Category Archives: Featured

Every Nation Has the Right to Dream

“We decided that Guatemalans have a right to a dream as well. All the world wants to go to America and have ‘The American Dream,’ but why should Americans be the only ones with a dream? We have a Guatemalan Dream.” Willy, Claudia and Ubaldo were explaining to me the passion that had led to the founding of DESGUA (Desarollo Sostenible Para Guatemala). It had all started in New York, when Guatemalans living there realized that they did not have to come to America to build a dream. Therefore, they returned to Guatemala to begin the work of DESGUA and to open Cafe R.E.D.

My mind rushed back to another lunch I had shared in Haiti, when I had sat with the similarly named Willio and heard him explain to me his Haitian Dream. He had explained that he was not a proponent of having Americans adopt the children out of his orphanage in Haiti because he needed their gifts and hearts and minds; because Haiti needed their gifts and hearts and minds; because Haiti needed Haitians to build the Haitian Dream. No one else could build it for them and no amount of money – although money helps – could make it happen without the involvement and empowerment of the children that he was raising. “More people, more hope” was his motto. The more people who felt loved, educated, and empowered, the better chance they had at making the Haitian Dream a reality. To send their “best” to the United States was to perpetuate the myth that it is only in America that you have the right to dream.

Here in Xela, Guatemala, Willy was explaining a similar philosophy to me. He explained that people who immigrate to the United States often feel like deportation is death, and that their dream is dead. He sees it differently, however. He believes that every land can be the land of opportunity, if people are working and striving for justice. “When I was in the States, I felt like a caged chicken. Here I am free range,” he joked with me. That is why, after becoming well known for making documentaries about immigration and deportation, Willy took his United States Residency card and ripped it up to stand in solidarity with the deported and to show people that he was serious about building a dream in the country of his birth.

The action of dreaming can be cast, by the “realistic” and the “pragmatic,” as an act of weakness or naivete. But the act of dreaming, much like the act of hoping, is the strongest and most difficult and most necessary action in our world. Without dreamers, nothing changes.

And, yes, I know that there are many people who would like for nothing to change, because they are the ones who have more at the loss of those who have less.

Unfortunately, from the very beginning, the “land of opportunity” built that opportunity for some upon the backs of others. First the backs of the indigenous Native Americans, and then when they proved insufficiently resistant to Western diseases, upon the backs of imported slaves from Africa. Then concurrent with slavery, and since its abolition, it has been built upon wave after wave of immigrants from around the world that have come with the hope that they would win what is the lottery of American opportunity.

Despite their grand words and good intentions, many of the nation’s founders believed the right of white Christians to dream – of religious freedom and a better life – was greater than the rights of the rest of the world to dream and to thrive and to live. They believed that the right of white Christian men to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was worth building upon the “death, enslavement, and despairing sorrow” of others.

They pursued their own liberty while their fellow humans struggled in plantation fields and indigenous reservations. While their pursuit of their own liberty led to the contagious awakening of the revolutionary spirit among people of every kind, it is impossible to conclude that they intended to create the freedom of others.

More time would be needed, and more voices would need to enter the conversation, before people started to realize that we can build a communal dream together – that one person’s dream does not need to be built upon the destruction of another person’s dream.

Yes, it is definitely possible for anyone to succeed and have a beautiful life in the United States. Yet, there are systems in place that rig that lottery in favor of some over others.

The realization, then, that one can “dream” just as easily in the nation of their birth is a liberating realization indeed.

We need look no further than Romans 8 to see that every part of creation has the right and ability to dream. That every part of creation has the ability to long and to hope, not only for the kingdom of God that lies in their future, but also for the inbreaking of that kingdom into their own lives now. Every person in every nation has been given the blessing and the burden to long for the “already but not yet”; every nation has been given the ability to work to create a world that would please God’s heart. A world where the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, and no one has more than any other.

As Romans 8 says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

The whole creation is breathing in and breathing out the breaths of its birthing pains. Happy are we who are blessed to know with confidence that a better day is coming, and now has already begun.

