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
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.
St. Alban’s Mission, Antigua, Guatemala The Rev. Brian Gregory October 20, 2019 Church Year C: The 19th Sunday after Pentecost Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 121, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8
Good morning. It has been a couple of months since I have been on this side of the church, and it feels good to be back serving as a priest. I feel like I need to introduce myself. I’ve been a new face with a new family around here for the past month or so and have met most of you, but not shared a lot about who I am or what me and my family are doing in Guatemala.
I am a priest from the Diocese of Olympia, Western Washington in the United States. My wife and I have lived in the Seattle area for our whole lives, and that is where our kids have lived until now. I first came to Guatemala with my seminary program in 2014 for a “cross-cultural immersion,” observing culture and context through the lens of the questions: “Where do we see Jesus? What is God doing here? How is God’s kingdom present and growing?” We spent most of our time in the Ixil triagle, around Nebaj and Cotzal, and were confronted by the realities of the civil war. We visited with pastors to hear how they seek to be a part of God’s work of reconciliation. We spent time with families and received their hospitality, and, even though in our eyes, they had little to nothing available to share, there was always an abundance.
Before we headed up into the highlands, though, we spent a few days in Guatemala City. On one of those days, we took a half-day tour of an organization called Safe Passage – an organization a number of you are familiar with. Safe Passage works in the community around the Guatemala City garbage dump, offering school programs for around 550 children and their families. In doing so, it provides education, hope, and opportunity beyond the dump. There are adult literacy programs for dump workers, the majority of whom have little to no formal education. There are social entrepreneurship programs for women, offering job training and economic opportunity beyond the hazardous conditions of the dump. As I reflected on the guiding questions of that first trip: “Where do we see Jesus? What is God doing here?” it turned out that Jesus was in the Guatemala City garbage dump. Walking into one of Safe Passage’s three school buildings surrounding the dump is like walking into an outpost of God’s kingdom, literally emerging from a valley of trash. I returned to Guatemala two times since that first trip in 2014 to partner with and support the work of Safe Passage, to encounter Jesus in others, and to discover the many other ways God’s kingdom is growing in zone 3 of Guatemala City.
The last time I was here, in 2017, I began to sense a quiet call to join ever more deeply in the work God is doing there – whether through Safe Passage, through the Episcopal Church, or through the countless other individuals or organizations active here in this beautiful country to make God’s dreams for the world come alive – a dream we call God’s kingdom. Long story short, two years later, here we are, working at Safe Passage and, thankfully, assisting Mother Nelly here at St. Alban’s, hopefully playing a small part in what God is doing here. But I’ll come back to that. In the meantime, we have a parable from Jesus that calls for our attention.
When I used to pray, whether asking God for something big or small, I tended to end my prayer with, “but Thy will be done.” Not necessarily a bad thing to say to God – after all, Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” But as I reflected on that tendency, I began to wonder why I added that. I suspect it was not just a way of deferring to God’s authority, but rather a way of couching my hopes, being timid, uncertain even, about whether my prayer would even make a difference. Because do we really think that prayer works?
There is a website called Postsecret that allow people to send in anonymous confessions on postcards. Reading through them, they are funny, heartbreaking, and everything in between. Since it was launched in 2005, more than half a million secrets have been shared and six books have been published containing the secrets. The idea behind this, I think what we would call viral phenomenon, is that it gives people the opportunity to get something off their chest without vulnerability. But we have to ask if confessions or offers of forgiveness really change anything or anyone if there is no one to receive the confession or accept the forgiveness. It really is just about “getting something off one’s chest,” and that doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t be back on the chest tomorrow…or the next day or the next.
I wonder if this is ever how we approach prayer: maybe hoping that God is listening, but regardless, saying what it is we need to say just in order to put it into words…to get it off our chest. Perhaps that simply comes from a place of uncertainty. Perhaps it comes from a place of being let down a few too many times in the past. Regardless, the question persists: do we really think that prayer works? Is it effective at more than making us feel better, if even for just a moment?
