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This blog is a place for our staff, members and supporters to share news and reflections about Sister Parish.  You can sign up for our e-news to receive updates or contact us to submit a piece of your own.  See blog archives.

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Open Delegation Stories 7: Learning more about migration

by Cathy Burrell

We began our day visiting Antigua, a beautiful colonial city. There we had free time to explore and walk along the cobblestone streets. Some of us explored museums or art galleries. Others looked at jade stores, walked through markets or stopped for coffee. We ended our time by having lunch in the gardens of the Saberico restaurant.

Macaws!

Central Park in Antigua.

A beautiful street in Antigua. The colonial-style is characteristic of the city.

After lunch, we visited the University del Valle in Guatemala City, the number one private university in Central America. There we met with Andres Alvarez, Dean of Social Sciences and Dr. Aracely Martinez Rodas, the Director of the Master in Development Program in Social Sciences. She wrote her dissertation on Guatemalan migrants who have been organizing in the United States. They talked with us about migration, its causes and and effects on the migrants. They discussed the three causes of migration. First are the structural factors including poverty, inequality, violence and domestic violence. Secondly, by international law, people have the right to migrate and Guatemalans are already a transnational community that used to enjoy more opportunities to travel more fluidly. Guatemalans have been migrating since the 1940s. There are currently 2 million Guatemalans in the United States, 2% of the immigrant population.  Many people want to reunite with family or feel the pull of migrating from the stories that they hear. Lastly, climate change is causing people to migrate. People are fleeing famine. This effects the poorest people.

Our group with presenters at the Universidad del Valle in Guatemala.

Learning more about migration at the Universidad del Valle.

There are organizations that are helping migrants and working to influence decision makers in Washington D.C. Latin American Working Group and Pastoral Maya are two of these groups.

We ended our day with our final reflection. During our time here we have been reunited with old friends we have made new friends. We have learned about the history of El Salvador and Guatemala and the reasons that its people migrate. We have been touched and inspired by the people of Central America.

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Open Delegation Stories 6: Visiting the U.S. Embassy and Tierra Nueva 1,2

by Nancy Wiens

This morning we met with Bryce Jordan from the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala. His portfolio includes many human rights issues, including migration. He provided an interesting perspective as we learn more about the realities of life here.

Bryce Jordan with Rosario and Pedro.

Then we set out for a visit to Tierra Nueva I and II, two Sister Parish communities on the outskirts of Guatemala City. We were greeted warmly and offered a delicious lunch, and then heard a presentation about how these settlement communities were formed in the 1970s and 80s. Afterwards our group split up — the St. Joan of Arc contingent met with TNII folks to discuss several points for our specific partnership, and the rest went for a walk and tour of the neighborhood.  That night, we celebrated Rick’s birthday with cake, candles and birthday songs. Happy birthday, Rick!

Fellowship and delicious food in Tierra Nueva 2.

St Joan of Arc members leave messages for everyone in Tierra Nueva 2.

Our wonderful hosts in Tierra Nueva 2.

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Open Delegation Stories 5: Community development and U.S. foreign aid

by Maria Van Der Maaten

On Wednesday morning we met with Nicole Kast (head of programming) and Paul Townsend (country director) of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in the Guatemala office. Nicole shared about the structure of CRS and the work the organization does as a whole and in Guatemala. She then described CRS’ project foci on Agricultural Livelihoods, Childhood and Youth Development, and Emergency Response and Recovery and how these strategic areas direct their projects in Guatemala. CRS focuses on “promoting transformational change at scale” through the development of local institutions and through public-private alliances.

Meeting with CRS in Guatemala.

During the question and answer time, we saw how CRS’ efforts to promote transformation change has been hampered, as 80-90% of their funding comes from USAID and weeks before signing an $11 million contract for a project in the Dry Corridor, President Trump’s tweets resulted in the funding being pulled and the project collapsing. The project would have served more than 7,000 families who face or are at risk for hunger and malnutrition. U.S. policy is being made with sticks to keep people from migrating, but the carrots that might help people choose to stay are also disappearing. Trump tweets had immediate impacts and, surprisingly or unsurprisingly, no discussion about the implications of those impacts. [This we heard/saw repeated throughout the delegation when talking about U.S. foreign policy/immigration policy.] When we asked CRS what we could do to support them and their work, Paul Townsend replied that a concrete ask is to make it known that the issues are poverty and violence and that people should have the right to migrate AND the right to stay. However, he clarified, if we want people to stay, we need to support infrastructure for good and just policies, by continuing to support US foreign aid to projects (like the one they had to cancel).

