I didn´t get to mention in my last post, but toward the end of January, I was able to participate in a convencion de los jovenes (a convention of all the youth groups in the area, with games, activities, workshops, and of course, food!). We started out at the Igelsia Belen in Ladrillera, where everyone gathered to receive name tags and prepare for the annual torch run. After a brief opening worship at the church, we hoared outside to light the torches (sticks with tin cans strapped to the top, and fuel for the fire inside the cans). Most of the girls were gathered in their gym shorts and tennis shoes, having changed out of their cortes (the traditional Mayan skirts) and caites (sandals). But a few ran in their cortes and flimsy sandals nevertheless. With two pickup trucks following close behind, packed with more jovenes who didn´t want to run with the torches, we set out from Ladrillera to Chocola by way of Santo Tomas. The first pickup truck had a bullhorn and speaker strapped to the top, and my friend Rigo made obnoxiously loud announcements and commentary over the loudspeaker, as the group ran on ahead with the torches. The road from Ladrillera to Santo Tomas is pretty much a steady uphill climb, with some serious hills and a few steep drops, and then its mostly downhill to Chocola from there. The black smog from buses and burning trash along the side of the road, plus the smell of the kerosene from the torches, which blew back in our faces, added an extra challenging dimension to the run. I started out trying to keep a steady pace, but apparently no one else had any concept of pacing; everyone would sprint as fast as they could on the downhill slopes, and then tire themselves out and end up walking the uphill stretches. And we had to continually stop to wait for people who were lagging behind, to make sure we didn´t lose anyone. I got the chance to meet one of pastor Manuel´s daughters, Rutilia, who is just about as sweet and joyful as her father. She befriended me at the Iglesia Belen, and we ran most of the torch run together. We all laughed a lot, in between the panting and sweating, and we finally arrived proudly at Horeb Presbyterian Church in Chocola, where the annual convention was held this year. After quickly running back to the house to take a refreshing ice cold shower, I returned to the church to spend the afternoon with the other jovenes, playing games, joking, laughing, and eating together.
That night, each youth group was supposed to give a brief presentation for the group - a short drama or song or whatever the group had planned. I had been asked to participate in a drama with the youth group from the church...or rather, I was assigned a part in the drama one day when I wasn´t there. And the role they had decided I would play was the role of Jesus. We had had several rehearsals in the weeks before to prepare for the convention. I had arrived at the first rehearsal, quite unaware of what I was getting myself into and the role I was expected to play. And when I heard the script of the play, I didn´t want to be in it. The drama had a very evangelizing message: it was a story of two construction workers, one of whom is a Christian. The Christian talks to his friend one day about Jesus, and then his friend, who is quite rapidly convinced, decides to give his life over to Jesus, and then suddenly the house that they are building at the construction site topples on top of them and they die. They wake up in heaven, to be greeted by an angel who holds the Book of Life, with all the names of those people who will be allowed entrance into heaven. Jesus stands off to the side, surrounded by a crowd of adoring angels. And the one friend, who has just decided to give his life over to Jesus, is worried that his name won´t be written in the Book of Life, and that he might have to be sent down to Hell instead. Yet sure enough, his name is written in the book, and the two friends rejoice and walk off with Jesus and his angels into heaven. The whole message of the play was counter to the way I think about God and faith and the concepts of heaven and hell; I felt that it was a caricature of faith, which is so much more complicated than that. And I just tend to cringe in general when people try to evangelize in such a way, saying that if you don´t believe what we believe, you are going to be damned to hell, but if you do believe you will be rewarded with a perfect heaven of joy and bright lights and singing angels. I think that this type of evangelizing alienates people and inspires fear. People´s hearts don´t change in that way, and things are not so simple, so black and white. And I didn´t want to be in the play, but I didn´t know how to back out of it without offending the other jovenes in the group or having to enter into a deep theological discussion with everyone (I don´t always know how to talk about the complexities of my faith in English, let alone in Spanish). I tried to graciously back out of the part, saying that I wanted to give someone else the opportunity to be part of the drama. But then, some of the leaders of the group just thought that I didn´t want to play the part of Jesus, so they switched my role to the angel who holds the Book of Life (slightly better than playing Jesus, but not really...at least it was a silent part - all I had to do was nod). I felt a lot of turmoil in my heart for a few weeks, and had several discussions with my director Marcia about it. I didn´t agree with the message of the play and I felt like I would be insincere if I didn´t say what I believed. But I also didn´t want the youth group to think that I didn´t want to be involved in an activity with them. I didn´t want to jeopordize any of my newly-forming relationships with some of the jovenes. So I decided to stay in the drama, partly because I don´t like confrontation, and partly because I felt that it would be more effective to have conversations about the complexities of faith with individuals throughout the year, rather than making a big scene in front of the entire youth group.
