A Preamble

A Preamble

“… cried with a loud voice, ’loi, ’loi, lama sabachthani?! which means: ¡Dios mío, Dios mío, ¿por qué me has desamparado?!” (Mark 15:34)

“… cried with a loud voice, ’loi, ’loi, lama sabachthani?! which means: ¡Dios mío, Dios mío, ¿por qué me has desamparado?!” (Mark 15:34)

…ATROCITIES is not a big enough word
To describe this kind of loss
Nothing describes the loss of your own by your own
Nothing describes the loss
LOSS, a 4-lettered word
Like BLUE and WIND and WALK and FIND and BURY
and LIVE and LIFE and BODY and REST
4 lettered words
NONE big enough to describe this kind of destruction…

(Anida Yoeu Esguerra, excerpt from “S-21 Requiem,” 2005 ©)


The relationship between University Church of Chicago (jointly affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)) and a highland Mayan village associated with the mission-partner “Guatemalan Cultural Action” or ACG (Acción Cultural Guatemalteca) can serve as a valuable example of the type of mission work sought by Global Ministries – the covenantal venture between the Division of Overseas Ministries and the Wider Church Ministries. Operating behind and around the relationship between the Guatemala Partnership Ministry of University Church Chicago and the Mayan village of Saq Ja (literally “White Water” or “Clear Water” in K’iche’ Maya but found as El Desengaño on Spanish-language maps) are three larger contexts. The first context consists of recognizing the degree to which U.S. churches and activist-communities were involved in both the conflict, often unwittingly, and the quest for peace in Guatemala. Paul Wee, formerly of the World Lutheran Federation and a negotiator of the Guatemalan Peace Process, has summed up this context as “10 Lessons Learned by U.S. Faith Communities in Solidarity with the Guatemalan Peace Process.” The second context pertains to a wider shift in how many churches – either as denominational institutions, as individual congregations or parishes, or as individual missionaries in places like Guatemala – have seriously tried to do mission and ministry. With these two wider backdrops in mind let us recall where we have come from and add a little to Paul Wee’s “Lessons,” naming how they have played out independently at the grassroots level of this maturing Ministry with Saq Ja’.

The seeds of this partnership began in October, 1986 when the congregation of University Church, participating in the sanctuary movement, received and hosted the Vicente family. Virgilio Vicente, a K’iche’ Maya, was born and raised in the small highland village of Saq Ja’. It is a village not far from Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum’s home village, located next to a large coffee plantation, and currently exists as a consequence of a relatively large Guatemalan army invasion, massacre, and occupation which led to the dispersal of the village’s survivors – such as don Virgilio and his siblings (but not, unfortunately, his parents and grandparents) – and the resettling of that village by outside families (other landless K’iche’ laborers) that the army deemed as “friendly” or “passive.”

By 1997, after the signing of the peace accords in 1996, don Virgilio made it known to the congregation of his dream to return, in some capacity, to his home village and participate in the rebuilding of his country and indigenous culture. The congregation, University Church, entered into a year-long discernment period. By 1998 Virgilio and a member of that congregation, Dan Dale, met up with Garry Sparks (who was already living in Guatemala at the time working with ACG) to visit the village for the first time in almost 20 years. Upon arrival, we allowed don Virgilio to reacquaint with friends and relatives – finding out who was still alive – as well as mentally assessing issues of logistics and resources. We were given a tour of the village, shown a wide number of development projects that were underway, many of them failing as well as those that had already failed. We listened to the locals simultaneously boast about and lament their world.

Since that initial reconnaissance trip we, under the leadership and coordination of don Virgilio, have carried out a delegation every year (except in 2001). The delegations were initially small (5 people) but ecumenical and have now almost tripled in size. These delegations spend about 5 days within Saq Ja’ itself and meet with various NGOs on the days before and after to contextualize the ever changing situation – phasing in and then phasing out of the delegation experience and critically reflecting along the way.

