A New Normal

A New Normal

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.

Uprooting

Uprooting

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.

The Root of the Problem

The Root of the Problem

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.

If you would like to partner with us in our ministry in Guatemala, we would be grateful to have you as part of our community of support.

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