A wonderful part of the Compassion trip was meeting new friends over delicious meals featuring local cuisine. Shared bus seats became other connection points, with conversation ranging from theological debates to shared cravings for pizza. On the way to our Saturday center, I plopped into the seat beside one of maybe ten women I’d already met. We chatted easily about family and edged into hot topics like right wing/left wing polarization. “I actually heard someone diss the ‘Me, Too,’ movement.” I watched my new friend’s face.
“That’s weird,” she said.
I swallowed hard, but the urge to talk about it—again—didn’t leave. “It happened to me. All those women coming out, it’s helped me.”
Her eyes filled with tears. “How old were you?”
“I’m not even sure. In Bluebirds or Scouts. Maybe eight. Nine.”
She glanced out the window. Stunning Atitlan, ranked by Fodors as the 12th most beautiful lake in the world, took on a golden hue. Oh, this strange life, with so much that is pure and marvelous and good, so much that is twisted and evil and depraved.
As we headed toward the Compassion center, my seat companion’s story of abuse spilled out, giving credence to the grim statistic that one out of three females has experienced sexual violence in their lifetime (www.nsvrc.org/statistics#footnote-o).
“I’ve only told one person besides you.” Her voice got hoarse. “I…I don’t know why it came out now.”
As it has so often, Romans 8:28 came to mind; The Lord promises to work all things for good in the lives of those who love Him, who call on His Name. All things. Even sexual violation. Through sharing the awful stories of the crimes against us, my new friend and I broadened our understanding of what defines sexual assault and our passion to stand with those who have not yet found hope to live on, even with joy…By the time we reached the Solola Student Center, I’d made a forever friend…even if we don’t meet again until heaven.
Though we were enthusiastically greeted as we had been yesterday in a local church that doubles as project center, today smiling children handed us gorgeous flowers. After singing and prayer, we got ready for different activities, which would later include a game of Rojo/Verde (Red Light/Green Light). But first we’d visit a family.
Ruth, our gregarious translator/guide, led us up a dirt road that rose steeply to cut through wooded areas. At our backs loomed a majestic volcano; overhead, blue skies. Fifteen minutes later, we huffed and puffed our way to a clearing where stood our family…a father, mother, two daughters, a son, and la abuela, or grandmother. The children and dad wore casual pants and shirts; the mom, a traditional traje. The family occupied a compound of three buildings that surrounded a central courtyard…a main living area, a cooking and eating area, and a storage and clothes-washing area. Under the overhang of the living area sat the grandmother, smiling and rocking in a creaky chair while she licked a sucker. Two dogs zigzagged through the courtyard, and chicken squawks punctuated our greetings.
“Thank you for having us here,” Ruth said. We presented the two little girls with flowers. “We are honored to be in your home.”
The father stepped forward. “It is our privilege. We thank the Lord for this day.”
“We have been waiting so long to meet you!” The mother’s eyes danced. The little girls stopped twirling about long enough for us to take pictures while the little boy chased the dogs, who leapt exuberantly, as if they too seized the spirit of hospitality. The Compassion program continued to woo me with its goal of unity in the brotherhood of believers.
I loved being here, in this moment, in this day.
After group pictures, the father led us past Grandmother and into the main living area, a room crowded with two sewing stations and two beds. “I make these.” Father held up a pair of Tommy Hilfiger jeans. “My boss lets me keep the machines here.” It was then that I noticed the youngest daughter’s canary yellow pair of pants. “Did you make hers, too?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” Dad beamed. “I love the work, only sometimes it gets slow. We struggle, but the Lord answers. He is gracious and kind.”
“I sew when I can,” the mother said. “I like it.” She pointed to her older daughter. “Compassion pitches in, too. She gets check-ups. The center looks in on us all. They find out what we need.”
The father and mother took turns sharing about their lives, and often they exchanged knowing glances that spoke loud about their commitment to one another. They spoke of their desire to provide for their children, of the Lord’s goodness. I had so much in common with this my brother and sister in the Lord. Of course I’d known of the worldwide body of believers, but here, thousands of miles south, I saw it in a dramatic and beautiful way. Why did so many borders, both geographic and manmade, separate us?
Next we toured the family’s chicken coop, with the older daughter gathering the eggs. The mom then led us to the second of the family buildings, including a clothes-washing station. We each took turns at scrubbing, and it took more muscle than I would’ve imagined.
Mom turned on a radio. “I love to sing while I wash.” From the music, I caught a few Spanish words but nowhere near enough to interpret the message. Whatever the singer said, I loved the jivey beat.
We visitors ended up splashing more water onto each other than cleaning clothes. We enjoyed the gorgeous views, the happy laughter…the fun of walking into this family’s ordinary day.
“We had to use buckets before,” said Mom, pointing to a nearby pipe, “and it took so long to get water. Then we partnered with neighbors. Otherwise it would’ve cost too much.”
“Is it potable?” someone asked.
The mom shook her head. “We still have to boil it.”