This is to say five main things about this relationship, at least from our end:

  1. The relationship with the village began by an invitation from a representative of that community, Saq Ja’, which continued into a wider conversation with the larger village and U.S. congregations. Constant dialogue and conversation has remained the mediating factor on how we continue this relationship.
  2. From the beginning, it was paramount for us to enter into this relationship on the terms of the community of Saq Ja’. This has required many of us in the U.S. to learn their language, not just Spanish and K’iche’ but an appreciation for how the community analyzes problems, proposes solutions, and mediates dissent.
  • We have learned to never speak first but wait to be asked our opinion. We don’t offer projects or solutions but wait for their ideas and proposals even if we have the funds, a tentative idea of what might work, and must wait over a year to hear their perspective.
  • We have learned not to ask yes/no questions unless we want, often unintentionally, to hear a “yes” and thus inadvertently impose our will. This includes the refusal of gifts; that is to say, we always accept what is offered to us either in words, deeds, or material regardless of how “poor” we perceive the community.
  • We have learned, or are constantly learning, to be able to hear their “no” with grace, understanding that it can be said to us because we have built a relation upon trust.

At times this “listening on their terms” involves prayer led by Catholic catechists, Christian charismatics, and Mayan spiritual guides, or simply three-hour meetings with members of the village. These “terms” have taxed our patience and stamina, our language skills, and our emotions. They have required us constantly to re-envision our worldview while demanding that we account for and explain to others who we think we are. Simply saying that “we are not like ‘those’ U.S. citizens” or “‘those’ types of Christians” is deeply unsatisfying for the villagers of Saq Ja’. In doing so we would deny our responsibility within history for the sake of our own conscience (our shame, our guilt), and we would deny those with whom we seek to be in relationship (Saq Ja’) the points of view that would help provide for them a more nuanced perspective that they are looking for – to better understand their reality. If we, in the U.S., only conduct this relationship and conversation on our terms, then we wind up disempowering us all.