In the afternoon we traveled to La Esperanza and had lunch with the UPAVIMAs who are partnered through Sister Parish with delegate Linda Main’s church, First United Methodist Church, in Downers Grove, Illinois. We had a delicious lunch of churrasco, Guatemalan potato salad, and fresh lemonade.

Crafts at UPAVIM.

Tour of the sewing workshop at UPAVIM.

Aldina and some of the other leaders gave us a tour of UPAVIM, showing us the Montessori I classroom, the nursery school, the bakery, and the artisan workshop, where many beautiful crafts are made. After a short break to do some shopping, we headed back to the San Benito hostel for a short break, a wonderful group reflection, and dinner.

Nap time at UPAVIM Montessori school.

Group reflection in the evening.

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Open Delegation Stories 4: Visiting Guarjila and Los Ranchos, a day of resilience

by Nancy Wiens

Today we toured both Guarjila and San Antonio Los Ranchos. We learned about the challenging history of these communities, which were completely destroyed in the 80’s during the armed conflict — and saw the results of their hard work to rebuild from scratch. Among our stops were a school, church, clinic, day care center and municipal building. The resilience and persistence of these communities are remarkable.

A small memorial and museum in Guarjila.

Nap time at the day care center in Los Ranchos.

Tour of Los Ranchos.

“Welcome Sister Parish visitors” – sign for our visit to the day care center in Los Ranchos.

Tour of the health clinic in Guarjila – and first hand experience of the quality care they provide.

That evening we rode in the back of a pick-up truck high up to El Alto for a picnic dinner and closing ceremony. We soaked in views of the river valley, mountains and all the stars in the sky. Tomorrow we say our goodbyes and leave El Salvador to cross the border into Guatemala.

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Open Delegation Stories 3: Visiting San Jose and Potrerillos, a day filled with God’s spirit

by Bob Burrell

It was an early wake up for the Sister Parish delegates from the North and South. This morning we traveled through the valleys and hills of northern El Salvador in the Chalatenango region to San Jose la Montaña.

Maria, Cathy, Juventina and Miriam in San Jose la Montaña.

Our group in San Jose la Montaña.

It is a community of fifty families that is partnered with Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown, Connecticut. This community was rebuilt starting in 1987 due to the harsh effects of the Central American Civil War that created much destruction and resulted in refuge settlements.  In this case, the San Jose community fled as refugees to Honduras.  They reorganized their return to a new location as the existing town was destroyed by the El Salvadoran military.   The rebuilding by the families is truly incredible as they built infrastructure and constructed a remarkable church.  Our delegates met with several families in this worship space where we learned about the history and formation of the community.  In addition, we heard how migration to the U. S. is affecting the community.

We left San Jose that afternoon to travel to the Sumpul River for a quick swim and some relaxation. 

Relaxing in the Sumpul River.

One big happy family in the van.

We left the beautiful river valley and headed onward to Potrerillos  to meet with this community that is partnered with a church in Decorah, Iowa.  We gathered with several community members and leaders in the community hall.  We watched a video of the civic work that the residents have accomplished.  We also heard from the town leader about a 2020 goal of providing a water distribution system that would carry water to more residents and provide longer collection  time for households.  What is remarkable is the community has taken on these infrastructure projects with community volunteers and at very little cost. Our delegates were inspired by their community spirit.

We left the community of Potrerillos that evening to meet up with our host families in Guarjila.  Our vans arrived at the town where we had a quick dinner. After dinner, we were sent to our host families.  It was a long  and sometimes exhausting day,  but one filled with awareness, hope, and God’s spirit.

Leaders in Potrerillos tell us about their community achievements and their need for an improved potable water system.

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Open Delegation Stories 2: Connecting with Sister Parish family and honoring heroes and martyrs

The second day of our Open Delegation experience gave us the opportunity to connect with those arriving from Sister Parish communities in Guatemala and other areas of El Salvador. We gathered in the gorgeous Botanical Gardens for a walk, lunch and our initial round of getting to know you games.

