I have southerned myself this summer. First, south to El Paso for a bit, and then further south to Guatemala. A week before I left, my dentist pushed that needly utensil into my gums and asked me if I was going to Guatemala to help people. When my mouth was free, and my gums identified as healthy, I answered no. For me, I envisioned and categorized my trip to Guatemala as purely selfish. I am here at language school spending five hours a day in class, because I became tired of inadequate Spanish communication ability. So I took the time for myself, without "helping people," to simply learn Spanish. But that isn’t to say that everything I do is not also for myself. It is. And drawing lines around doing things for me and doing things for others is misleading, and for that reason, I kind of forgot about that mantra I had until right now, as I am sitting in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, finishing up my time here.
For me, my time here, and all time, is worth sharing. But the lack of computers, time, and internet has kept me from it. But now, I have retrospective tales and introspective thoughts about my time here. It will come in parts.
PART 1: El Pit Stop Paso
I landed in El Paso for the second time since I had left it in December feeling a tad shameful for my frequent visits. I clearly can’t get enough of it. But aside from immense carbon releases from flights, and monetary costs, I suppose there should be no shame in visiting often.
Every time I land in El Paso a good friend and fellow volunteer picks me up from the airport. The twenty minute ride to Annunciation House from the airport has consistently been enough for me to want a ride right back to the airport. I am quickly informed of the updates of the guests; I am reminded of the people that are still incredibly stuck. When I arrived in March to visit, I learned that a close family to the house just lost their mom to incarceration. The kids were left parentless and paperless. When I arrived in June, I learned that these same kids, who had moved into the shelter, just lost their brother who had to be sent back across the border to Juarez, MX. I was reminded that so many of the same people that had been around in October, November, December, were still around, stuck in the blender that migration causes. In the car, which was now more worn by the sun, I became ashamed for reasons besides visiting often, I felt cold that I had let myself escape that reality for so long.
I am forever shocked and afraid by my ability to step away from pain and suffering. Moreover, it is only when I step back in along side situations and stories of pain, suffering, poverty, and oppression that I realize to what extent I allow myself to forget, in order to continue. I spent a semester at college in euphoria. With constant reminders that the world is beautiful. And that people are good. And that systems do work. And to some extent, in order to function in that world, which I too value, I had to let go of the many other realities in the world in some way. I have blatantly done this with the oil spill in the gulf. Feeling incapable and overwhelmed, I choose to resume my life, without letting myself get taken down emotionally by the spill. In other words, I have ignored it. And this is something that we are asked to do everyday. It is what we do well. Adapt and change and learn and forget. And although it may not be wrong or unhealthy to step away from hard things for a bit, stepping back into the realities that permeate through El Paso reminded me of the separation that I quietly built.
But arriving at the house is when the pain gets met with joy. Although I may feel lost and down that some have been stuck in the shelter for months or years, I joyfully hug them and color with them and eat with them and laugh. And we talk about our situations, and my hopes are just like his or hers. And the sun is still the same as before. And so is the food. And the struggle. But now the upstairs bathroom is done. And I have a different haircut. And Luly has new shoes. And the guests tell me they don’t like my haircut, and I laugh. But they do like the extra bathroom upstairs. And Luly likes her shoes.
Unlike all the other time I have spent in El Paso, the week I had before Guatemala was not crammed with to-dos. My only responsibility was one eight hour shift at Casa Vides, one of the houses run by Annunciation House that is geared towards longer term women and families. For me it felt like enough. The kids, whose mother is in jail, and whose brother got sent to Juarez the day I arrived, live in Casa Vides with their smiles and laughs and attitude. Typically at the houses a volunteer never really takes the role of parent, because that job can be referred to the real parent, but with this family, the volunteers share the parental role. So for 8 hours I had to be the best papa I could be.
Perhaps the most difficult part for me was wanting or needing the role model aspect and power of parent, without having done anything, like consummating, or providing food for example, to deserve it. So when I made sure they ate, I felt I had no right. When I begged them to brush their teeth, I felt I had no right. When I pulled them in from the street at ten to go to bed, who was I to do that? These kids have found themselves in a situation where an ignorant boy, with different colored skin, who speaks their language poorly, is trying to get them to brush their teeth, so he can tuck them in, before he goes to bed and leaves to Guatemala the next morning maybe never seeing them again. There was a babysitter I had that I hid from as a child because her curly hair scared me. These children just went to bed late, some with tears moving down their cheeks, dressed in the clothes of their brother, and laying underneath cartoons their mom had made in jail. And I stood there on the other side of the closed door, listening to know they would fall asleep, knowing that I lacked patience and grace, and feeling quite humbled by all those parents who have cared for their children, and by all those children who haven’t had parents to care for them.
PART II: Evangelization in 17D
It wasn’t long until my stomach was full with 5 am diner food and I was on a plane to Guatemala.
