Written by Linda R. Clum
Guatemalan community and Chicago's University Church forge strong bonds
Picture Eden - with banana trees and pine slopes, raucous birds and thatched roofs in the cloud-forest. This is Saq Ja, an indigenous community in the highlands of Guatemala.
Saq Ja is not a village; it has no stores, no electricity and no streets. The only way to reach it is by bus over dirt roads, then by pick-up truck on a more primitive road and, finally, by walking straight up the mountain. Nine families live there now, but before Guatemala's civil war there were over 400 people, all K'iché Maya, whose ancestors populated Central America before the coming of the Spanish "conquistadores" in the early 16th century.
In the 1970s, Catholic and Protestant church workers, enlightened by the Second Vatican Council and the Medillin Conference, helped the poor of Latin America organize to win basic human rights. The "church of the poor," as it came to be called, believed that the good news of the Kingdom of God must be understood as a historical (as well as a theological) reality. As a result, church and human rights workers were targeted by government-sponsored death squads.
Virgilio Vicente, who had grown up in Saq Ja, fl ed Guatemala in the 1980s when the government threatened his life and his family for working as a lay catechist of the Catholic church. He was given sanctuary in the U.S. by University Church (UCC/Disciples of Christ) in Chicago. In 1995, Virgilio asked University Church to assist Saq Ja with its resettlement.
Picture Sodom and Gomorra - after the rain of fire has caught people in their homes, a few raising the alarm or trying in vain to shield children with their own bodies. Picture what might be left of Guatemalan houses made of sticks tied together when bombs and bullets fell from helicopters, when fields were soaked with gasoline and set alight by soldiers, when women and children were shot from behind as they ran.
A typical family home built with community funds. Paul 'Pablo' Pitcher photo.
This was the experience of Saq Ja in 1981 when Guatemalan government troops arrived to purge the area of "communist sympathizers," as all indigenous citizens were labeled. With the help of U.S. arms, training and advisors dedicated to fighting "communism" in Central America, Saq Ja and another 660 documented Maya villages were razed to the ground. Half of Saq Ja's 400 people were massacred. Captured survivors were forcibly resettled in "model villages" (internment camps run by the military). Escaped survivors fl ed to the cities or hid in the jungle.
Picture ancient Israel - survivors of the Babylonian exile returning to Judea only to find their homes gone and their fields obliterated. Picture finding strangers on your land, living in your neighbors' homes, working your family's land. Picture a government eager to erase all evidence of your ownership and your culture.
Women in the village prepare daily tortillas. Paul 'Pablo' Pitcher photo.
Some of the earliest efforts of the Maya to recover and rebuild in the wake of the war included a returning group from refugee camps in Mexico. Among these refugees were men and women who had been organized and trained in the camps and now work together with those who lived under military occupation in Guatemala. They work as teachers, health workers, literacy volunteers and agricultural workers. One such group returned to the department, or province, of El Quiché where Saq Ja is located. This organization became known as Guatemala Christian Action and later as the Guatemalan Cultural Action (ACG is its Spanish acronym).
ACG is committed to empowering Maya people in the years after the 1996 Peace Accords by helping them rebuild their communities and restore their traditions. In the early 1990s ACG establish a partnership with the UCC/Disciples' Global Ministries and hosted missionaries Linda McRae, Garry Sparks and, currently, Paul Pitcher, a member of University Church.
In the past five years Saq Ja has undertaken several major projects with support from University Church, ACG and Global Ministries' missionaries. The community decides consensually how it wants to use this support, then it takes responsibility for the project. In the first year, the community purchased PVC pipe and cement, which the men carried up the mountain on their backs, to build a potable water system. Because they are now not needed to carry water all day, young girls can attend school on scholarships made available by University Church. In the second year the community purchased a gasoline-powered corn-grinder. Now women do not spend hours every day grinding corn for tortillas. Other projects have included a community house, medical consultations, and ecumenical (Protestant-Catholic) and interfaith (Christian- Mayan) worship together.
Erica Spilde, a Lutheran volunteer in Chicago, delights children with digital photos just taken of them. Paul 'Pablo' Pitcher photo.
More recently, with additional assistance from a Spanish non-governmental organization, the community built a post-primary or básico school. The community's children continue their studies while living at home and helping their families instead of hiking four hours to the nearest school in the county-seat. The Saq Ja school also has a curriculum of instruction in Spanish and K'iché Maya so young people can maintain their cultural identity. But the school has done something more. It has become the vehicle through which Saq Ja' has reached out to communities poorer than itself by inviting those children to attend the school.
This year during University Church's delegation visit in April, Saq Ja sponsored a soccer tournament between boys' and girls' teams from surrounding villages and from their new básico school. While several elders played the marimba, the women fed more than 100 people rice, beans and tamales, and everyone cheered on the teams. The day allowed Saq Ja to celebrate and to build ties with surrounding communities.
Picture now the Apocalypse - with events so terrible that people lose everything there is to lose, except hope. Now picture this same people living in the aftermath and yet building a new world. Not a perfect world, not a heaven-on-earth, but a material world - one with clean water, ground corn and children who can read and write.
If you can picture this, then you understand how important the community of Saq Ja is to the UCC. Every year a delegation from University Church travels to Saq Ja. The delegation, made up of church members and friends, does not "do" anything for the community. Instead it goes to listen to, learn from and just be with the community in a "reverse mission" experience. It is not too strong to say that through the community of Saq Ja, University Church is learning how to be a resurrection community and witness to bringing the Kingdom of God into history in Guatemala and Chicago.
Linda R. Clum, a member of University Church in Chicago, is the admissions administrator for the University of Chicago's humanities department.