Ice breakers at the Botanical Gardens.

Consuelo, Carlos and Marleny accompanied us the whole time.

In the afternoon, we had the opportunity to go to the 30th anniversary mass honoring the 6 Jesuit priests and two women who were murdered by the El Salvador army in 1989 at the University of Central America (UCA).

The candle light procession and the mass were an incredibly powerful experience for all of us.  A beautiful mural was presented for the first time.  The homily and other speeches during the event emphasized not only the importance of honoring the 8 people who died in 1989, but also the importance of honoring their legacy by continuing to struggle for true peace and social justice.  A U.S. congressional representative attended and spoke about the need to reunite children and families that have been separated by U.S. authorities at the U.S.-Mexico border.  During the homily, the president of the university Andreu Oliva spoke of the importance of working toward the inclusion of and opportunities for ALL youth in El Salvador, especially those who have been criminalized, among other social justice issues that he addressed.

The procession arrives at the 30th anniversary mass at the UCA.

Part of the mural that was unveiled at the 30th anniversary mass at the UCA.

 

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Open Delegation Stories 1: Saint Oscar Romero and current realities in El Salvador

by Cathy Burrell

Our group met together for the first time at breakfast. After introductions and a brief orientation, we set off for the day.

Part of our group outside the Divina Providencia chapel.

Our first stop was to Divina Providencia in San Salvador. This is the site where Oscar Romero was assassinated in the chapel while offering mass on March 24, 1980. We then visited the small house (now a museum) where Saint Romero lived while he served as Archbishop of San Salvador. This was a powerful experience as we learned about his life. Saint Romero spoke out against poverty and social injustice and it cost him his life. Next, we visited the National Cathedral and the crypt where Saint Romero is buried.

We had lunch with the crafts cooperative ACOMUJERZA in Zaragoza. We had presentations about the cooperative and their Sister Parish relationship with People of Hope church in Rochester, MN. The cooperative offers crafts with the role of helping to transform the lives of women. Eneyda Ramos from International Partners in Mission gave a presentation on economic policies and their impact on violence, migration and the environment.

Learning about the ACOMUJERZA cooperative in Zaragoza.

After a delay due to heavy rains we returned to the guest house. Sofia Baires shared stories with us about migrants who have returned to El Salvador after being deported by the United States. Sofia is a coordinator for CIMITRA, a network that advocates for returning migrants.

It was a long but a day filled with lots of information and powerful stories.

Memorial for Saint Romero at the National Cathedral.

Our group with one of the murals at Divina Providencia.

Staff member Julieta and her mother Maria Julia.

Pictures of the 8 people who were killed at the University of Central America in 1989 and a poster for the 30th anniversary mass.

National Cathedral in San Salvador.

Central Park in San Salvador.

Divina Providencia chapel where Saint Romero served and where he was murdered.

Outside Saint Romero’s house, where his organs were buried.

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Walking in solidarity for 25 years – St Joan of Arc

On a recent blustery Sunday morning, 20+ parishioners gathered for a high-energy Solidarity Walk in the St. Joan of Arc neighborhood with several stops for reflection and prayer. We lifted up our 25 year relationship with our Sister Parish in Tierra Nueva Dos (TNII) in Guatemala, and we carried a banner covered with parishioners’ signatures and well-wishes collected after both masses.
Our time together was filled with remembrances of our TNII family, mindful discussions about our relationship’s impact on our faith, our lives and our commitment to justice, and joyful songs with beautiful instrumental accompaniment. After the Walk, we warmed up in the Welcome Center with food and fellowship. Thanks to all who participated!
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A magnificent delegation trip to Guatemala….reflections after 21 years of relationship with people of faith in Central America

by Bill Williams

A rocky road to start…. a delayed flight, a missed connection, a flight to Guatemala City that should have been a few hours morphed into 2 days and nights in airports. But after finally arriving, we were ready to journey into the swirling spiritual, colorful, and connecting time with new and old friends, and cultures we have come to know and love.

Some soaring good news to encapsulate the story: Our brothers and sisters from San Antonio Quiche who journeyed 7 hours by bus to accompany us for 3 days in Antigua delivered the news that our relationship has reached a point of partnership and trust, that their traditional community is open to suggestions and connections that can help them build a sustainable future in the threatened land they call home.

