The Grace of Hospitality in the Guatemalan Highlands: The Heartbreaking Paradoxes of One Person's Immersion Experience
by Cherie Sukeforth, M.A. student
The Guatemalan Highlands, located in the southwest, are home to the Maya people, who inhabited the land long before the Spanish and whose language is K'iche. We stayed in Chichicastenago, which sits on the crests of the mountaintops at 8,000 ft. The town is best known for its Thursday and Sunday markets, at which vendors sell handicrafts to visitors and food and all necessities to the local people.
Near the market, the 400-year old Roman Catholic Iglesia de Santo Tomás stands atop a Pre-Columbian temple platform. The church's venerated eighteen front steps, each representing one month of the Maya Calendar, centuries ago served as the entrance to the Maya place of worship. After the Civil War (1960-1996), the Catholic Church saw many of its parishioners leave. In order to keep the church going, it allowed the Maya priests to use the church for rituals and for burning incense and candles. Today, during some festivals, a chicken is burned for the gods. The church is an interesting blend of Catholic and Maya, and it was nearly impossible for me to differentiate between the two influences inside the building.
Meet Our Guide—Juan Toj!
Juan Toj & his son
Juan Toj, the Assistant Director of Salud y Paz, the health clinic and pre-school where our group of seminarians would volunteer, and a pastor at the local Methodist church, guided us on our trip. A native Guatemalan of Maya descent, he was able to plan immersion experiences that opened our eyes and hearts to the local people. His own story gave us tremendous insight into what it is like for a community to live without access to medical care, including emergency treatment.
Juan grew up in a remote village about two hours by bus and an hour-long hike up the mountain from town. He was a teenager before he knew that contact with people outside the village was possible. The village is almost as isolated today, some twenty years later.
As a youngster, he suffered from epileptic seizures and, since there was no medical care available, he never got medicine to control them. During one, he fell into the cooking fire inside his one-room house and was horrifically burned. One month later, he was near death. His father put him into a wheelbarrow and pushed him down the mountain to the bus that could take him to hospital. Juan spoke K'iche, the hospital staff spoke Spanish and there were no interpreters. He stayed for six months, the burns healed and he took medicine for his seizures. The medicine was no longer available once he returned home.
He knew that the possibility of the seizures returning was great, and so he prayed to God to remove them with the promise he would help others in return. In the hospital, he had learned he was good at helping people when, out of boredom, he began to assist the nurses and patients. He did not know it then, but acts of kindness set him on his life's path. Furthermore, God answered his prayer. He never had another seizure.
Juan had realized he needed to learn to speak and write Spanish, but it would be another three years before he would attend school for the first time. He returned to town, stayed with a family that he had met as a patient and finished six years of schooling in three years, while also working full time to pay for school supplies. He was offered a scholarship to attend college in San Diego, which he accepted though he did not speak English. Life in the United States was good. However, Juan's heart was with his Maya people; and after four years he returned home, speaking fluent English and ready to tell the world about his people and his dreams for improving their lives and living conditions.
Juan was not only our language guide, but the person who could interpret what our eyes saw—show us how the people had a vision for their future and how they were working to achieve it. He showed us the spark of hope within that keeps his beloved communities' fires burning. That spark is alive in his ministries—at his church, at Salud y Paz and through a private endeavor to coordinate ways to support individuals through schooling opportunities, help with immediate needs, better housing, and more. Juan truly exemplified to me what it means to be the body of Christ, to be His eyes, His hands and His feet.
We spent a day and a half at Project Salud y Paz, which was founded in 2001. Salud y Paz is a joint project of International Hands in Service, the Methodist National Primitive Church of Guatemala and the United Methodist Church in the United States. It offers onsite medical and dental care and operates a pre-school.
Twice a week the medical clinic opens its doors to people who patiently wait to see a doctor. Surgical teams from the US come several times a year, and if it is thought that a patient needs surgery they are referred for a surgical consult. The harsh reality is that many will not be able to be treated; only the most urgent needs can be met.
Amazingly, the people are entirely grateful for whatever is offered, even if the news is not that for which they hoped. It is interesting to note that the medical staff at the clinic speaks Spanish, which means that a translator from K'iche to Spanish is often needed. When medical teams from the US are in the area, two translators are often needed. Visiting teams go out into some very remote villages, carrying a portable clinic, so to speak.
The private preschool at Salud y Paz aims to get children off to a good start that may lead them to seek higher levels of schooling. Two meals a day are provided since hungry children cannot effectively learn. Basic lessons along with nutrition and hygiene are taught. Due to requests from the parents, two first grade classes were opened this year and the hope is to add additional grades through grade six.