While waiting for everyone to arrive for a drama rehearsal one night, I got to have a really good conversation with one of the young people; our conversation made me feel a little better about my decision to be in the play, because my participation in the drama at least gave me an opportunity to get to know some people whom I otherwise might not have gotten to know. And I really enjoy spending time with the youth group and talking and laughing with everyone. The evangelical-ness of the church here is overwhelming at times, but I am continually looking for ways to encourage people to question what they are taught and explore some of the complexities of their faith. So, I was an angel in the drama after all, and my host siblings helped me make my angel wings out of metal wire and tissue paper. The night of the convention, the drama went by like the flash of an eye. I only vaguely remember standing in the bright lights with my angel wings and white garb, flipping through my book of names...
After the drama presentations at the convention, we had dinner together and sang around a bonfire. I slept in the church that night, along with about 30 or so others, on the hard concrete floor, with just a blanket. We stayed up until around 1 or 2 in the morning, and then woke up at 6 for a morning devotional and breakfast cooked by some of the women from the church.
The next day was packed with more activities and games, but I was definitely exhausted from the lack of sleep. And about halfway through the day, after a very unfortunate incident with my camera, I was ready to go home. At one point during the day, I lent my camera to one of my friends in the youth group to take a picture - he only had it in his possession for about two minutes - and when he returned the camera to me, all of my pictures that were saved on the memory card had been erased! I had pictures on my camera from my first days in Guatemala up through January, and I stupidly hadn´t yet saved them to a computer or memory drive. All those pictures - pictures of my first host family in San Juan, my teacher at the Spanish school, Christmas with my host family, the choir that I directed, the women´s convention, pictures that I couldn´t just take over again- were gone! I cried when I realized that, although I had to try to put myself together so I could spend the rest of the day with the jovenes at the convention. I didn´t say anything to my friend who had accidently erased the pictures, because I didn´t want to make him feel bad about it. So I just swallowed it, and later I cried to my family over the phone, and I cried to my host family too and told them what had happened. Fortunately, a few weeks later, when I met with the other volunteers for a retreat, I was able to take my camera to a photo shop. Apparently you can sometimes recover deleted photos from a memory card. So I took my camera to a shop and they were able to recover a good portion, if not all, of my photos. Needless to say, I was definitely ready for a retreat with the other volunteers after all the commotion of the convention...
Our end-of-January retreat was at the beach, in sunny Monterrico, Guatemala. It was beautiful. We stayed in a bungalow-style house, a block from the long, black-sand beach there. We got to swim, see the amazing sunsets over the water, and collect shells from the beach. In Monterrico, there is also a tortugeria - a place where people are working to protect the sea turtles that live there. During breeding season, baby sea turtles are released a few times a week, to plunge into the deep, scary sea. You can pay a few quetzals to release your own baby sea turtle. The tiny black turtles, so small that they fit in your hand, race from a line drawn in the sand to the edge of the ocean, where they are tossed about and swept away by the ferocious waves. They seem to know instinctively that this is their destiny - the ocean. They flap their little fins in a slow crawl to the edge of the water, until they are swept up in the current to face ocean life head-on. It is amazing to watch.
