A few weeks ago I stood here talking about this little voice in my head telling me “You’re not done yet .” I described about I had taken two trips this year that are best called pilgrimage. I didn’t have the time then to talk to you about the second of the two, my trip to Guatemala.
I feel a strong pull towards Guatemala, more than a pull it feels like a longing. I think the first time I felt a desire to go there was when I was taking a course in college titled, “The CIA and the Third World.” It was a fascinating course in which my professor used the Freedom of Information Act to extract thousands of documents from the government and supplement those documents with books like Richard Immerman’s “The CIA in Guatemala: A Policy of Intervention” and many other light nighttime readings. The stories and documents served to change my perceptions of what my government was doing in the world. I could no longer follow blindly thinking that they knew best. And so there began some critical thought about taking personal responsibilities in relationship to what the government does in my name, for the sake of security, for the welfare of the United States. It was a sobering semester. I struggled with my conscience as I continued to serve in the Army. So when I retired and had an opportunity to travel to Guatemala and spend some time getting to know people first hand I jumped at the chance.
I’ll not rehash my previous visits, but if you’re curious about those insights you can read that sermon on our web site. It is enough to say that I have not been disappointed, but rather greatly rewarded with my travels there.
The gospel reading today includes the parable of the lost sheep. In that teaching Jesus illustrates that if a person has 100 sheep and looses one he will leave the 99 in search of the one he’s lost. Jesus goes on to say how the shepherd rejoices when he finds that one sheep. Everyone knows the sheep are really us (you and me) so let’s imagine for a moment being that lost sheep. That sheep is the sinner that has, by omission or commission, broken away from the flock and lived in a sinful life. How much greater the joy to be the one that is found!
I often feel like that found sheep and when I go to Guatemala in every village I go to I feel like I’ve come home – like I’ve been found. I am that welcomed. It would be too self aggrandizing to say, “I go to Guatemala to help the Mayan people build a school.” Because, you see, I don’t travel to Guatemala to help the Mayans, although that’s a great byproduct, I travel to Guatemala to find myself.
This pilgrimage, like the one I made last year, was coordinated by Faith at Work. Work wise, we had lots of variety in the types of work sites, a school and two water projects. The work itself, however, was not that different from what we did last year digging, trenching, bending rebar, and cutting wire add to that mixing and pouring cement and you get a basic picture of the manual labor. But, as I have alluded, it is not the physical work that drew most of us there. It is the spiritual labor and a communion with the Guatemalan people. Like last year’s pilgrimage we used Trevor Hudson’s book “A Mile in My Shoes” for daily focus. This year, Peter Bankson, reintroduced the book and gave us a framework of our daily meditation, which he described “the ABCs of a Pilgrimage:”
A – Awake or arise
B – Be quick to listen
C – See God in the moment
“Awake or arise”, he said, “means to open your eyes, get up move around, observe! Be awake to the now, be present and witness to what is around you.” I’ve always prided myself as being a big picture thinker. I’m always thinking one, two, three steps into the future. That quality served me well in the military, and it is a great gift when you’re a fund raiser, but when constantly focusing on what’s out there it’s easy to miss what is right here in front of you. In his book, Hudson says, “Being present involves letting go of our constant preoccupations, immersing ourselves in the here and now, and giving ours selves wholeheartedly to what ever is at hand.”
At the work sites I also took time to look around, to talk to some of the workers and find out about their village asking questions like, “How many families live here? How much land do you farm? Are you able to grow all the food you need for your family? and, Do you sell at the market?” The men were also also curious about these gringos that come all this way to dig latrines and mix cement. Why did we do it? What did we get out of it? I explained the concept of being a pelegrino (pilgrim) and that just giving money wasn’t enough that we wanted to lend a helping hand. They seemed content with the explanation and grateful that we cared enough to come. It was times like this that I felt blessed with my ability to communicate with them. But speaking isn’t the only way to communicate I saw my fellow pilgrims talking with their hands, pulling out dictionaries, making some missteps, but in the end recovering nicely. Some of my fondest memories I was able to capture in pictures. At Xenemajuyu, I caught a teenage girl peaking out of a missing board in the kitchen to see what we were doing. For that moment she was caught unaware, she let her guard down and it is one of my favorite shots of the trip. At our second work site, a water project, I saw a little Mayan angel of no more than two years old, approach Marjory Bankson while we were waiting for the delegation from the village to arrive. The child touched Marjory’s face tenderly and there was a moment of deep spirituality there. I could tell Marjory was moved by the gesture.
