of a child who has never worn shoes and suffers from parasites and worms as a result or has never had their own toy or ball. Team members tried to clean accumulated grime off before sending them off with a pair of shoes – one girl, Gladys and her siblings told us it was their first pair of shoes they had ever worn even though they were probably already over 6 years old. I helped clean & bandage a seriously infected scrape on a little girl’s arm that only was covered with tape because even basics like bactine & band aids are hard to come by. It is these simple basics that most of us take for granted that struck me the most – difficulties like lack of basic medical supplies, malnutrition from lack of basic vitamins, lack of drinkable water are not prevalent in the Third World because they are God’s will. They remain problems because we choose other priorities. They would be easy to eliminate – if we decided to do it. It is not too few resources – it is too little will.
One night, after leaving early from a public Wi-Fi spot (as it was showing “The Hangover” with some of the most vile movie dialogue I’ve heard in years), above the noise of traffic and bar music down the street, I heard the sound of beautiful harmonious singing. Up on the hill was a church building with lights on that from the volume of the voices had to be filled with people. Sadly, one other import from North America besides vulgar culture are denominations – Baptist, Assembly of God, Nazarene, Wesleyan & Mormon signs all declare their brand of “churchianity” in huge letters around town but on this night no signs could be seen – only the light and the singing inside coming out the open windows. I didn’t recognize the song they sang with such life and passion but if it had been “Join hands, then, members of the faith, whatever your race may be! Who serves my Father as His child, Is surely kin to me,” I wouldn’t have been surprised. Christ’s light and praises are filling the earth and slowly nations are coming under his reign – even if one child and one family at a time. If a little girl like Gladys remembers her first shoes it won’t be because she knew some of the folks who gave them to her held a semi-Pelagian soteriology or a sublapsarian version of the divine decretal will. She may recall it was some Gringos from up North or that it was at a church building. I really hope she will remember the most important thing – that it was given because of Jesus and in his name.
*The CIA knows a few things about the country since it initiated the 1954 coup and during the 60’s assisted the military in carrying out operations against civilians, labor parties and insurgent groups. The Mayan area around beautiful Lake Atitlan where we stayed and worked was the sight for some of the mass killings committed by the military during the 36 year long civil war. President Efrain Ruis Montt (1982-83) deliberately targeted the Mayan areas for violence, destroying 600 villages and tallying up such a human rights record of torture, rape and killings that the UN termed his “beans & gun” policy “genocide.” Sadly, I remember in 1982 churches in the US celebrating that Montt was a “born-again Christian.” In 1996, the government signed a peace agreement formally ending the conflict, which had left more than 200,000 people dead from assassinations, killings and “disappearances” and had created, by some estimates, some 1 million refugees.