Needing a witness

The mountains of Guatemala

The mountains of Guatemala

Our five days in Guatemala are over, and we have arrived, exhausted and a little dazed in Nicaragua. As I write, I am sitting in a converted cinema, now a church, waiting for leaders to assemble for the gathering of La Red del Camino, the brilliant network who have hosted us for the whole trip. Literally, their name means the network of ‘the way’ or ‘the path’ because the first Christians were known as followers of ‘the way’. They gather leaders across Latin America as friends, journeying with them in understanding faith and mission as a holistic, whole-life adventure (rather than a purely spiritual project) that leads them to engage with the poverty and injustice surrounding them. They are good, crazy, grounded people.

Our final day in Guatemala was spent in the indigenous, mountainous region around Patzun. It was breathtakingly beautiful and surprisingly cold. I was wearing flip-flops, but thankfully had packed a sensible cardigan, purchased for me by my mother.

We left at 5.30am to drive in some kind of hardy landcruiser to have breakfast with a group of indigenous pastors. I was picturing a rustic shelter in the hills (not dissimilar to the communities where we had been in the mestizo region the day before) and a breakfast of beans and rice.  But we pulled it at a lodge with pancakes and waffles in the menu. There are times when I bless the USA.

Breakfast with the pastors

Breakfast with the pastors

This group of tiny (shorter than me), wizened (for the most part) indigenous leaders told their stories quietly and gently.  Their people have been violated, abused, disempowered repeatedly over many years.  And these men lead churches and encourage their people to participate in political and civic life, a milieu from which they have been effectively banished by the authorities. Countless laws and policies are passed that continue to diminish their rights, desecrate their land and way of life, and drive them to violence. Poverty and despair characterise these communities, and they are armed to the teeth. The pastors have been threatened and targeted many times, both by militants in their own communities, and the powers of government.

I can’t remember all the details of the stories but what I remember very clearly is walking away from breakfast feeling like I had been given a long cool drink of water, and fed something nourishing (and I’m not talking about the pancakes).  And it was because of what they had witnessed and shared with us. In the church there is always talk about being witnesses in the world to who Jesus is, amongst people who don’t believe in him. But hearing the stories of these pastors, I felt witnessed to, and I realised how much I needed it. What they have experienced of God’s presence and faithfulness and justice in the midst of such oppression and violence and lack, told me again that this isn’t just my imagination or wishful thinking, but something real and beautiful.  It is the backbone of what these pastors live, to their peril, each day.

We drove across the most extravagantly beautiful terrain, we ate bowls of rice and local vegetables with pastors who used to be competitors but now lived like family, we sat and prayed with a resettled community who could now live without fear of their homes being washed away (again) in landslides, we visited an enormous greenhouse full of tomato plants, 2500m above sea level.

We were wrecked by the end, but also made new.

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Fighting against the violent tide

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(excuse the tiny, dodgy photo, I’m limited by technology in a far flung place).

Today I woke up in the most violent country in Latin America, and not long after breakfast there was a blast of gunfire nearby (or maybe it was just an early morning fireworks display, mum).

But I spent the day in a place known as ‘the refuge’ where flocks of bright green parrots whizzed (and shrieked) overhead, and children of all ages played together in a beautiful garden. Where another kind of life felt possible.

We spent the day with Pamela Leon, a relaxed Guatemalan lawyer in a turquoise polo shirt, who set up the refuge after encountering the horrific injustices and abuses suffered by the victims of domestic violence in her country. Very few of these cases even make it into the country’s legal processes, but the few she saw were enough.

Domestic violence has somehow, heartbreakingly, become an accepted part of Guatemalan culture, as much within the church as outside of it. (And Guatemala boasts the highest numbers of Christians in Central America, outside of the traditional Catholic church. It’s a sidenote to where I’m going, but this just hits me in the guts, how can we offer so hope little to the world?).

I met women today who arrived at the refuge barely recognisable, bruised and swolen from all the blows they had so recently received. There are plenty theories as to why this violence persists, some tracing its normalisation back to the long civil war from 1960 to 1996, and others (including Pamela) believing instead that it began with the violent colonisation of the country in the 16th century. The question that matters, however, is how ‘normal’ gets rewritten in a country’s psyche (or even just a family’s).

It’s not that it’s legal. Guatemala actually has an impressive legal system and a series of laws which protect women. On paper they’re great. If only it led to action. Corruption and machismo combine to mean that women and children are left undefended and unheard, and that men are shown preferential treatment. Pamela shared how when the police are called out by women who have been beaten by their husbands, it isn’t unusual for the police to suggest that they just need to learn to cook better, or make more effort with their appearance.

Pamela’s project is, for a privileged few, making possible the life that the law is supposed to enshrine. She and her tiny staff team are helping these women create a different future. The women come and live at the refuge for a year or so, with their children. In contrast to where they have come from, it is safe and peaceful. The children are able to go to school. The women are given psychological support, a calm environment, friendship, prayer and love. There are small businesses through which they can earn money. They are encouraged to study and to find work. (Today one of them was taking her entrance tests to train as a nurse). If they are prosecuting their aggressors then Pamela takes up their defence and advises them legally. Sadly there are few other lawyers who will defend these women because of how hard it is, and the lack of financial reward.

El Refugio is the only project of its kind in the country. If, miraculously, your situation is taken seriously, then if you’re lucky you’ll end up in a government-run service which offers respite for 48 hours up to a maximum of 3 months. They don’t offer any lasting way out, so your situation probably won’t change in the long-run. Pamela’s project can take 7 women and their children at a time.

It’s a drop in the ocean.

And I know the ocean is made up of many (squillion) drops but it must feel like blowing against the wind.

Pamela is less defeatist, and it’s because she has genuine faith that there is a bigger story than these depressing statistics suggest. She feels called (you’d need to, to undertake such a courageous and dangerous task, especially as a single woman), and says that her part is obedience to that calling. She is not single-handedly responsible for turning the tide, but she will play her part.

And maybe that’s the only way to fight violence: to refuse its tactics, to resolutely live out an alternative, to be patient and compassionate and do what you can, to defend others and create space for their healing and rebirth. It’s not fast (unlike the alternative), but perhaps it grows something that will endure?