While in Monterrico, we also got to take a boat ride with a guide through the protected mangrove forests there. There are several different kinds of mangrove trees that grow there, with roots that spring up out of the water and branches that support a multitude of wildlife. Mangrove forests are some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the earth, supporting hundreds of species of birds, fish, and vegetation. They are extremely important in helping prevent flooding and providing other natural ecosystem services. Yet due to environmental degradation, mangrove forests are quickly disappearing from the earth. In Monterrico, the mangrove forests are protected by preservation laws, but in many places, mangrove trees are quickly being bulldozed over, as the land is taken over by developers. We had the opportunity to go with a guide on a boat ride through the mangroves, and it was one of the most amazing things I have ever done. We left just before sunrise, and got to see the sun come up over the water and trees, as birds swarmed overhead in their majesty. We saw hundreds and hundreds of different kinds of birds, waterlilies, and even a fish that has FOUR eyes and skims over the water like a flash of lightening. There we were, just drifting over the water, as beautiful white cranes and egrets flocked overhead and perched in the mangrove trees. It was incredible.
After a weekend of relaxing on the beach, exploring Monterrico, and debriefing with the other volunteers, I returned to Chocola, refreshed and ready to face the challenges once again. Things have been really busy here lately, but I am really enjoying what I am doing, and it helps the time go by quickly. I have started teaching two days a week at the school in Xojola (pronuciation almost exactly like Chocola), and it has certainly been challenging. The days when I go to the school, I have to wake up at about 5:30 in the morning, so I can leave the house by about 6:30 for Santo Tomas. My dear host mother has been waking up early to make me a hot breakfast that she packs in a tupperware, so that I can eat it at the school when the kids have recess. She sends me off early in the morning, and I mount a bus to Santo Tomas, where I have to walk a few blocks to catch a pickup truck the rest of the way to Xojola. The ride to the school is beautiful, through fields of corn stalks, coffee, and banana trees. The craggy mountains sit in the backdrop, smoky dark blue against the light early-morning sky. It is pretty breathtaking, from the back of a pickup truck, with the cool morning air blowing in your face. The ride would be quite refreshing if it weren´t for the fact that you have to hold onto a metal bar for dear life, as the truck makes its way over dusty roads covered with rocks and holes. Plus, the dirt whips up into your eyes (it has been so dusty here lately, because it hasn´t rained in so long...you can´t take five steps out of the house without your feet being covering in a thick brown film). But I still enjoy having time to think and take in the beauty of the mountains from the back of a pickup.
The school is in an area that is even more rural than Chocola, where the people speak primarily Quiche. Nearly all the women and girls are dressed in the traditional corte, which in that area is a deep navy blue, with a single horizontal stripe and vertical stripe of brightly colored embroidery. Sometimes the navy backdrop of the fabric is interwoven with faded gray or silver patterns, and it is beautiful. The language barrier makes teaching difficult, since some of the students don´t speak very much Spanish at all - their first language is Quiche. And I am supposed to be teaching English, which is a third language for these kids. I have started out teaching two sections each of fourth, fifth, and sixth grade, and it is exhausting. I spend an hour with each section, teaching songs and games and English vocabulary. I am currently trying to work out a new schedule with the director, in which I can concentrate maybe on just one grade level, so that I can get to know my students better. Each section has about 25 to 30 kids, and so I have been working with hundreds of students. I am hoping to be able to concentrate just on sixth grade (these students need to learn English more that the younger students, because they will have to study the language if they go on to junior high school). I am also hoping to get a group of students together to teach music, using some of the instruments that were donated by my church. I am learning a lot at the school, and the kids all seem to be very excited that I am there. I am still figuring out how to teach and interact with the students in a meaningful way; it has definitely been exhausting and challenging, but I´m hoping it will get easier as I gain more experience there.