Breakfast with members from San Antonio and Danville – reunited!

They asked for help – specifically not in money, but in sources of learning and growing – around their challenges in agriculture, energy, medicine, education, water.  We also talked about ways to lift up some of their lost traditions (traditions that they can still re-teach and find markets for) that we might support. And we learned about additional challenges from both military oppression and extractive businesses [supported by government and military] that threaten their land ownership, or the contamination of their land and water – as well as threaten their traditional way of life. In the case of those exposing corruption or organizing for change – their lives are sometimes also threatened.

Our delegations visit started out with some orientation to Guatemalan reality in Guatemala city. Carrie, our Sister Parish director, found everyone a lovely accommodation in a Catholic center devoted to teaching young women how to prepare for- and protect themselves- as they enter private service in homes, The spirit of the nuns seeing to our comfort, convenience and food was beautiful.

Carrie arranged a compressed set of introductions to history and beauty, weaving traditions and horrors.  Our tour included a visit to the Cathedral with monuments similar to the Vietnam memorial, with the names of many of the  indigenous victims of U.S.-supported genocide on stone columns. And also to stories of groups fighting hard for justice in court cases and folk festivals designed to organize and protect indigenous communities.

Picnic with Sister Parish members at Kaminal Juyu archaeological site.

We journeyed to an archaeological park for a picnic, where we were greeted by a group of women from another Sister Parish-linked community poised on the brink of a steep ravine at the city’s edge. How does joy arise among a group of people who have never met before? It did – passing through the gateway of acknowledged faith and commitment to partnership in the building of the reign of God. We shared the refreshment of friendship and fun. Names, games, food, dance, walking in history, and celebrating children playing together [little 3 year olds Estrellita and Emilio]. We parted in hugs and love. People left refreshed and grounded in the knowledge that they have friends from the faith and the North who will continue to think about them, pray about them, and return to them.  I know of the struggle they were returning to in their daily lives surrounded by violence. And I saw the hope and joy in their faces that our visit had been to them…. bread for the journey. We would see it again in this trip.

Although in this delegation we did not get to stay in San Antonio homes or engage with their larger community, we all experienced the opportunity to get to know both those in our delegation more personally and intimately, as well as to cross connect with people from San Antonio. Exploring, cooking, eating, reflecting, playing, singing. Shyness, strengths, vulnerabilities, visions, smiles, delights, needs, faith, talents, all arising from the kitchen and the clothes line and the garden.

All our communication was slow, translated from Quiche to Spanish to English, and back again. But the process allows for time to be reflective, and to pay attention to cues that are completely non-verbal as the tones and expressions of the kaleidoscope of faces create the totality of that communication. All of that verbal communication happens through the filters of our profoundly gentle and skilled facilitators, Carrie and Brian…. years of cultural interaction  to help get the real meaning across, and to bridge the moments of cultural misunderstandings with cautions or suggestions…. all delivered in tones and carefully chosen words that create an image of how Christ might have been in such a setting.

“I am a child, not a criminal” – picture on the wall at Pop No’j office.

In Guatemala City, we were introduced to Silvia from an organization called Pop No’j. They have developed a program of accompaniment for indigenous children being returned after separation from their families at the U.S./Mexico border. They provide care in the native language to children under the age of 18, and we heard of cases where the children were very young, including a 3 year old who received counselling after experiencing sexual violence in the U.S. detention center. Silvia is a young woman herself, tender and poised, still studying social work in the university, which likely describes many of their staff who are engaged with a case load of 54 children. She described their clients as “those who are the most cut off from opportunity”, and that they saw migration as an “act of love for supporting their family”. Their work focuses on re-integration, and extends into the family after reunion- providing all the social services you would imagine such a situation requires.  The organization is operating knowing that the case load they are managing now of 54 is expected to swell next year as 2,000 children are expected to be returned to Guatemala from the U.S.  Although the organization does not currently have the capacity to address the issue, many of the families are also going to face a huge debt they incurred in trying to cross the border. A recent returnee I know from Mexico incurred a debt of about $7,000 to cross the border. The families are usually driven to migrate by poverty, so how they will deal with that debt- and often the threats of violence that come with it- are a heartbreaking concern outside the purview of this group.