  1. During delegations this often means that we (in the advice of Linda McCrae) “sit on our hands and bite our tongues” and fight our initial urges to always speak, provide the answers, and fix the problems. We are often uncomfortable during these 10 days, an arresting discomfort that we only feel for 10 days but that the majority of the world lives with during the course of their lives. Delegations are not just about listening and learning, as opposed to doing and building, but are also experiential. We try to experience life on Saq Ja’s terms rather than bring our life down to them, so that, in part, we may better hear them when we are in the U.S., when they are not with us.
  • Delegations involve considerable orientation before leaving the U.S. for Guatemala, three sessions (historical context, cultural context, and logistics) of 2 hours each, usually once a month for the three months prior.
  • During the delegation there must be adequate reflection time and processing by the delegation with and without the participation of members from Saq Ja’. These reflections must continue back in the U.S. both in and out of worship. This is greatly facilitated with don Virgilio as a recognized lay minister within the congregation – a gift of ministry to us (despite the conditions upon which it was sent) that has only begun to be appreciated.
  • We have learned the difficulty of not over-romanticizing, idealizing, or categorizing “them,” as all three of these dehumanize all of us. This is particularly important as the larger U.S. culture profits on the turning of aspects of indigenous knowledge and symbols into just one more commodity for us to consume for our “healing,” thereby robbing the Maya of some of the last vestiges of that which they feel they can call their own. When indigenous stories or symbols are used by us, we try to be clear that we are doing so by us but not for us and this requires, again, constant conversation.
  • There are constant attempts to carry out delegations both ways, to sponsor and have leaders of Saq Ja’ and Guatemalan organizations with whom we meet and work come to Chicago, lead worship and prayers, discuss joint projects, and get to know us in our homes (on their terms). This is imperative for any beginning of rectifying the imbalance of power in our relationship.
  • There is constant effort to ensure that new people come on a delegation at least once, to participate in the wider conversation to the degree that the partnership transforms the life of the whole community. This has demanded especially attention toward high school aged youth and young adults – most delegations are timed around the week of Spring Break.
  • Those who cannot also go on delegations financially sponsor others, in whole or in part, or they go on other delegations that pertain to the relationship in a wider way, i.e. Borderlinks, SOA, Witness for Peace and Christian Peacemaker Team delegations to other countries (such as Chiapas, Mexico, Cuba, or Colombia), etc.
  • The relationship must be viewed as a long-term one. We understand, as our partners in Saq Ja’ and in other indigenous organizations have told us, that the roots of the current violence that we are aiming to address and change go back over 500 years. We should not expect a true solution for another 500. We understand that peace accords do not mark the end of a struggle, only a half-way point, often from low-intensity war to low-intensity peace.
  • This is not to say, however, that those of us in the U.S. (Illinois, Ohio, Michigan) do not contribute to village projects; on the contrary, we have helped provide for a corn grinder, a mule, a community center, a domestic running water project, a middle school and high school scholarship program, funds for teacher training, funds for a locally owned cooperative charter school, etc., etc.
    • However, these programs and projects only emerge out of a continued conversation in which we, as a community (or grupo, in the words of Sara), are acutely aware of the dangers of dependency, of appearing to be “Santa Claus,” of carrying out such projects to assuage our guilt rather than address their needs, and of the way that such projects can play into local village politics, thereby contributing to the already existing tensions and divisions within their community.
    • On delegations (we to Guatemala or they to Chicago), future possible projects are discussed and previous projects are evaluated, but no money exchanges hands during the delegation. In fact, all monies (except those that are needed to cover immediate expenses) are taken “off the table.” No individual gifts are ever made from the delegation to members of the community, and gifts to the community are only made in a public forum before the whole community. Aside from any community gift, the delegation does not “dump” its unwanted clothes or items upon the village (even trash is usually packed out). This helps protect us from allegations of favoritism toward individuals and helps protect members of the community from both charges of corruption and the “envy,” or ojo, of others.
    • Projects are reflected upon and discussed as a group back in Chicago, communicated as a group to the community as a whole, and funds channeled through above-board institutions from our bank account to theirs.
    • Finally, it is clear that promises are never made unless we are clear that we can honor them as la palabra es el hecho (the word is the deed) in the village.

    Finally, this brings up the third context. We – initially within University Church and quickly as a wider Christian community – began this pilgrimage prior to 1986 with involvement in the sanctuary movement and hosting other Central American refugees. While the sanctuary movement excelled in the border states with a “ministry of hospitality” and in the upper states (Midwest, Northeast, Bay Area, etc.) with an “accompaniment ministry,” we are only beginning to realize and feel the cost of the loss responded to in the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s… While those of us of a more Euro-American worldview analyzed the roots of the problem primarily (but not exclusively) in socio-economic terms (and radically responded – in the truest sense of the word – appropriately), those we aimed to minister to and be in solidarity with would have preferred to explain their condition also in scriptural, theological, and spiritual terms (terms, for example, more expressive of an indigenous person’s attachment to the land), terms which we are only beginning to hear.

    At no time should we, in the U.S., deny our power and privilege, rather, we should try to use it strategically in covenantal relationship with Saq Ja’. Those of us with power and privilege – an unavoidable fact of the history into which we were born – should not be arrested by these historical circumstances, because we can also enter into relationship (any relationship) from positions that we can control, such as from a position of profound humility. For no matter how much we listen to, learn from, and work with our brothers and sisters in Saq Ja’, most of us in this venture will never know what it feels like to try to describe the sense of
                            of one’s own
                                   by one’s own.

    Then the angel showed me the river of the water {ja’} of life, bright as crystal {saq}, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1-2)

    … say, “Come!”
    And let everyone who hears say, “Come!”
    And let everyone who is thirsty come.
    Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. (Revelation 22:17)

    K’amow ri’ chi re Ajaw.
    Thanks be to God.