In the Catholic world the liturgical season of Lent has begun when we focus on the sufferings and passion of Jesus. We believe our sharing in the sufferings of Jesus will lead us to the joy of the Resurrection at Easter. It is a 40- day retreat when we are encouraged to take up the practices of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting to help us grow closer to God and one another. In light of our beliefs and practices, amid the present reality of world events, I share the following true story of faith lived by the community in Santiago Ixcán.
At the bottom of the hill from the mission house, I often pass a home bustling with children. In that household of eight, lives seven-year old Hamilton. From the distance, I didn’t notice anything unusual about him. I didn’t know that he stuttered and couldn’t pronounce his r’s. I didn’t know Hamilton suffered bullying at school because of his speech impediment. Later, his father told me, "We didn’t know what to do. We took him to a doctor in Playa Grande hoping that maybe there was a surgery or something to correct this. But no one could help him."
Recently, I was driving down a major Bismarck thoroughfare and saw her. It wasn't uncommon to see drifters, homeless men standing on this corner at the intersection where the red light stops the cars. Poverty looks very different here in the U.S. than from what I experience in rural Guatemala. What struck me this time was a disheveled middle-aged woman standing at the corner holding a cardboard sign that said, ‘Lost my job, need help’. And I noticed she was crying. The green light whooshed me past her, but as I turned the corner, something in me said, “Go back.”
Recently I attended a lovely outdoor wedding in southern California on the property of where a one-story beautiful stucco house stands on a hill overlooking land dotted with avocado and fruit trees. Tropical flowers, vines and plants grace the area and even the bathrooms, with exquisite tan tiles and gleaming porcelain, added to the charm. I felt like I entered a mini-spa to do a basic function.
When Jesus mandated his followers, "Go into the whole world and proclaim the Good News to all creation," I never connected that mission mandate with well, building latrines.
While spring Flowers bloom in the 'north', here in the Ixcán during the months of April and May, spring is 'summer' when rain rarely falls and the heat index soars. We sweat just sitting, we bake while walking under umbrellas to deflect the sun’s rays, and in the hottest time of day with no air conditioners, we seek refuge in the shade of trees or in the wet coolness of rivers. Often a conversation will begin with, “Que calor!” (What heat!) and “No hay agua!” (There is no water!)
“This is the place,” Daniel said pointing to an area of the thick jungle underbrush. “Here is where I fell.”
Daniel, Andres, Candelario and Eliezar, leaders in our Catholic Church, and I stood surrounded by bushes, vines and towering trees in misty rain. We had trekked an hour along a muddy narrow path, barely visible through the dense vegetation that choked our way.
Before leaving Guatemala in May 2019, Juana, a friend in Santiago Ixcán informed me, "Francisco (her eldest son working in Guatemala City) wants to help the poor. He'd like to talk with you." "Really? Have him call or come and see me." I replied.
Francisco and I never had that conversation because a few days after speaking with his mom, I raced out of the Ixcán to return to North Dakota. My friend and Board President, Marlane Peterson, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Sadly, Marlane died in January 2020 and COVID-19 hit in March. I've been in the United States ever since.
When I am in the United States, I go to the quiet of libraries to write. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, finding a library, like almost everything else, hasn't been easy. Our local university libraries are closed to the public, and the Mandan library is being renovated. I feel grateful to be sitting here in the Bismarck Public Library writing this. The stark contrast of this state-of-the-art U.S. library to our Ixcán Ministries cramped one-room library in Santiago Ixcán speaks volumes of the disparities between my two worlds. Granted, the coronavirus treats us the same; inside we are all wearing masks and library hours and days of operation are reduced both here and there.
The petite child smiled at me from the center of the video frame. Alicia stood barefoot bedecked in a flowered skirt and a pink shirt splattered with small white hearts. In her hands she clasped flaming red hibiscus flowers she extended toward the camera. Little sister, Mayli, from behind wrapped her small arms around Alicia’s waist, gave a hug, then trotted off. The child’s sweet voice called, “Where are you, Hermana Katy? Thank you for our house. We are peaceful. I am content. I send you greetings. Thank-you.”
I find myself with the rest of the world in an unsettled inner and outer place in light of the coronavirus pandemic. It seems life has changed overnight. We are confined in our homes where food and basic supplies (like toilet paper) that once overflowed shelves in grocery stores, are now empty. Church services are suspended, and restaurants and coffee shops are closed. Isolation has been normalized and we are being asked to live with less in many respects. This can be hard.
