Guatemala or Bust, chapter 6: Lessons Learned

I’ll probably spend the rest of my life in Guatemala. It’s all so good – the work, the friends, the community, the growth, the adventure, the beauty, the way it all came together so unexpectedly and easily. Surely this is God’s doing. Surely God brought me here. Surely he must want me to stay here indefinitely.

That’s what I was thinking.  Hey, I was 24.

The initial plan to deliver the ambulance and return a few days later had now stretched out to two months. Fine with me. But there were some other considerations:

  • I was in Guatemala under the auspices of World Concern, which had sent me as a driver and expected me to return shortly after delivering l’ambulancia.
  • Neither my parents nor my friends had anticipated that this trip would become a long-term vacation/vocation. I hadn’t either, but that was before I got there.
  • What about health insurance? Who was legally responsible for me? What kind of financial support would I need? Where would it come from? What about Guatemala’s political instability?

One of World Concern’s field reps explained the need to return to Seattle as soon as possible. Even though he also suggested that God could open more doors for me to come back on a longer-term basis, it was still very sad news. I was able to get a flight in a couple of days, barely enough time to say farewell to all of the wonderful people who had welcomed and befriended me.

I cried during a good part of the flight from Guatemala City to Los Angeles. Once that was out of the way, I started to welcome the prospect of seeing family and friends again. And I became more certain that I would be on my way back soon.

Back in Seattle and living with my parents, I was thinking mostly about returning to Guatemala as quickly as possible. Seemed like it would be as simple as selling my car, writing a couple of letters, and earning some money for a plane ticket and initial expenses. I can trust God for the rest of the details; he put together a great plan for my first trip, didn’t he? Why wouldn’t he do something like that again?

My Mom and Dad did not share my enthusiasm. In my mind, they didn’t share my great faith, either. Why couldn’t they see God’s obvious leading and provision, and trust him with me for more of the same? Parents. After one particularly heated argument with my Mom, I retreated to my room to cool off. Sitting on the bed, something came to me that I can only describe as my first – and only (so far) – vision. Bear with me here.

Of course you remember the scene in which R2D2 projected a holographic image of Princess Leia’s immortal words: “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi; you’re my only hope.” I saw something like that, only it was of a big, fat donkey trying to squeeze itself through a door that was barely large enough for its head. After watching this futile effort for a bit, the realization came to me that I was that donkey bent on getting back to Guatemala. Nice. Then I had a clear sense that God was speaking directly to my heart, saying: “My desire for you is not that you be in a particular place, but that you be fit and ready to go wherever I would send you.” In that moment all of my determination to get back to Guatemala simply melted away. It wasn’t a give-up-the-dream kind of resignation at all, but a new agenda and direction replacing my little obsession. And there was a blanket of peace that came along with it.

Now I understand that the experience in Guatemala laid the foundation for me to spend nearly ten years in the 1980s volunteering with Indochinese refugees in the Seattle area. In particular, the time in Guatemala:

  • Opened my heart to the needs of others in a completely new way;
  • Showed me that I could be useful even without formal training;
  • Demonstrated the value of like-minded co-workers and teamwork;
  • Taught me something of the importance of local ownership of projects;
  • Provided a glimpsed of how much cultural baggage I carry;
  • Convinced me that God cares about the poor and oppressed much, much more than I do;
  • Made it clear that by any reasonable measure, I enjoy almost unimaginable privilege and wealth.

* * * * * * * * * *

Guatemala’s people have suffered a great deal at the hands of more powerful nations and business interests, too often supported by its own military and political leaders. Sadly, some of those leaders have identified themselves as ‘evangelicals,’ although the fruit of their work raises some very serious questions. (An interesting article examines aspects of the protestant/evangelical presence in Guatemala.)

The CIA engineered a coup in 1954 that overthrew Guatemala’s democratically-elected government. President Arbenz had begun to institute sweeping land reform measures that threatened the interests of the U.S. multinational giant United Fruit Company (later United Brands). In the fog of McCarthy-era zeal, such efforts were tagged as “communist” and seen as justification for American intervention. In response to a small insurgency following the coup, the U.S. assisted Guatemala’s military in mounting a massive counterinsurgency campaign that left tens of thousands of Guatemalans massacred, maimed, or missing. In fact, more people lost their lives this way than in the 1976 earthquake.

More than 50 years later the need for land reform remains. Happily, we have friends who have worked with Agros in a much more credible and life-giving effort to put land into the hands of more local families and farmers in Guatemala.

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