It is hard to believe we have been in Guatemala for more than a month now. Our first week and a half was spent taking a bit of time getting settled (yes, there is privilege in our ability to take that time and space). The remainder of our time her so far has been spent finding rhythm. Ellsley and Westin started school on Tuesday, the 20th of August. Brian started his work at Safe Passage the following Thursday. The last two weeks were our first “normal” week with Brian in Guatemala City each day, Ellsley and Westin in school on Tuesday and Thursday, and Kelly learning how to navigate life in Guatemala. Kelly started taking some (much needed, in her words) Spanish lessons while the kids are in school. The details of Brian’s work at Safe Passage are slowly unfolding. His official role is “Support Team Coordinator” and will be working with groups coming from the United States for a week at a time. The catch is that we have just entered the slow season of groups and the next group isn’t scheduled until February. That gives him time to get his feet on the ground at Safe Passage, learn the organization, and develop relationships with staff and students before his first group. He has been assisting in English classes each day as a way to get to know the students and teachers.
These are 5th-7th grade students at Safe Passage who have advanced to round two of the first annual English spelling bee. Brian has been practicing with them for the last two weeks and administered the round one “test” last week.
While we say we have a new “normal,” there is little that feels normal about our life right now. Entering into a new context, a new culture, and a new community is difficult no matter where the “new” is. As you may have read in “Our Story” on our website, we have always called Seattle home, none of us living more than 30-or-so miles from where we grew up (apart from Kelly’s time at Whitworth University in Spokane, WA). Our lives have always been familiar, comfortable, and predictable. We know where to find things in the grocery store back home. We know what foods are easily accessible and affordable. We are fluent in the language and can easily communicate. We know who to call when we need something and we have a community available and ready to help. While there is nothing wrong with that life, we realized how limiting it was to our awareness of the world; our ability to understand and empathize with the challenges faced by others; our need to rely on one another; and our belief in our own abilities to adapt, cope, and overcome new challenges. We had a choice to move to Guatemala and it was a deliberate choice – a “forced displacement” of sorts – to experience life and the world in new ways in order to be more present with those in our world who don’t have the same choices, but are forced to face the same, and more difficult, challenges.
The challenge to adapt to, cope with, and overcome circumstances is not just presented in moving away from home. Difficult circumstances can emerge anywhere and at any time. The challenges faced by many in Guatemala seem, from our perspective, nearly insurmountable (especially compared with what feel like challenges to us), yet they move forward in life with immense resilience and even pride with what they are able to do in life. Brian has seen this during his time at Safe Passage.
Those living in the community around the Guatemala City garbage dump live in extreme poverty with obstacles we will likely never fully know. The people who work in the dump – sorting and scavenging for trash to recycle or sell – enter every day into dangerous and toxic circumstances. Many of them are single mothers and face difficult decisions about how to feed their children, provide care for them when they are away working in the dump, and give them opportunities in life. And in the midst of all of this, they are proud of what they do and the fact they are doing an honest day’s work. They go to work in the dump faithfully even when it is the hardest thing to do – when they are sick (oftentimes from the toxins they are exposed to in the dump), when their children are struggling at home or at school, when their lives or safety are threatened by gangs and violence. Regardless of the circumstance, they persist and hold on for tomorrow. Encountering this makes our challenges seem trivial.
Having led a number of youth mission trips to Guatemala and other contexts where there is a visible and pressing need, one of the things Brian has heard many trip participants say is, “I didn’t realize how lucky I am and how much I have. I won’t take my life for granted anymore.” While this is an important realization, it is only the beginning. If we stop there (and realistically, the pledge to not take what we have for granted oftentimes falls by the wayside soon after returning home), then all we’ve done is use others and their circumstances as object lessons in gratitude. Whenever this sentiment of gratitude came up during a mission trip, Brian would always say. “Great – we’re all thinking that and I’m glad you said it. Now that we’ve recognized it, what now? What are you going to do with that awareness to be a part of what God is doing to make our world whole?” Stepping out of our places of comfort and moving to Guatemala is a first step for our family. We are not certain how God will use us during our time here or how much lasting “impact” we will have in the lives of those we encounter and serve with, but we are trusting that we can play even a small part in the work God is doing. Our hope is that this year in Guatemala will be a step in our lifelong commitment to be present with those longing for wholeness and justice in the world. Maybe we will not only find a new “normal” in our life in Guatemala as we partner with those making a tangible difference in the community around the Guatemala City garbage dump, but then find a new normal when we return home and continue listening for the ways God is calling us to join in the work of making this world whole.
In the days leading up to Independence Day in Guatemala (September 15), schools around the country run La Antorcha through the streets of Guatemala. Torches are lit from a common spot in each city and groups run their torch back to their school. Safe Passage ran La Antorcha through the streets of Guatemala City on Friday the 13th.