I am now also leading three different women´s bible studies, and it has been one of the most rewarding things that I have been doing. I mostly ask a lot of questions, and sometimes there is awkward silence for a long time, because no one knows what to say, or they are afraid to say it. But it is all worth it, when you can see someone´s face light up, as she gathers the courage to share an idea or thought, or talk about an experience of God working in her life. I am learning so much from these women, and it has been such a blessing. Sometimes someone will say something that I´ve never even thought of before, and it´s awesome. I was giving a bible study with a group in Santo Tomas one week, and we were reading a story about Martha and Mary. In the story, Jesus comes to visit at the house of Martha and Mary, and Martha is busy in the kitchen cooking and cleaning, preparing food for their guest, while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him speak. Martha starts to get angry that she is doing all the work, while her sister Mary is just sitting there, and so she tells Jesus this. But Jesus replies, ¨Martha, you are worried and occupied by many things, but there is only one thing that is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken away from her.¨ I was trying to ask the women in the group how they thought Jesus was freeing Martha from her worry, and what he was freeing her to do. One of the women responded that Jesus had freed Martha to be able to listen to the word of God and to speak about all the miracles that He has done. And I thought that that was just amazing. Later during our bible study, one of the women thanked me for giving them a break from the worries of housework and caring for their children, for giving them an opportunity each week to study, think, and speak about the miracles that God has done. She was so grateful, and I was so grateful for the women in the group that I nearly cried. These women work so hard, and their work is never finished - they are always cooking, cleaning, making more tortillas, caring for their children, and attending to their husbands. They work continuously and selflessly for their families. And some of them have never had the opportunity to go to school or learn to read. Many of them have never had the opportunity to do anything for themselves, and they´ve had to sacrifice their lives and dreams for their families. So I am very happy to be able to sit with these women each week and hear their stories, and to give them a break from housework. There is one older woman in the group, Lorenza, who can´t read, and doesn´t speak very much Spanish (she speaks mostly Quiche), but she is there mostly every week. Sometimes she falls asleep while we are talking, but I don´t mind or take offense, because at least my bible study gives her a chance to rest for a few hours.
This past week, we studied a story about a woman with a blood disease, who came up behind Jesus in a crowd to touch his robes and be healed. I asked the women what types of diseases and sicknesses (not just physical, but also things like sadness, desperation, worry...) that they face in their own lives. One woman responded that she is continually worrying about how she is going to put her young children through school, how she and her husband are going to find the resources to support her children´s education. Another woman named Berta began talking, saying that she´s had so many diseases and problems in her life that it would take days to recount. And she started sharing about how she was so in love with her husband when she was younger, but that he was unfaithful and cheated on her repeatedly. She suffered heartache for many years. Her husband didn´t like her going to church, so she gave up her faith for him, because she was so in love. When her husband would return to the house late, she used to ask him where he had come from, and he would get angry with her and not respond. So eventually she just stopped asking, and she suffered quietly, knowing that her husband was cheating on her but that there was no way out. Yet one day, after coming home to find her husband in the house with another woman, she had the courage to leave, taking her children with her. Berta shared how God transformed her mess of a life, and gave her hope and worth and a sense of value. She found support in women from the church, and they helped her gain her dignity and confidence back. She left behind her troubles and pain, and traded them in for the hope that God had given her. And now she is a leader in the church, president of the feminil (the women´s society) and a representative in the synod (a larger governing body of the church). Berta talked for about a half an hour straight, sharing her story, and it was amazing. I saw her face change from anguished, teary eyes and trembling lips, as she talked about the pain her husband caused her, to a glowing smile and bright eyes, as she spoke about the newfound hope she now has in her life. I was so thankful that she had the courage to share her story like that. She just kept talking and talking, bursting over with stories about the amazing ways in which God has transformed her life. It was a moment when I was sure that I was exactly where I was meant to be. I´m not sure exactly why, but I think that a huge reason I am here is to hear stories like this, told from the voices of Guatemalans. I believe that it is important for these stories to be told out loud, and it is important for me to hear them and learn from them. I have made some wonderful friendships with many women, and I am looking forward to spending more time with them each week.
I still haven´t caught up on the last few weeks, but I will save that for my next blog, which I hope to post soon. This weekend we celebrated my host sister´s quinceaños (15th birthday) with a party that was fit for a wedding, and my birthday followed the next day. The marathon birthday weekend deserves a post in and of itself... Hope to update again next week!