The second item of reflection was: “be quick to listen.” Listen to what is happening in me. Be attentive, alert to your surroundings, but be present in the here and now inside of you. Am I upset because I’m not comfortable? Am I at peace? What do I feel about what is going on? I’ll be honest that I felt mostly at peace during my trip. I enjoyed my time with the workers and the pilgrims. On our second day to Xenemajuju, Caroline brought garbage bags and started to pick up garbage along the side of the trail. She said her kids call her the garbage lady, because she’s constantly picking up garbage on the side of the road back home in Oregon. I decided to help her and when Gabe the youngest member of our group came around the bend he pitched and soon we had five people slowly making our way down filling the bags with trash. As I helped pick up the garbage I told myself this is OK because we are modeling positive behavior. But I realized I was getting upset because, on top of all the history of what we “America” has done to this country, the gift our country has given Guatemalans is “consumerism,” plastic bottles and candy wrappers. Stuff that doesn’t degraded and is strewn all over the country side. Anger wells up inside me when I think about the complicity of our government in everything that has happened in Guatemala. And yet, as I stood in Xenemajuju looking out at the valley filled with rows and rows of planted crops I marveled at the tenacity of the people of this village and I knew it is through God’s grace that they have been able to overcome adversity.
See God in the moment was the third point of reflection. “Don’t close off too soon or you miss the most important part of being where you are right now,” said Peter. Look for the Holy in the moment. After a long, tiring day in the hot sun it would have been very easy to take a hot shower, wash off the grime, and forget that there was still more to experience. But every day we gathered together and reflected on what we experienced that day. It served to center our thoughts, even if we felt too tired to talk. When we finished the five days of work we started the next phase of our journey, a time of reflection and meditation in the retreat center called “Buenas Nuevas” in Panajachel on Lake Attitlan. This is a quiet place in the midst of pure tourism and consumerism. From the moment we stepped off the bus we were accosted by people selling weavings, wooden instruments, t-shirts, bracelets, necklaces, anything and everything. I longed to get away from it all, even my fellow pilgrims. I found a sign that talked of horseback riding and I set out on a mission of finding out where to make that happen. Jeannine and I ended up on a boat ride to San Pedro to ride horses on the other side of the lake. It was a beautiful three hour trip that took us to the base of the volcano and overlooked the wide expanse of Lake Attitlan. The shear beauty of the moment took my breath away even though this was my third trip to Lake Attitlan.
My conversation with God is a little tongue and cheek, but it is representative of the pull and push I felt when Richard spoke. I’ve worked hard to pay attention to this feeling. To what I call “being open to God.” Whenever I have a sense that I am strongly attracted to something I feel that I must go with it. Prayer has been a way to open myself up to God’s word. Like many of you, I’ve had lots of frustration with prayer, I’ll spend months trying to do mediation and feel nothing. But then something like the Pearlington trip happens and I know that I have to go. I know that I’ve been open to God and I’m being called.
It was when Jeannine and I were alone that we both were met powerful awareness of the holy. One morning we went to a local chocolate shop to buy some chocolate bars for our MSG mission group. As we walked out of the shop I stopped into a bank to use the ATM machine. When I came out Jeannine was talking to an elderly Mayan woman who was asking her to buy something from her. Jeannine asked her what she had to sell and she removed a little bundle from her head. Remember, this is Panajachel, it is a center of tourism, people are all walking around with beautiful woven products for sale and this poor woman pulled out a stained cloth and said looking a little sheepish “here is one,” and then pulled out another that was also stained. We were left speechless. Jeannine and I looked at each other we didn’t know what to say. She had really next to nothing to sell. There was a small cardboard that had bracelets on it so we bought some of those and she packed up her things smiling and blessing us. We walked away and up the street when Jeannine started to cry, and in turn I started to cry, here was an incredibly ancient woman (who physically reminded me of my paternal grandmother) walking around trying to make a few pennies from products that someone had probably just given her. She really had nothing. We both decided almost simultaneously to find her and just give her some money. Fortunately for us, the woman who we later found out was called Juanamaria was no speed walker. We easily caught up with her and I handed her a 50Q note (which is only a little over $6.50) and told her we wanted to give it to her. She was ecstatic. She hugged and kissed my cheek and kept saying God bless you and calling out to Jeannine God bless you and we were all in tears.
Our little group had an ambitious goal of working on four properties. We only got to three homes and finished several tasks; but in all honesty not one home was ready for move in when we left. I spent my time only on one home—Ms. Shirley’s. To meet Ms. Shirley is to meet joy personified. Her personality is absolutely infectious. Her smile lights up the room and she finds good in everything. I wanted to get in there and start to work, after all time’s a wasting. But it wasn’t that simple, I needed to learn to listen but I’ll tell you more about Ms. Shirley and Pearlington later.
A few days later we saw Juanamaria sitting in one of the stores resting. We walked up to her and asked her how she was doing and her face broke out in a big smile. She wanted us to take a bracelet as a gift. At first we told her no, someone will buy them from you, but she insisted so we accepted it graciously. We realized that she had a need to give back to us and that although she had little to sell, people all around seemed to take care of her. I heard one person calling her abuelita (grandmother) although they were clearly not related and it made us feel much better. Had we not been awake to our surroundings we would have missed the wonderful experience of meeting this sweet lady. It wasn’t giving her money that made the moment special, it was seeing the grace she had. She had a need to work. She no longer had the eyes to make her own products, her stride was labored, but she had pride. It was times like this that I count myself lucky to be found. I don’t know when I’ll head back to Guatemala again, but I know that there is something out pulling me there.