Back home in Seattle, I served as a hospital chaplain in addition to my parish ministry. I worked a regional trauma center so we saw more than our share of catastrophic injuries, dire circumstances, and vicious illnesses. One of the hardest things for me to do was often to offer the prayers families asked for: prayers for miraculous healings, prayers for complete recovery, even when medically, there was absolutely no hope. I’m not sure if my discomfort was more about my own belief that there was no way out of death for these patients, or if it was about my secondary concern for the family gathered at the bedside…wanting to protect their faith from the very likely disappointment and grief that was to come. Regardless, my prayers then – and if I’m honest, very rarely ever – look like the prayers of the women in Jesus’ parable before us today.
Because what God asks of us is boldness and persistence. Whether God invites us to fight with him, God can certainly handle it. Prayer is not just about getting something off our chest to feel more at peace – though that can be true as a result. It is not just about deferring to God’s authority. Prayer is about wrestling with God, aligning our hearts and hopes with the heart and hopes of God, yes, but also aligning God’s heart with ours. Take the story from Genesis of Jacob wrestling with God, for example. Jacob was persistent. He fought for what it was that he wanted. He would not take “no” for an answer, even though that is the answer he kept receiving. And when God realized that Jacob was not giving up, God relented. Or the scene from Exodus, after the Israelites had been freed from captivity, crossed the Jordan, and found safety and rest at the bottom of Mt. Sinai. As Moses went up the mountain to meet God, the Israelites became restless. So quickly, they forgot who it was that had protected, sustained, and freed them and they turned away from God to gods created from their own hands. Do you recall God’s response? It was a commitment to wipe them out, to start over, again, just as God had done with Noah in hopes of finding people who weren’t so fickle, but this time with Moses. But Moses argued. He reasoned with God, reminding God of God’s promises. Some translations of Scripture say that “The Lord changed his mind about the terrible things he said he would do to his people.”
If we take this parable from Jesus, the story of Jacob, and the story of Moses and ask the question, does prayer work? Does persistence pay off? then the answer very well seems to be “yes.” We are called to pray hard, to wrestle, to fight, even, with God to align God’s heart to ours. But, and this is important, we need to remember that the outcomes, the results of our or anyone else’s prayer, is not a measure of faith. It is not a measure of how hard anyone has prayed. Because the reality is that God’s will will be done. And God’s will is good: wholeness, restoration, reconciliation. Peace, justice, life abundant. That doesn’t mean our temporal circumstances will always be rosy or the inevitable cycle of life and death won’t afflict us. But in the end, God’s dream of a world that is very good and whole will no longer be just a dream.
This parable and what it teaches about persistence and faith is true and important to hear, but it can also easily lead to bad theology. We can easily miss something equally important: it is not just about prayer.
I read an article this week about legislation that is pending in the state of Tennessee in the United States. If passed, this law would expand healthcare coverage to include 300,000 of Tennessee’s most vulnerable residents who live just above the poverty line – unable to receive assistance but also unable to provide for themselves or their families. The governor of Tennessee proclaimed a “Day of Prayer and Fasting” for the state as this bill sits on his desk. A group of churches and clergy responded by calling for a day of “Prayer and Action.” That is the point here. Prayer works, prayer is vital to how our faith works and how we relate with God, but prayer doesn’t let us off the hook for actually doing something. It is like the chorus of “thoughts and prayers” that arise after incidents of violence and disaster around the world. Pray, yes…but do something, too. There is too much hurt, too much injustice, too much oppression, too much discrimination around the world and it is not the result of someone not praying about it. It is the result of the actions and inactions of people.
Think of Christians in Syria today. Do we think they don’t have immense faith to persist in the face of unspeakable terror and violence? Do we think they haven’t prayed until they have no breath left with which to pray? Or the children and families I encounter daily living around the Guatemala City garbage dump? Are we willing to say they haven’t prayed hard enough to change the oppressive systems that keep them stuck in poverty? Or the countless others in this country, many of whom some of you work with and encounter in your own work and ministries?
