As the title of this blog post says, it is well past time for an update from the Gregorys in Guatemala. To be honest, we’ve been saying that several months now and Brian has been “writing an update in his head” to send out for a while. Those are not just words of procrastination (though there may be a bit of that), it is true; Brian has been trying to find words to put to our experience the last few months. But the reality is, it has been difficult to articulate what we are feeling and thinking recently.
The blog post Brian has been meaning and trying to write was going to be titled “When it’s Not Fun Anymore.” That is the best way we can think of to describe our overall experience having now been in Guatemala for four months. Back in September, we wrote about finding a new normal. The first month or two felt like an adventure…or even an extended vacation. Although there were challenges in getting settled and finding that “new normal” in our life together as a family, there was excitement, novelty, and some fun to everything we were doing. Now, well…it’s not fun anymore. We miss the familiarity of our life back home: being able to easily find food in the grocery store (and food our kids will eat), knowing how to navigate our community and the city in which we live, being fluent in the language spoken by the people around us. We’ve certainly learned how to manage and get by (don’t worry – although it is always the same food, there is food on the table), but that doesn’t mean getting by is without a whole lot of effort. Life has just felt hard for a while – for Brian and Kelly, and for our kids. And in the midst of all of that, writing an update has been hard to do.
Apart from it seeming like someone in our family has been sick since we arrived, one of the biggest challenges for all of us has been language. Ellsley and Westin have been in preschool two days a week since August (they will be going three days a week starting in January). They enjoy school (or at least they tell us they do), their teachers are very nice, and it is a great experience for them. But Ellsley and Westin spend most of the day not talking to anyone. That is definitely harder for Ellsley than it is for Westin. She has had a couple of “English friends,” as she calls them, with whom she has been able to communicate. But they are not always there and can’t spend the entire day with her. Ellsley has been nervous and shy about going to school because “she can’t talk to anyone and her teacher talks to fast.” Thankfully, Ellsley is just now starting to talk to people with a little bit of Spanish. She now says “Buenas dias. ¿Como esta?” to her teacher every morning when she arrives. She has been telling Brian and Kelly about the new Spanish words her teacher has been teaching her every day. And her teacher commented the other day that Ellsley has started to talk to her more during the school days. All very encouraging steps, but the steps to get to here have been difficult, lonely, and the challenge will likely continue.
Both Brian and Kelly have done some Spanish tutoring – Kelly in September and October and Brian just for the last two weeks as he’s been on “summer break” from Safe Passage. That has been helpful, but being comfortable with a (relatively) new language takes more than a few classes (both Brian and Kelly took Spanish in high school, but that was a long time ago now). We have bad days with language when it seems like we just can’t put any thoughts into words and we have less-bad days. We’re still waiting for the “good” days when we are able to communicate everything we want to say. Being uncomfortable (at best), if not helpless at times, with language has been lonely for Brian and Kelly, too. There are times we simply don’t do something, don’t ask for something, or avoid conversation because we don’t know how to do it. We so wish we could fully participate in our community, develop relationships with those around us, or do some things as a family that require better language ability…but we just aren’t there yet and that is hard.
That is true for Brian in his role at Safe Passage. Although there are a number of international volunteers and a small number of staff who speak English, the majority of the staff is Guatemalan and only speaks Spanish. There are meetings, interactions, and relationships he wishes he could more fully participate in, but simply can’t. His ability to develop relationships with students, too, is hindered by language. This is either positive or something that has held him back, depending on how one looks at it, but the other three people in his office (the volunteer office) all speak English. There has been a place to go back to and be able to fully communicate. There have been people to ask for help and people to learn from. But as of the end of November, all three of those people have left Safe Passage. Safe Passage has been on school break since then so going back on January 6, Brian will be alone in his office. As the saying goes, it will be time to either sink or swim.
As we reflect on this experience “not being fun anymore,” it mostly comes back to feelings of being displaced and not being in control. Back home in our familiar environment, our native culture, and within systems and relationships we understand, we often have a false sense of being in control. We know how to get what we need, we know who to turn to when we need help and are able to do so, we have at least some ability to affect change in our surroundings and circumstances. Here, we feel helpless far more frequently than we ever have. We are at the mercy of those around us and are learning to accept unpredictability and things not going the ways we expected. We are becoming comfortable with few choices, or at least the ability to articulate the choices we wish to make. That is good learning for us, especially as people with some degree of power in our native culture.