Happy as well are we who through the vision of the scriptures are given the ability to see that in God’s vision, we are “one whole creation” – we are not divided by borders and walls and categories. We are simply “the whole creation” and “the children of God.”

Yet, there are still many children of God who feel it necessary to protect the “land of opportunity” from other children of God.

It seems that in the face of the monolithic power and pervasive allure of empires like the United States, each nation must find its own Moses’s. Women and men who can contradict the lie that only in the place of power is opportunity possible. People who can work to make that opportunity possible in their own land.

Bringing my mind back to Guatemala, and the beautiful courtyard of Cafe R.E.D., I continued to listen to the vision explained. Red might mean communist in America, but in Guatemala, Red is understood in the Spanish meaning of the word, rather than the English meaning of the word. In Spanish the word rojo means red, while the word red means network. So a red cafe is a cafe seeking to build networks.
(I am not naive, there is an allusion to socialism; but if you study the history of Guatemala, you’ll understand how a socialist democracy trying to follow the model of FDR was confused with Communism in the model of Stalin, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples in actions initiated by the United States, and funded initially by American fruit businesses operating in Guatemala and threatened by economic reforms… more in the next blog.)

Here at Cafe R.E.D., it was also an acronym for the three parts of their work: R was Restaurante, E was Educación, and D was Deposito.

Those were the three methods that DESGUA and Cafe R.E.D. was using to work to make the country a land of opportunity for immigrants returning to Guatemala after deportation. To help them to feel proud of who they are and where they are from. To help them to understand that every nation has the right to dream.

God sees the world without borders. God sees people as no more important on one side of a border than another and no more in need of protection, love and justice.

For those who have claimed the United States to be “The New Jerusalem”, the new people of the promise, the new chosen people – it may be in our best interests to look at the real story of those who are truly the people of the Promise. The people of Israel, whom God has used to tell the story of God’s love and reveal to the world God’s identity. They were and they are some of the greatest dreamers that the world has ever known. And they have dreamed on and on and on through more heartbreak than most of us could bear. Their story has been more similar over the course of history to that of the long-suffering people of Guatemala than it has been to the manifest destiny policies of the United States that were derived from the early parts of the nation of Israel’s story.

Every nation has the right to dream. The world, however, will be a better place if we learn to dream of justice and community and solidarity and peace. The American Dream has begun to ring false to so many people because it has gone from being an escape, from oppression to liberty, to being a pursuit of possessing more “stuff.”

Every nation has the right to dream. So dream big dreams. Dream like Martin Luther King, Jr. Dream like Mother Theresa. Dream like Nelson Mandela. Do not dream of “stuff.” Do not dream of “things.” They have not made Americans happy, and they will not make you happy either.

Dream instead of love and justice and equality. Dream of a world without lines and divisions and inequalities. Dream that you can do things differently.

That is what the people at Cafe R.E.D. do every day. They have decided that it is not only possible to create “The American Dream” in Guatemala; they have decided that it is possible to do something even better – to create the “Guatemalan Dream.”

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Part of the mission of Cafe R.E.D. is to bring honor to the often misunderstood street artist community. Therefore the interior of the Cafe is a gallery of sorts. This mural, painted in collaboration with jovenes, tells the story of Guatemala's past and their dream for its future.
Part of the mission of Cafe R.E.D. is to bring honor to the often misunderstood street artist community. Therefore the interior of the Cafe is a gallery of sorts. This mural, painted in collaboration with jovenes, tells the story of Guatemala’s past and their dream for its future.

Why you shouldn’t ask me for sex…

“¿Te gusto sexo?” the young man driving the tuk-tuk said to me, staring intently at me in the oversized rear-view mirror. This was not what I had imagined when I had set out to learn to advocate in Español. The words were so completely and utterly out of the blue that I was not sure for a minute that I had heard right. Nonetheless, “No,” I replied firmly.