It is easy to become overwhelmed, cynical, even, with the thought of our world fundamentally changing for the better. There is so much that is broken that it can become hard to imagine it all being made whole. But God’s kingdom is coming, my sisters and brothers, on earth as it is in heaven. Wholeness, justice, peace, reconciliation…these things are emerging in our midst. They are emerging in ways both big and small. They are emerging in places where we least expect to find them like a garbage dump. They are emerging even as all that runs counter to God’s kingdom persist around us as well. And one day, God’s kingdom will be here completely. But that will not happen only through our prayers. The growth of God’s kingdom in our world invites our hands, our feet, our lives, and our work as we join in the work God is doing to make God’s hopes for the world become reality. Pray, yes. Pray hard. Pray with conviction and persistence. But when you are done praying, don’t forget to get up and act.
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.
The last several weeks – the last few months, actually –
have been a whirlwind of planning, packing, saying goodbye, and making
arrangements for our move to Guatemala. Each member of our family of four has lived
their entire life in the Seattle area (with the exception of Kelly’s college
years in Spokane). We have roots: history,
memories, family and friends, possessions.
As we have been preparing for our move, it has felt as though we have
slowly been pulling those roots out getting ready for our new chapter. Certainly, we will carry a great deal of
ourselves – the intangible things – with us.
And we are planning on being in Guatemala for only a year – a relatively
short season of our lives. But we have
never uprooted before and it is hard.
Hard alone, and hard with kids.
As we boarded the plane on Tuesday, I (Brian) couldn’t help but recognize the privilege we have to be taking this journey. We had safe and, thankfully, reliable transportation; food and activities to keep the kids occupied; we had a driver waiting for us on the ground in Guatemala; and we knew exactly where we were going and where we would be living once we arrived. We had favorite toys and books for the kids, our clothes, and important items packed in bags coming along with us. As challenging as it was to determine what to bring with us, what to get rid of, and what to store for our return, we had the luxury of deciding.
We did all of this as thousands make the journey the other direction, oftentimes with absolutely no certainties, no plans, and nothing but the clothes on their back and the hope of a future. Just over two weeks ago, this mother from Guatemala, after traveling some 1,500 miles with her six-year-old son, stood at the border of the United States and Mexico weeping as a Mexican National Guard soldier stood in her way. “Let me pass, I beg of you. Don’t let them send me back. I just want to give my son a better life.” Is that too much to ask? I, too, want to give my kids opportunity and support. And our move to Guatemala, particularly in the midst of the migration coming the other way, made it abundantly that we have immense privilege; that we already have the “better life” so many in our world seek. So, what do we do with that? Is it all futile?
In 1960, a young black man named John
Perkins moved from California to Mississippi.
But that wasn’t his first time in the South. Just 13 years earlier he had fled Mississippi
for a new, more prosperous, and safer life out West after his older brother was
murdered by a police officer. Life was
good in California – he was earning more money than he ever thought possible
and had purchased a home for his young family with his wife Vera Mae. But then something unexpected happened. Through the witness of his son, Spencer,
Jesus and John Perkins found one another.
Driven by a belief that the
Christian faith has everything to do with justice, community, and wholeness, John
(now Dr. Perkins after receiving several honorary doctorates) returned to the
place he had once left and vowed never to return in order to live out his
commitment to Christ and witness to the liberating and empowering power of the
gospel in Mississippi. God was calling
him back, not to encourage fellow blacks who still lived under an oppressive
system of racial discrimination to leave and find new opportunities elsewhere,
but to help them break the cycle of despair and change the structures that
dehumanized them. As he said, “I was
back in Mississippi, not because Mississippi had changed, but because God had
changed me and called me back.”
Back in Mississippi, Dr. Perkins advocator
ed for educational equality, organized voting registration drives, and led a
ministry that, among other things, reminded young blacks that they are worth
something and empowered them through leadership development. Because of his leadership in the Civil Rights
Movement, Dr. Perkins was arrested on several occasions, once being beaten and
tortured to the brink of death. God had
called him into dangerous work.