One of our hopes for our time in Guatemala is that we would have the exact experience we are having: that we would experience what is like to be on the “outside.” Outside of dominant culture, outside of relationships, outside of language, etc. Having spent most, if not all, of our lives being on the inside of those things, our ability to have compassion for, be in solidarity with, or empathize with those on the “outside” – on the margins – only goes so far. This year of being displaced and living on the outside in Guatemala will hopefully be formative for us, not only we seek to serve with those on the margins in Guatemala, but also as we return to the States next year and seek deeper relationships and ministry with those on the margins there as well.
In less reflective-type news, here on some updates on how we have been spending out time recently:
As mentioned earlier, Ellsey and Westin have been in school two days a week since we arrived. The school year in Guatemala runs January through mid-November so they have been on “summer break” for the last several weeks. Their school (a local preschool/daycare) puts on a summer camp once the school year ends so they have been attending that for three weeks. They just had their clausura (end of the year ceremony) last Friday. Ellsley had been practicing her class’ dance at home for several weeks…we finally got to see it and she did great! Westin’s class did a “dance,” though all of the kids just stood still and stared at the teachers. Good thing they were super cute in fish costumes. Huge credit goes to Kelly for spending a whole day making Westin’s costume!
Ellsley and Westin at their preschool clausura. Westin was a seriously cute fish even if he didn’t dance.
Kelly has been settling into her life as a stay-at-home mom – albeit in a very different context than she ever imagined. When she’s not wrangling the kids to or from school, shopping at the market, or preparing meals (a process that involves disinfecting all our produce which adds a fair bit of time), she’s enjoyed exploring Antigua. We don’t have a car in Guatemala so we either take Uber for longer trips around town or walk. Both Brian and Kelly regularly walk about 6 miles a day. Even Ellsley is getting great at the mile-or-so walk from our house into town!
At Safe Passage, Brian has enjoyed getting settled into his role and becoming a part of the organization (as much as his language ability allows). The late-fall to early-winter is a slow time for groups so Brian’s work as Support Team coordinator has been slow. The last few months have been spent wrapping his head around his role, administrative work getting ready for the first groups in the new year, and getting to know staff and students. He’s enjoyed working with students as they prepared for their first annual English festival, helping lead the preschool summer camp, and celebrating with graduates of preschool and 6th grade. Kelly and the kids joined Brian in the city for two days during preschool summer camp. Brian loved having them with him at Safe Passage and even Ellsley made a few friends!
Fun from the Safe Passage Jardin (preschool) graduation celebration.
The finalists and winners of the English Festival Spelling Bee.
The Jardin (preschool) super hero-themed summer camp, including Ellsey and her friends.
Brian has also been assisting as a priest at St. Alban’s – an English-speaking mission congregation of the Episcopal Diocese of Guatemala. (You can read one of his sermons here.) The former priest recently returned to the States and Brian has been serving with the newly-appointed priest-in-charge, a Guatemalan woman from Guatemala City. Also assisting are a Lutheran pastor/deacon couple from the States who are starting a school near Antigua. Serving in an English-speaking congregation certainly doesn’t help with learning Spanish, but Brian has greatly enjoyed serving as a priest here. And the priest-in-charge is exploring Spanish-language ministry in Antigua as well – something Brian is very interested in being a part of. Brian has also been in touch with the bishop in Guatemala and other clergy in Guatemala City about establishing partnerships between Safe Passage and nearby Episcopal congregations. We are looking forward to exploring those possibilities in more depth in the new year.
We’re writing this update from the Pacific coast in Guatemala, an hour and a half from Antigua, for a few days of rest and fun on the beach before Christmas. Ellsley and Westin have haven’t been this happy or had this much fun since we moved so it has been a successful family vacation. Christmas is going to feel very different here in Guatemala (we’ve heard there will be a lot of fireworks) but we are looking forward to a new kind of celebration as a family. Brian’s parents will be here for Christmas as well so there will be something familiar with us to connect us to home.
A very merry Christmas to all of you – wherever you are reading this. We are grateful for your prayers and your support as we live in the place and engage in the work to which God has called us.