The family we’d visited yesterday had no water connection. In their eyes, this Solola family would be rich. Despite the added chore of purification, I saw richness here as well…spiritual richness, affection richness, freedom in some life decisions, and richness in a support network and civic involvement.
Our group then split up for the next chore. The guys chopped wood and loaded it onto a tumpline, or forehead strap carrier. The women gathered kindling, lena verde. Though the mom wore sandals like me, she speedily traversed the hills while I slipped and even fell.
Around noon, a Compassion team member delivered lunch. The mother gathered us in the third building, the kitchen/dining room. “Dear Lord,” she prayed, “thank You for letting us host these guests. It is such an honor.” Tears fell, tears that she wiped onto her skirt, as she thanked God for the preparers of the food. In his prayer, the father asked God to continue watching over his family. Several from our Compassion group also prayed. The mother and father served us spicy chicken, tortillas, and pasta salad, prepared, as had been done yesterday at the other center, by local chefs. As we ate, the mother said, “I have a special announcement. Today is our daughter’s birthday!”
We clapped and cheered and sang “Happy Birthday” in Spanish and in English. Compassion literature explains that many children in the program don’t receive a formal gift or have a celebration unless sponsors provide. Today we’d brought gifts for the family, which instantly were converted to birthday presents, including an Aquadoodle water mat and magic pen. The family’s clothes-washing area became a place to fill the magic pen with water. The kids’ instant drawings suddenly disappeared to choruses of “oohs” and “aahs.”
“This is a huge honor for my daughter.” The dad could barely eat his food, he was so busy serving everyone and smiling and talking about what a wonderful blessing the Lord had brought to his family. We’d all been blessed by the Lord with this knowledge: despite our ethnicity, economic status, or level of education, we were all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). Because of Christ’s sacrifice, we would one day reunite in heaven.
Soon it was time to return to the center. Clinging to one another, we again prayed. I didn’t want this camaraderie to end. Ruth did everything but tear us away so we could rejoin our team.
Back at the children’s center waited another amazing gift: “our” little girl and another child were publicly recognized; today every child in the center would eat cake, a luxurious and, we were told, rare occasion. I thought about our sugar- and fat-laden diets and my daily consumption of chocolate, a crop grown here in Guatemala yet rarely barred from the taste buds of many locals because of its price. Unlike U.S. citizens, these villagers singled out special occasions as grand celebrations. In yet another cultural way, they seemed to me very rich indeed.
As yesterday, my thoughts raced on the ride back to Panajachel. How could a country be so rich and so impoverished? What would I do with all I’d learned? I purposed to continue support of Compassion…and this Guatemala and its wonderful people and resources. After we got off the bus, I asked Sandeep, one of our Compassion leaders, if I could run an errand. I wanted to support local coffee, sold at Crossroads Café, a place my daughter and I had visited a couple of years back.
He shook his head.
Safety, surely that’s the issue. “Could you go with me?”
“I’m sorry. Wish we could.”
I remembered the Level 3 Department of State advisory: reconsider travel and tried to reconcile the grim statistics with the tranquility I’d experienced only hours earlier at the villagers’ home. Compassion was wise to avoid putting us in danger. Still, it was a shame that so many precautions had to be taken, so many limitations placed just to keep from being the next crime statistic.
Later, during a lull in our dinner conversation, I emailed the proprietor of Crossroads Café. He agreed to meet me in ten minutes in our hotel lobby and would bring five pounds of prize-winning, organic Huehuetenango coffee beans. I hurried to the lobby to meet him.
“I’m expecting a visitor,” I told the man on duty.
The desk clerk’s face got tight. “What is your name? May I see your room key? Do you have an ID? What is the name of this supposed visitor?”
“Michael.” I tried to keep my voice from shrilling. What was the big deal? “He owns the coffee place. He’s been around.”
“Yes, I think I know him.” The man gave a slight nod. “That will be fine.”
I waited in the lobby, then realized my and Michael’s definition of 10 minutes might be quite different.
Eventually Michael delivered my coffee, along with a rambling story about a hairy tuk-tuk ride here. I reminded him of our visit to his café a few years back. He shared with my dinner companions his family’s 1999 drive in a VW van from California to Guatemala. We posed for a picture that would have my coffee snob daughter licking her lips, just imagining the taste of a Huehue pour-over.
Team members lingered in the restaurant. Again, the young in spirit (if not age) headed for the pool. As I’d done previously, I hurried to the safety of my hotel room decompression chamber. Why did things like politics and economy keep our Guatemalan families in Christ from crossing the northern border? Was life as dangerous for our new Solola friends as it seemed to be here in Panajachel, or did their rural setting improve their chances for a safe life? There were so many questions I hadn’t asked in my quest to learn about this country and its people. As I brought both praises and concerns to the Lord, a longing for “Thy kingdom come” began to pull at my heart. I hungered for the time when all who call on the Name of Jesus will live together, in harmony, with no more tears, no more pain, people from all nations, people joined by nothing more than their belief and trust in a carpenter Who walked this earth over 2,000 years ago. “Come, Lord Jesus, come,” I whisper, even now as I write this blog. “I want to be with you, and I want to be with my friends.”