Several years ago, I had the
opportunity to spend a week with Dr. Perkins in Jackson, MS to join in his work
of community development. As our group
visited with him, we explored issues of privilege in our world. Speaking to an almost exclusively white,
wealthy audience, he said, “You have privilege and you can use it. Don’t get rid of your privilege; harness it
to benefit others.”
I am not yet sure how we can or
will use our privilege for good in Guatemala, but that is our hope. It would have been much easier to stay at
home in Seattle and continue on with our lives, but we have been called into the
work being done in Guatemala to bring wholeness and justice where it is often
lacking. There have already been
challenges in our first few days here getting settled, but nothing remotely similar
to the challenges those making the journey the other direction.
We’ve been spending this week
getting settled before I begin work at Safe Passage next week after the kids
start school on Tuesday. We’re looking
forward to finding a routine and joining in the work here in Guatemala.
By now you’ve likely seen the photo from several weeks ago. Father, Oscar Alberto Martinez, and his two-year-old daughter, Angie Valeria, drowned in the Rio Grande as they attempted to cross into the United States. Along with his wife, Tania, Oscar was seeking work in the United States and a better life for Angie. They had waited for several months in Mexico waiting to speak to the US Consulate, but no one would talk to them. So, they decided to cross illegally. Oscar and Angie never made it. The photo of their lifeless bodies lying face-down in the Rio Grande captured the tragedy one Salvadorian family, as well as the tragedy of the many nameless, photo-less people who perished before them and those that will follow. Lives lost in search of hope, leading them on a perilous journey to the United States.
Immigration is at the forefront of our national dialogue. We
can argue and fight and talk in circles about what responsibilities we have as
a nation, what responsibility we have as individuals, and how to fix an
immigration system nearly everyone agrees is broken, but no one can agree on
how fix. And we should continue those conversations – calling and writing our
elected officials, seeking an immigration system that is as just as it is
compassionate. But the border is not the problem. The border is just where the
problems begin to touch us.
Oscar, Angie, Tania, and the millions of other immigrants
who have crossed our borders, been apprehended crossing our borders, or died on
the journey all fled “home.” Wherever home has been for them (historically, the
majority of those crossing our borders have been from Mexico; recently, the
majority have been from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), a dangerous and
uncertain journey to the unknown in the United States has been their only
source of hope. They flee injustice, oppression, poverty, and violence. Many
lack the resources and opportunities to survive and thrive, and they long for a
better life for their children but don’t believe that will ever be possible at “home.”
That is the root of the problem.
This is a prayer offered at our church the Sunday after the
photo of Oscar and Angie was circulated:
O God, we confess our often blindness and indifference to the sufferings of your children throughout the world until they show up on our doorstep. We pray for our sisters and brothers in the human family who lack the resources to survive and thrive; whose daily lives are filled with trauma and violence; who live in fear and amid unrest. We mourn the fact that a perilous and uncertain journey to an unknown land is the only hope for many. We pray for a swift end to injustice, oppression, poverty, and violence. We pray for the right use of resources and equitable distribution of the abundance of creation. We pray for those serving, supporting, and advocating for the vulnerable people of our world. We pray for your kingdom to come, O God, on earth as it is in heaven.
As I looked at the photo of Oscar and Angie, I cried. I cried for them and their family. I cried for the numerous others who have perished just like them out of public view. I cried, knowing that the child and father in the photo could just as easily been from Zone 3 in Guatemala City where Safe Passage works. Safe Passage, the organization we will be working with in Guatemala, brings hope, education, and opportunity to some of Guatemala City’s poorest residents. Over 300 families are served by Safe Passage’s programs…hopefully 300 families that have hope for the future at home rather than risking the journey to the US.
As our family prepares to move and begin our ministry in Guatemala in a few short weeks, we are reminded this week of the importance of the work we get to be a part of. It is not hyperbole to say that this work has life and death consequences.