An Education in Grace

“Pero el pueblo de los Estados Unidos no sabían, era que el gobierno (But the people of the United States did not know, it was the government),” Cesár said quizzically, in what I can only describe as one of the most natural acts of grace I have ever experienced. It was as if absolution of national inequities was something that the jefe of Cafe R.E.D. offered on a daily basis. In a way, he did; at least insofar as he worked each day to create opportunities that would restore hope, humanity, and dignity to those who had felt stripped of those things through deportation.

It was not deportation we were discussing, however. I need to start a little further back in the story for you to understand.

The day before, Miercoles (Wednesday), I had taken two different chicken buses, weaving their tortuous way up and down the mountains of Guatemala, in order to get to Xela for the Board Meeting of DESGUA at Cafe R.E.D. I had met Cesár, the Manager of Cafe R.E.D., and the other board members and then shared lunch with them.

After the meeting dispersed, Cesár and I sat in red chairs at the back of Cafe R.E.D. while I peppered him with questions. I tried hard to be understood in my still developing Español, and he tried equally hard to get me to understand his quite eloquent Español.

The final question that I had asked was what in the history of his nation had given him hope and joy. He had answered that it was what had happened in 1945. He told me that before that women had no rights and after that, women had rights.

Ah, yes, I had agreed. It was the same in the United States. Before the World Wars, we had not worked in factories etc., but after that we had jobs and some women desired to stay in them. I explained to him that I understood how war can change culture and open the way for women.

He tried again. Again I failed to understand.

Finally he raised a finger to indicate that he would be right back and returned with a 300 page, dense historical piece called Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, a piece written by Americans and published through Harvard University Center on Latin American Studies. He smiled warmly, confident that now I would understand what he was talking about.

…all I had to do was read a 300 page historical investigation…

*Ahem* – 30 hours later, after I had read the book, written and posted 2 blogs on other topics, and engaged in some delicate vocational communications – our conversation could continue.

I understood now why he had given me the book. He had given me the book because I had asked him what had given him hope for his country, and I had not been able to understand his answer.

I had not been able to understand because I knew about the war in Guatemala, but I was not schooled in the reforms that had preceded the instigation of the war. I was not familiar with the reforms that had been inspired by the United States’ Franklin D. Roosevelt; the reforms that had given the people hope, but that had given American businesses operating in Guatemala fear that they would have less profits. I was not familiar with the fact that they had decided that their right to profit was greater than the Guatemalans right to independence, self determination, and – in the end – life. It was worth a few deaths, or what turned out in the end to be a few hundred thousand deaths, in order to protect the ability of American businesses to profit on foreign soil.

To be clear, United Fruit lobbied, propagandized and finally offered the initial funding, in order to get the United States military to help plan and stage a coup that destabilized the fledgling Guatemalan democracy and led to a 30 year civil war; which led to the massacres of indigenous people in the Mayan communities around Lake Atitlan, where I have been living, as well as the assassination of priests and Bishops that supported the indigenous guerrillas.

This action on the part of the United States took a great deal from the Guatemalan people; as I knew from hearing about the people that had been killed or “disappeared” from the community where I had been living for the past month.

But in that moment as I told Cesár that I had finished the book and handed it back to him, what was really affecting me was the fact that we had taken something from him. I had asked Cesár what gave him the most pride and joy about his country’s history, and his answer – which I now understood to be the Constitution of 1945 – had been something that my country had taken away from the people of Guatemala.

The Constitution, lost in the negotiations of the US instigated coup, had given the people of Guatemala term limits for elected officials, guaranteed freedom of the speech and of the press, equal pay for men and women, and the criminalization of racial discrimination. The part that had caused US intervention was land reforms that would allow unused, fallow land to be farmed by the people of Guatemala, thereby interrupting the United Fruit banana monopoly.

It was like the parable that the prophet Nathaniel told to King David; the story of the rich man who has many flocks of his own, but who instead takes the one small lamb that is the most precious and beloved thing that the poor man has. That is how I felt in that moment; like we had taken Cesár’s lamb.