I was perusing through some stories I had written years ago about my life in Guatemala. I came across this one I called Full Bowl. It speaks to me now in a way I hadn’t experienced before. I want to share it with you.
On the 10th of every month approximately thirty women, some with babies at their breasts and toddlers trotting behind their skirts, swell into the mission house. The women are Maya jewelers and weavers who make up our microbusiness - Ixcán Creations. They come to pray.
The women understand while sitting at the loom weaving multi-colored scarves, shawls, and table runners, and laboring with beads, seeds, stones, and wire creating earrings and necklaces; that prayer is an integral and important part of their work.
The young mother came to my door. A baby was wrapped tight on her back and a little girl with shining eyes held her hand. I was struck by her beauty. She was dressed in worn faded traditional Quiché dress that spoke hardship but her dark brown eyes, full lips, and beautiful jet-black hair pulled back, showed a quiet dignity.
It is Fall and I am reminded by the leaves changing from their shades of greens into brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows - that life changes. And soon, my delight in all the Fall beauty will change into acceptance, as the leaves drop one by one, or fall in one quick swoop, and the colorfully clothed trees will stand naked.
In the past, I often wondered how my friends in the Ixcán could have survived so many hardships and surmounted incredible obstacles without some of the resources that we take for granted here in the US; resources like: professional counseling, spiritual direction, area social services, 9-1-1 emergency assistance, abused adult centers, support groups, quality health care professionals and facilities, food pantries, etc.
I am thinking about water. In the United States potable water flows with just a twist of the hand and wrist from spickets, faucets and hoses. Dishes are cleaned, clothes are laundered, grass and flowers are refreshed, bodies are cleansed, thirst is quenched - due to precious water that comes instantly and without much effort... here.
In Guatemala, that isn't the case.
During a recent visit in the home of Petronila Baten, I watched her: peel a banana, rise from a chair, pick up a rag and wipe the table, grab a broom and sweep a portion of the cement patio floor where we sat. We do these simple acts without thinking twice. But, two weeks ago, Petronila wasn’t able to do any of them. Only twenty-seven years old, Petronila suffers with crippling Rheumatoid Arthritis.
It is Lent, the season in the liturgical church year when Catholics and other Christian traditions reflect on the gut-wrenching passion of Jesus to his glorious resurrection.
The festivities of Christmas and the New Year have quieted, and I ponder now on what word or message will be given to guide me in 2019? And what comes to mind is a little girl named Miriam.
In October 1998, Hurricane Mitch plummeted Central America. On the 27th, rain pounded the Ixcán region of Guatemala. That was also the day I moved from Playa Grande to the village of Santiago Ixcán.
A few weeks before I left Guatemala for the U.S., six members of our villages’ health post committee came to see me, saying the clinic needs a cement floor for the outdoor waiting area.
Sadly, alcohol abuse has increased at an alarming rate in Santiago Ixcán over the past ten years. There are no easy answers.
It is the liturgical season of Lent, the forty days before Easter when the Christian faithful focus on the passion and death of Jesus and are invited to look deeper at one’s life and repent
I call these women "Las Luchadoras" – The Fighters. They are women abandoned by the fathers of their children who struggle daily to provide for themselves and their children.
Fr. Stan modeled a radical surrender to do what he perceived as God's call on his life. He didn’t run even in the face of death.
I once heard that the first step in evangelization is hospitality. Ixcán Ministries' mission outreach emerged from opening the door.
Justice = The quality of being fair in our relationships with God, others and the earth. The story of Glendy and her family.
I’ve heard it said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” That works if the parents can read and books are available. In most rural areas in Guatemala, the general populous doesn’t have extra money to purchase books.
A humble man, a poor simple farmer, came to the blue door of the mission house. “I heard that you help people in need...Could you help me build a house for my family?”
The needs seem endless like the sea. I roll up my sleeves and the day’s activities reflect the Corporal Works of Mercy: Feed the Hungry, Give Drink to the Thirsty, Clothe the Naked, Bury the Dead, Shelter the Homeless, Comfort the Sick, Visit the Imprisoned.
Recently, when I was explaining what I do as a lay missioner and included “reverse mission” in the list, someone asked me, “What is that?” Good question.
I am reminded in this season of Easter how resurrection happens, how we can be the instrument of life for one another, how Jesus
acts in us and through us when we do whatever for the least of these, how both giver and receiver are “fed” in very different ways.