Tour at Caoba Farms in Antigua.

Probably the highlight of our time together for our San Antonio folks was our extensive tour of the organic Caoba Farms on the outskirts of Antigua. The farmers from San Antonio were bright-eyed and riveted to descriptions and demonstrations of techniques that reminded them of how their ancestors had done farming…. and of the possibilities it held for them. Everyone was delighted to receive packets of organic seeds and cuttings, plants and small tree branches to plant at home – some of which they had never encountered before.  The farm owner suggested they use the seeds from the plants that did the best in their environment [above 8,000 feet!] to create their own personal seed bank for the future. When they got on the bus to go home from Antigua, they looked like they were carrying a small forest!

We also were blessed to have a university linguist, Ajpub from Aid in Education, make a presentation to our group about his efforts to uplift the languages and cultures of indigenous Maya.  He spoke – first in Quiche, then in Spanish, then translated to English – about a program to support children, youth, and young adults in pursuing further education, both formal and cultural. The program identifies students and families who want to pursue schooling, but are too poor to achieve that goal. At the level of elementary school, the program supplies the costs of uniforms and books, and during vacation, they organize a vacation school for instruction and play in the children’s language and culture. For those who want to continue in university, matching donors are found in the U.S. for scholarships that typically cover half the cost. This is a program that Linda and I have been involved with for many years, and we wanted to know if our community of San Antonio would be interested. As Ajpub finished his presentation, the group from San Antonio responded by calling him “brother” in their struggle. Tomas noted in his reflection that it was important that they not produce “unprepared students” for their struggle. And the good news here is that Ajpub has already received phone calls from parents of children in San Antonio who want to explore possibilities for their children.

Lake Atitlan – near Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute (IMAP)

After our San Antonio friends left for their homes, we journeyed to Lake Atitlan.  A beautiful and unexpected part of our experience came from following Pastor Todd’s request to learn how “the day of the dead” is celebrated in Guatemala. The group from San Antonio had wanted to return to their community to celebrate that event at home with their families, so we went to visit a town on the shore of Lake Atitlan – the third largest volcanic caldera on earth- and one of earth’s most beautiful places. We asked a young woman who Linda had sponsored to study in the university over ten years ago to guide us through the way her family celebrates this day, which is seen as a day to refresh your connection with your deceased family. Dinora took us first to her home to meet her family. We traversed a very narrow hallway strung with laundry. Her mother supports the family [9 children] by washing laundry in the nearby lake. This encounter turned out to be one of the most spiritual times of our entire trip. Dinora’s dad is in failing health, but his handshakes were strong…. and the mother’s smiles and embraces were just as profound…. and they moved out of a connection of love and appreciation for what Dinora had been able to achieve by her university training to become a teacher. They were so proud of her, and so open to sharing their pride with us and all our friends…. they just opened their hearts to us all. Surrounded by about 12 people from the family, our 8 delegates from DCC sat together with them, received their prayers, and basked in the smiles of siblings and grandchildren [ in the tiniest room imaginable to hold us all!].

Cemetery in San Pedro.

This was the afternoon of preparation for the celebration that would be that night and the next day. Dinora took us to the local cemetery, which was being built up like a rising set of condo’s because the land was locked within the town, so the only way to go was up [except for a few graves that belong to families too poor to construct an above ground concrete niche]. People were everywhere, repainting and re-stuccoing, bringing fresh flowers, strewing the areas with flower petals, leaving traditional Mayan treats and incense… and a few kites were in evidence that would be gloriously arrayed the next day. As we left the cemetery, she took us by the craft stall that her brother Noe has grown to sell his art of stone and metal, and sell other local crafts and art. Our group joyously dived in to the wares, and I was delighted to find a portrait of a young boy to hang in our church.  As we left Noe’s stall, he told me that he would be donating 3,000 Quetzals to the local church for the poor.  That amount of money about equalled the amount of goods that all our group purchased from him that day. As we left, Dinora announced to us that she was engaged to be married. Her fiancé was a principal of another local school. She was beaming. We asked her age, and she told us she was 30. We followed that up by asking what the usual age for marriage is in her town and she replied, ’15 years old’. She had followed her dream along her own path. We later reflected that other young women who had been sponsored to go a university had followed the same path – many deciding to pursue education before marriage.