It was our privilege to work along aside the staff for a day and a half lending our hands to their current needs. Much was accomplished. We painted school furniture, organized storage sheds, portioned doses of medicines, organized donated medicines and even created parking spots for two cars by hauling dirt and debris. Angela, who is a pharmacy tech, organized their pharmacy; and Connie, who is an optic tech, set up the eye testing instrument that will allow the clinic to give out prescription glasses. Linda, a nurse practitioner, saw patients along with Jen, who translated.
We brought with us forty backpacks to give to the students at Salud y Paz, each containing the necessary supplies for their school year. The home church congregations of the seminarians provided these gifts, each item tokens of God's grace flowing from us to them.
There was a personal connection for me at Salud y Paz. My church, Tuttle Road United Methodist Church of Cumberland, Maine, has engaged in Prayer Shawl Ministry for several years, and it is quickly becoming a tradition that when people are headed out into God's world to do his work that prayer shawls are sent along. So I gratefully carried six colorful prayer shawls with me to give to the pre-school teachers and staff at Salud y Paz, all lovingly knit with each stitch a prayer for the "unknown" person who was known to God all along.
In order for us to begin to understand the difficulties of living in a somewhat remote village in a country in the Global South, our guide arranged for us to visit the village of Patalup, located about one hour from Chichicastenago another 1,000 feet up the mountains. The road is narrow and winding with many steep drops. The views are magnificent.
The road ended at the edge of town. As we walked to the town center, the reality began to set in. This was not a community with a lot of resources. We passed many one-room dwellings made of adobe or, if the owners had means, sturdy cement blocks. Chickens and roosters clucked and crowed. A few guard dogs were tied in some yards. An occasional cat wandered.
Flowering trees were abundant. As we approached the village square by the school and community center, we could see many men, women and children gathered in greeting. We would learn that the school and community center define the essence of the village—their vision of safety, health and greater prosperity through education; and relationships that sustained people both in difficult times like the rainy season and also in the celebration of good times.
Our team gathered inside the center and waited for the committee of men and women who shepherded the town to speak with us. What happened next will forever be etched in my mind. With much joy the committee brought in a crate of bottles of water and soda for us to drink. How could they who have so little offer these gifts to us? Humbled totally, I needed to quickly process this—or break down in tears. I thought of the widow who gave her last two copper coins (Mark 12:41-44)—she gave out of her poverty everything she had. Surely, they could not afford not to give to us. We were thirsty and "whenever you see someone thirsty and give them drink, you are Christ to them" (Matt 25:40). We came to serve, yet found ourselves in need and being served. They were Christ present to us.
Then they fed us. We ate until we were full, while knowing that what each of us ate was probably more than one entire family ate in a day. They do not have clean water to drink, so their water must be boiled. They do not have enough food to feed themselves until they are full. But to not have accepted would have been ungracious, and we ate and drank in humble acceptance knowing our needs were being met. They took care of the strangers in their midst. We learned the true meaning of hospitality in the impoverished village high in the mountains of Guatemala that is forever etched into our minds.
We were invited to visit the homes of some families. Three generations often live together, sometimes in a one-room abode, other times with separate structures for sleeping and cooking. I estimated that around four people shared one bed in each family. Indoor plumbing does not exist. In one house, the "pantry shelf" held one bag of beans and one bag of rice. Juan told me that often there was concern that there would not be enough food for the next meal. In spite of this, the hospitality offered was immense and we truly felt welcome.
Jose's family was the last we visited. His house was flimsy, made of corrugated panels, with many gaps in which wind and rain could enter. Twelve people lived in the approximately 10 by 15 foot structure. A previous home had been lost last rainy season. This structure was temporary, and they hoped to have a new one-room adobe house built before the next rains. Jose apologized for not being able to offer us anything and told us how grateful they were to know that people from far away were concerned about them and how much of a difference that made. Again, I was humbled. I heard God speaking in my ear, "This is why I bought you to Guatemala. I couldn't tell you this, I had to show you."
The backpacks and prayer shawls given, the messages brought back to U.S. congregations, and God's grace that flowed to all exemplify how this immersion trip transformed relationships with God. We cannot live isolated. Our team's gifts are the visible reminders to the students and staff whom we met that we care for them. Jose's words and the many powerful images of hospitality and graciousness extended toward us remind those who traveled that we are cared for, also.
The shalom, the peace, the wholeness for which we all strive is made more complete for all in the awareness of each other—for those in Guatemala and for our communities here at home. We are connected through God's grace and more fully realize our part in being God's hands and feet in the world, transformed by the power of grace. It is humbling to us that people some 9,000 feet up in the Guatemalan highlands are aware of us, indeed thankful for us. We, too, strive to be aware and thankful. I think that I can speak for all the BTS seminarians who traveled to Guatemala: we cannot walk away without feeling the change within, a deeper awareness of God's presence in the world.