On a warm February day in the jungle in northern Guatemala, I stood with members of the Needham (Mass.) Congregational UCC on sagrada tierra (sacred ground), where our guide José's wife, four children, mother and two cousins were killed by the Guatemalan military in February 1982.
José and his 6-year-old son survived, as they had gone for milk for the baby. Their farmland (or parcela) was a 40-minute walk from the Mayan village of Santa Mar’a Tzej‡. José's eyes filled with tears telling the story of his family's death. The Guatemalan civil war brought only dolor (pain,) pobreza (poverty) and miseria (misery), he said, adding, "People think that nothing will happen to anyone in a war, but that is not true."
I was in Santa Mar’a Tzej‡ as part of the semi-annual pastoral visit by the members of the Needham congregation along with several persons from Ainsworth UCC in Portland, Ore. The Needham congregation has had a partner relationship with Santa Mar’a Tzej‡ since 1987. Clark and Kay Taylor initiated this partnership through their friendship with Beatriz Manz, a North American anthropologist with ties to the indigenous village. Clark Taylor has written a book about this village, "Return of Guatemala's Refugees: Reweaving the Torn" (Temple University Press, 1998).
We listened in silence as José and his son told their story. We held hands and prayed for the courageous witness and faithfulness that brought José, his new family and other villagers back in 1994, after 12 years in exile in Mexico.
José and others from Santa Mar’a Tzej‡ have joined a lawsuit to hold accountable the two military leaders, Lucas Garcia and Rios Montt, who were responsible for the "scorched earth" policy that killed 200,000 civilians in the early 1980s. This lawsuit has already led to the assassination of one villager and continuing threats against the agricultural cooperative. Through the Guatemalan Accompaniment Project, Needham UCC supports an international person who lives in the village.
José asked us, "Why does the United States want a war? We don't want to hear about a war in another part of the world. A war doesn't bring good things to a people. Children will suffer. Some people may think that they aren't going to be affected, but they will be. It makes us very sad."
At the end of our silence and prayer for the people of Guatemala and the United States, José spoke. "With God, there is peace, no violence," he said. "We won't lose our faith in God. Even when we suffer here on earth, God is holding us in God's hands."
The brave people of Santa Mar’a Tzej‡ invite us to accompany them in their just lawsuit. Receive the prayer of José and other Guatemalans for the people of the United States and Iraq.
Patricia Rumer, a former Latin America, Caribbean Secretary for the UCC, been involved with the Guatemalan people since 1969. She is an active member of Ainsworth UCC in Portland, Ore.