That evening during a reflection, our facilitator Brian Tyler made the comment that supporting Dinora’s dream had “changed that family’s trajectory”. Two of Dinora’s younger siblings had decided they too wanted to go to school – one had borrowed money from the bank to enroll in the university, and a younger brother was doing an internship in engineering to prepare for a university engineering program. Both of them were so bright eyed!

Seed bank at the Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute (IMAP)

We visited the coffee co-op CCDA (Small Farmers’ Committee of the Highlands) and met with Marcelo, who worked on a big coffee plantation for many years.  He described the CCDA’s work in producing, training, educating and organizing. CCDA tries to provide economic alternatives to families in the region.  On the large coffee plantations, the wages for current pickers and processors during the coffee season have stayed about the same over the last 35 years, and typically include a food ration just barely survivable for single adults- but no addition for the children they bring along. Over the last 10 years, the requirement for the amount of land each worker is responsible for clearing and maintaining has increased in size six fold. Since no single man can do that much, they are forced to bring their families along to help. Mothers still lose children to widespread malnutrition during the harvest season [ something described in the book “I, Rigoberta Menchu” published in 1984, 35 years ago]. CCDA effectively elected a member of congress in the previous term, in a campaign called “Take Back the Power”.  But when that politician opposed a mining company’s expansion, he was defeated in the last election by a campaign heavily financed by that company – that put campaign workers in every town in the district.

These coffee plantations, and the sugar cane fields [back-breaking and kidney -destroying places to work], are the places people from San Antonio go to work for the months when they can earn the tiny bit of money they need  beyond the food that they grow themselves. Both industries are controlled by a tiny number of wealthy families, who continue to extract wealth from the work [and land originally lived on] by the people they now treat as disposable workers. I met a premium coffee buyer along our way and in a heart-rending conversation, he told me that we are after the same thing, that workers are being squeezed harder and harder, and that we must find a way out of the grinding greed of this system.

Why can’t rural farmers sell a portion of what they grow to generate that extra money they need? Because their land holdings are so small.  Nationally, Guatemala has also been affected by free trade agreements and cycles of debt and repayment and ‘structural adjustment’ policies through international institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Many forces that have continued to marginalize and brutalize people blossomed from the U.S.-supported coup carried out in the support of the United Fruit Company in 1954 – a coup to overthrow the democratically elected president. That president had created many social institutions to benefit the population and had decreed that unused land would be re-purchased by the government, at its declared value, for subsistence farmers. He was deposed by a coup, and replaced by a series of dictators who could only maintain their power by military oppression. Those dictators continued to be supported by the U.S. – in the form of military training, funding, arms, loans – even through the most brutal regime of Rios Montt. This was a military general, and evangelical pastor, who was presented to Congress by President Reagan as “a man of great character”. This is the leader who was in power during some of the most brutal years of the war.  Now, decades after the official end of the war, the root causes and long-term effects – inequality, the concentration of land ownership, and increasing gang and drug-related violence (often with roots and connections to the military violence during war) – continue to affect the Guatemalan population.

Global warming has also had a huge impact in recent years. The people in San Antonio this year experienced a protracted drought, followed by such heavy rain that many lost their entire crop. They will not have food next year. Those families face a huge question. “How far will you walk to feed your family?” The U.S. is the largest contributor to global warming in the world. We are also the only place  people can send their young men to make the money necessary to feed their families. The attitude we encountered around that Northern trek was one of pride in the love that moved these young men to leave everything and everyone they loved, and venture North to find work for the few years it would take for them to send home enough to supplement their family income, and probably enough to build a concrete block home on their return.  Maybe even enough to supply a stove and chimney that would take only half the fire wood of the typical open fire in the home [Lucia told me that she spent most of every day collecting firewood], and protect the families from the ravages of respiratory illnesses that smoke inflicts.

How people in San Antonio see global warming? It is in their face and daily life. They describe how over the last 20 years, springs that had run for all memory have ceased to run. No one during our trip mentioned the role of the U.S. in this predicament, but the people in San Antonio know that cutting the trees from their hillsides once refreshed by adequate rain, had led to barren slopes. And they want to be replanting trees! But water has become the most divisive force in their community – as they face the need to sink a deeper and larger well just to sustain their lives.