Why? Because the businesses of the United States believe they have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And our big businesses are willing to pursue happiness at the cost of the life, liberty and happiness of others. We feel we have the need, and sometimes the divine right, to enter other countries and take what we want, and leave them with nothing. But if people from other countries come into our country and try to take home a few hundred dollars through hard labor, we arrest them and send them home in poverty.

Why? Because what we do to them is legal, and what they do to us is not legal. Why? Because we wrote the laws. We wrote the laws both in their countries and in our country. We bought the law.

With all that feeling welling up in me, and filling me with shame, all Cesár could do was look at me with confusion and say – “But the people of the United States did not know, it was the government.”

Oh. So that is what grace is. I am not sure if I ever really understood before.

It was not the first time, nor I am sure will it be the last, that I have been absolutely brought to my knees by the amazing capacity of the Guatemalan people to forgive. To forgive one another. To forgive us. To return greed with generosity, and to offer compassion when they have experienced cruelty.  I am simply not familiar with what it is like to live in a nation that does not feel the need to avenge every wrong or perceived wrong committed against it.

When I was in seminary they taught me something called exegesis. An exegetical method of learning, and then preaching, that tries to listen to the spirit and to the scriptures and to hear what the text is trying to say, rather than approaching it with an agenda and telling it what to say. Dr. Ellen Davis, in particular, changed my approach when she taught me first to pray, then to read the scriptures, then to read them again, and again, before finally going to the text books and the interpretations.

Here in Guatemala, I have received an exegesis from the people of this country. I have learned their history backwards. I have come in with little knowledge, and loved the people. I have heard their stories, and their experiences. I have cried with them until we laughed, and laughed with them until we cried. I have heard what it was like for one to flee for their life, for another to fight for his. Then, finally, I have heard the more academic version; I have read the history, searching for where the people I love fit in it; letting them be a part of my learning and partners in the conversation.

I learned a long time ago that you cannot listen if you already have all the answers.

Well, for a student of history, I had even less answers than I thought I did before Cesár took up the task of educating me.

And for a woman of the cloth, I had less understanding of the grace that my church is built upon than I realized; because I had not been offered enough grace by the church, I needed to encounter Cesár to know what it felt like.

Something in me almost wanted Cesár to harbor anger against me, as if that would lessen the pain of my own internal conviction.

But it just was not in him. He just wanted me to understand. He just wanted me to know.

“…el pueblo de los Estados Unidos no sabían…” he had said to me.

Well, now we do know. What are we going to do about it?

Will we have more compassion towards people from Central America who are living in the United States, when we take the time to think about the political and financial reasons that may have brought them there – and what our nation has done to contribute to those situations. Will we have the courage and the motivation to take action to speak to our nation and communities about how we treat others, and push our government to give Central Americans the justice and mercy in immigration that we have failed to show them in foreign policy?

Or perhaps you are interested in what is being done on this side of the border? Well Cesár has a dream. He has heard that some Guatemalans who have been deported are trapped in Mexico because they became disabled during their immigration or deportation and have no way to support themselves if they come home. He wants there to be a place in Guatemala where disabled deportees can work and live in dignity; he wants to be able to tell them there is a place for them and that they should come home. Maybe there is some way you can help him. Maybe your business can buy whatever products this crazy dream of his produces.

Or maybe when you hear of a person who is being deported – even though they were brought to the United States when they were only two, have lived there for more than twenty years, and know no other life – you can say with the same grace that Cesár said to us – but they did not even know.

As we meditate on these questions, here are some of the faces of those who have forgiven us.

Women in ropa typica sing behind the Semana Santa processionals around Lake Atitlan
Women in ropa typica sing behind the Semana Santa processionals around Lake Atitlan
Watching the Semana Santa processions at Lake Atitlan with my friends Esther and Faustina
Watching the Semana Santa processions at Lake Atitlan with my friends Esther and Faustina
An elderly Mayan woman is helped down the street by her grandson
An elderly Mayan woman is helped down the street by her grandson


A woman walks alone through the Semana Santa celebrations around Lake Atitlan
A woman walks alone through the Semana Santa celebrations around Lake Atitlan
A Mayan man leads the Semana Santa procession as he has for many years
A Mayan man leads the Semana Santa procession as he has for many years

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