I sat next to Joe. Joe sat next to Jeff. Joe asked me to read parts of his Bible out loud. Presumably to make sure I was actually reading it. Joe offered to walk me through the steps to being saved, in seat 17D. Jeff told me he understood my pain, felt sorry for me. My curiosity led me to this peculiar situation.
When I sat down, Joe said, "I’m Joe." Joe was going to Guatemala to build houses and also to evangelize the area "of course." That wasn’t very "of course" to me. I admit to being highly ignorant about evangelicals and the evangelical church. But before this plane ride, I was even more so. I asked what it meant to be "saved." My summary of the answer is this: there are some people that haven’t been baptized and haven’t committed that Jesus is their savior. These people are not saved. And they will go to hell. Except if they are infants, and then they may be exempt, depending on God’s will. But, if somebody who lives in a remote village, who has never heard of Jesus, still hasn’t been "saved", they still will go to hell, according to the word. This was of particular concern to Jeff. And one of the primary reasons to evangelize, in places like Guatemala, is to save these people from that outcome.
Joe and Jeff said that "practicing" gays would go to hell. And lots of other good people too. If you hadn’t been saved, there was no two ways about it. We concluded, the three of us, that this meant I was going to hell. That was part of the reason our conversation continued for the whole flight, and the reason why I read the bible out loud, and took time to reflect in my journal. Because they were eager to save me. And they nearly did.
Jeff liked my arguments. I argued that the human is not something to control, but instead to liberate. And I asked if there is any good reason to believe just to believe. Truth should be found individually,I thought, not compromised by following one idea. There is always a good rebuttal to my thoughts though. It is the word of the Lord up against mine. And Jeff liked my arguments, but not that much. I felt so intellectually bombarded by the word they preached, that I lost my grounding and felt ever so lost. That intensity passed when we landed, exchanged e-mails, and bid farewells.
But the evangelical movement in Guatemala certainly exists beyond North American evagelizers. Joe and Jeff said that they have saved (baptized) hundreds of people in Guatemala within a week. I have heard that around 40 percent of Guatemalans call themselves evangelicals. Yesterday someone told me a common saying in Guatemala. “If you want to get out of poverty you have two choices: become a politician, or an evangelical pastor, who apparently receive major portions of the churches income, and are given multiple modes of transport to help them spread the word. One nearby church is considering buying a helicopter for the pastor to help him move around more quickly.
A common question here is, "are you evangelical or catholic?" I haven’t experienced any animosity amongst the two sectors. And all of my responses to the question have been respected politely. In fact, some families from the countryside have said that there is only one difference: Catholics can drink alcohol and evangelicals can’t. This was told to me by an evangelical family. The catholic family down the road told me that there was no difference. The issue of alcohol though, can be very relevant to families. For example Vilma´s husband was an abusive alcoholic for years, until he was saved, and now she describes him as caring and loving, and he goes out to work everyday and to church on Sundays. With this I feel like saluting Joe and Jeff. Other differences are that evangelicals are not permitted to dance, or wear showy jewelry. In one of the houses I spent time in, evangelical radio played all day, keeping the single mother Teresa company in the kitchen. But even as music played, spontaneous hip movement would not be welcomed.
This is all a brief, limited, and potentially shallow reflection on religion in Guatemala, but it is in this nature that I have experienced it. It is very central to so many lives here, and plays an integral important role in Guatemalan society. To my foreign eye it can appear silly at times, but not different than the way my lack of faith can seem silly to many people here. My views expressed in the earlier post "Relating Religion" still accurately reflect how I relate to religion. It is evident that religion here is historically central, valuable, and also in some cases, destructive.
PART III: Arriving in Isolation
I realized on the plane that my trip to Guatemala was my first time leaving the country alone to travel. I began to think about isolation. There is indeed a human itch to congregate and interact. This may be rooted in our need to distract ourselves from the abstract existence in which we live. Meanwhile, connection, love,and sharing is no doubt part of our communal abstract existence. I often seek isolation to spend time listening and talking to myself. I do this because I think that anything but isolation is in some sense an escape. A mode for us to hide from ourselves. Conversely I would also argue that isolation is an escape from society and from the intrinsic community that every living being experiences.
A funny occurrence for me has been that isolation breeds relation. I had long conversations with my seat neighbors on every leg of the trip, and in transition too. And traveling alone in isolation has lead the way to meeting more and more new people. There is nothing complicated about it, but it suggests to me that sometimes asking ourselves to step in a hard direction often leads us to then float in the more comfortable direction. For me I asked myself to find isolation, and as a result, have floated into community with others.
At the end of my travels, I finally arrived in two small communities an hour Northwest of Quetzaltengango. I stayed there for three weeks. The next parts will hopefully cover my time there, Guatemala´s history of struggle, and some of the struggles that exist today in the countryside.