There is good news.  We can change the politics between our two worlds, and we can work with people in San Antonio to partner in rebuilding a sustainable and dignified life in their home land that celebrates and builds on their unique place and traditions.

Much of the oppression that people experience in Guatemala has been, or continues to be, influenced or caused by policies of our own government. We can pay attention. People need us to change our politics.  We can demand politicians and institutions that lift up human life and dignity and possibility. We can make personal choices about our purchases AND participate as informed and engaged citizens in our democracy. Let our congressional representatives know that we demand trade agreements that benefit both sides. Let our dinner conversations with friends and family move into the lives that you now know which are being crushed by global warming – they need action now. Become an advocate for immigration… both for policies that relieve the causes that drive it and for work paradigms that serve human interests in both our countries. We can direct foreign aid at water projects and education, sustainable agriculture and reforestation, not military aid- that classic source of violence that sustains oppression. We can humanize our refugee policies for those running for their lives, whether that is from physical violence threatened by drug gangs or spouses, or whether it is from starvation. Let our local candidates know these are concerns of ours.

As we live into the relationships we have forged through love and faith, how do we find our place in this world? Justice. You are called. I am not the only one calling you.  They will know we are Christians by our love. We will know we are Christians by our love.

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Danville Congregational Church visits with San Antonio

by Bette Felton

Delegates and Sister Parish staff on Guatemala City historical tour.

It was a wonderful, refreshing trip, starting in Guatemala City.    We visited three amazing programs before we went to Antigua to meet our 8 friends from San Antonio.    We visited the Popol Vuh, a Mayan museum that has amazing time lines, ancient altar pieces, mural revivals and hieroglyphs from personal collections.   The museum is in a private university, Universidad Francisco Marroquin- considered home of right wing rich families for university studies.   However, they have assembled and curated an amazing history of the many of the Mayan cultures.   And next door was a remarkable textile museum with maps and ‘huipilies and cortes’ from more than 50 towns and regions in Guatemala.   There were displays from the early 1800s and you could see the evolution of weaving and style over the years.  We also shared a laugh filled picnic with women from Tierra Nueva 1 and 2-two Sister Parish communities in Guatemala City, in an archaeological site with Mayan pyramids called Kaminal Juyu. It was from this archaeological site that an exquisite altar piece in the shape of toad on display in Popol Vuh.

Picnic with Sister Parish communities at Kaminal Juyu site.

We visited for 3 hours with Lisa Rankin, from Canada, who works with Breaking the Silence, an organization that monitors and exposes extractive industries, primarily mining,  in Guatemala.  Most mines are run by multinational corporations who have done deals with the Guatemalan government for rights to mine, pollute water, grow palm in plantations, etc.   Citizens have no recourse except to organize and protest and let the truth be known.  Lisa is another former ‘accompanier’ who works diligently to follow Hudson Bay Minerals (now Russian owned) and the Escobar Mine in particular.   She seems to really know international labor rights and encourages community consultations, like the one our sister community has done.  We were connected and introduced to these amazing folks by the courageous Carrie Stengel, who is the Executive Director of Sister Parish.   Along with Bryan Tyler, also from Sister Parish, we were shepherded to remarkable places and  people, each one more interesting than the one before.

We also talked with an amazing digital activist and future attorney Andrea Ixchiu who with her partners, organizes Solidarity Festivals in communities all over Guatemala, trying to raise awareness about extractive industries and the harm they do. She thinks that militarization is the current fear, with a government that considers organized citizen groups as enemies of the state.  The military feels able and willing to do ‘exceptional interventions’ in 22 communities that have organized around climate change.   The charges that the community activists are ‘narco-organizers’ is completely erroneous according to Andrea , but it stimulates more fear and justifies the declaration of  ‘states of siege’ (similar to martial law) in rural communities and counties.  Another interesting trend is the privatization of security, and the people who own and manage these private security firms are the old guard from the civil war of the 80’s- friends and family who now are making huge profits, ‘protecting’ the rich.  In small and rural communities, there is fear that these private security firms are a return to the civil patrols of the civil war that rounded up fellow citizens, and often caused their deaths.

“I am a child, not a criminal” – picture at the Pop No’j office.

Before we greeted our ‘hermanimiento’, on 10/28 in the morning, we went to Pop No’j, an organization that provides accompaniment for returning and reintegrating children who have been separated from their families by immigration authorities in the U.S.  We were greeted by Sylvia, a social worker who described the mission and services of this organization that is focused on indigenous communities, primarily in Huehuetenango, a northern province that has along the border with Mexico   Their migration program started in 2010 with assistance from the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), and KIND (a US non-profit organization-Kids in Need of Defense).   They consider migration an act of love, that families find they must do together if possible, to provide futures for their children.  They are currently supporting 54 children and their families (as of present day) as the children return home and reintegrate.  Many of the kids have been in the same detention centers in the U.S.,  and are referred to Pop No’j from agencies in the U.S.  Social services Pop No’j provides in the families’ native language include home visits, education, health care and counseling.  Pop No’j coordinates with local hospitals and municipal governments when needed..  Sylvia shared two very serious facts:  More than 2000 Guatemalan children have yet to be returned, and in 2018, U.S. ICE agents have been training and participating in operations with local police, so the crisis continues. U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents are operating at the Mexico/Guatemala border in Huehuetenango.   I later asked my Congressman about this, and he replied,  ‘I am not at all surprised.’

After Pop No’j in Guatemala City, we traveled to Antigua to meet our friends from our Sister Parish in San Antonio, Quiche. We were not able to do home stays in San Antonio this time due to some local community tensions. Fortunately we were able to be together for 4 wonderful days with 8 of our friends who travelled 6 hours from San Antonio to Antigua.  We laughed and cried, and played and cooked with Tomas, Maria, Pedro, Guadalupe, Lucia, Yoselin, Manuel, and Leslie. And we were accompanied by Brian Tyler, Carrie Stengel, her son Milo, her brother in law, Estuardo, and the remarkable driver, Martin.   Our Casa Don Pedro was a very large house with room for 20 of us.   A staff of two women helped serve us meals, except when we cooked with our friends.

Breakfast with friends – San Antonio and Danville communities reunited.

One highlight of my stay was grocery shopping with some of our friends and Milo, especially after a cool exercise that Carrie had us do in Guatemala City.  Before we met up in Antigua, Carrie had the Danville bunch shop with 100 quetzals (about $12-$13)  We shopped for a week’s menu for 4 and realized how difficult it would be to provide adequate nutrition with limited funds.   When we actually did shop for 20 (2 meals), we were made aware of how far their income is stretched.   And we were reminded of why beans with tortillas, made on a wood fire, provide almost 100% of their nutritional intake. Our American diet is so varied, and caloric that three adults could have adequate nutrition and satiety with only one of our daily intakes.

Almost a full day was spent at Caoba Organic Farm in Antigua, where the founder, Alex, spent almost 4 hours describing and showing us the animals, and vegetables and fruit that he produces.   Alex came from Wyoming and started growing romaine lettuce in 2008 for the growing ex-pat community in Antigua.   He spent intense time with Tomas and Pedro, learning their needs-high altitude farming and climate changes-and then recommended trees, composting, and other practices to improve their crops. He also provided seeds that work at high altitudes and talked about the importance of harvesting seeds from your first crop, to use the following year (which farmers in San Antonio absolutely do with corn and beans).  The gardens were beautiful and practices were on display to provide information to San Antonio and Danville farmers.

Tour of Caoba Farms in Antigua.

And then there was our time together. That was the reason for our trip.   As separate communities, we worked up a tree of life-where we started and where we are going- and presented them to the other community.   We taught each other songs, and did the hokey-pokey.   We heard from Linda’s friend from Aid in Education, that described the process for finding students who want to continue in school.  We became comfortable with saying ‘Maltiox’ (thank you in Quiche) and ‘Saqarik’ (good morning in Quiche).  We heard their joys and concerns and talked more about how we can support each other going forward. Being with people of faith from San Antonio, Sister Parish, and Danville Congregational, I have gained confidence that our shared journeys, and the love that surrounds them are the real thing.   Authentic relationships, based on faith and love, are what we need to find our place in this world, and it was a privilege to feel it and share it on this trip.

Maltiox to all of you awesome ones!

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