After much effort, the young driver had finally convinced me to take a ride up the hill in his tuk-tuk as I walked home from kayaking in Lake Atitlan. My legs were still in so much pain after hiking the 10,000 foot Volcano San Pedro; and a friend had recently informed me that I had to stop using those muscles so much if they were going to heal. I had told myself that for once I had to stop doing everything the hard way and give myself a break. So, I climbed into the tuk-tuk reluctantly, in my blue Chacos, green Merrell shirt, and navy Duke Divinity School hat.

After we had exchanged pleasantries, and he had asked where I wanted him to drop me off – “Cerca de la Iglesia” – he started in with “Te gusto sexo” – and my brain struggled to translate and comprehend. As I said “No” and he veered to the left, in the opposite direction from the church I knew something was wrong. There was a million things I wanted to say, but I did not know the words.

“Aqui es bien,” I said.

“No, no. ¿Como te no gusto sexo? Tu eres muy bonita,” he continued as he picked up speed going down the hills of San Pedro. I saw the street where the Buddha Bar was speed by, and the small shop where I buy my paper and pencils, and I knew we were getting further from home.

“No, Aqui es bien,” I said.

“No, no. ¿Como te no gusto sexo, linda?” he said, driving with one hand while opening his pants with the other. He watched my anxiety rise as the oversized rear view mirror communicated every move we made to each other.

“Por favor, estoy una pastora. Aqui es bien,” I said, struggling with my limited Spanish to reason with him.

“No, no. ¿Como te no gusto sexo, bonita?” he could tell he was not getting anywhere with me, but getting off on my fear, he was determined to get something out of it for himself anyway. My sole goal became getting out of the vehicle before he could go any further.

We passed a small crowd in the street, “¡Aqui!” I said.

“No, esta bien, esta bien. Un poco mas,” he protested.

“NO!” I said firmly and loudly so that the people could hear, “¡Aqui!”

With that, he paused, I jumped out, and he sped off while I walked back towards home in the opposite direction, much much further away than where I had started.

I’ve had his question asked of me quite a few times this year, in more or less aggressive ways.

I get the sense that people on the asking end are not able to understand, or willing to accept, that it is upsetting for me and sometimes frightening.

People have different opinions about the place of “sexo” in life, and I believe in the right of every person to decide where it belongs in their life – including myself. Because you don’t know what life experiences someone has had, or what their choices are regarding that question – you don’t know what emotions you raise when you pose it.

I am not trying to shut down healthy conversation, but there is a big difference between saying “I sense something between us”, and persisting in pressuring when one can tell it is not what is desired. That is the typical, historical, patriarchal longing to overcome resistance, to colonize and conquer. Our culture has taught us that it is exciting to overcome resistance – the courtship “game” – but games have a winner and a loser. To get someone to give in and go against their better judgement and best wishes is the greatest thrill and the sexual imagery of most of our mainstream films and shows.

We teach people to play with some of the elements of force and victimization, while telling them they are still technically within the realm of the consensual. Thus, we leave young men and women, like my tuk-tuk driver, with the lesson that every such encounter is nothing more than a game. If I had said “yes,” he would have won, and perhaps has in the past; because I said “no” – and also shut down his side-game – he did not win. If I had said “yes”, it would have been seen by some as a grand adventure; because I said “no”, it is seen as a terrible thing. For him, it was all in the roll of the dice, because we have made sexuality a game.

I have struggled to know how to explain to people how it feels on this end of things, why it makes me so sad when these things happen. I struggle to know how to explain why it makes me feel upset and frightened and objectified, and forced to enter into another headspace. I have struggled to explain why it has nothing to do with how I dress or look, and that innocence can be, for some people, not a thing to respect but a thing to conquer. As if innocence in and of itself does not have a right to exist permanently, but must be eliminated the way an apple blossom is eliminated to make way for the fruit. Innocence becomes portrayed as ignorance, inexperience, weakness, and temporary in nature.

The best I can do to explain how it feels is to say that it makes me feel like I do in a Guatemalan market place. It makes me feel the way I do when I walk past hundreds of vendors in the marketplaces, desperate to make a sale. I know that if I get too close, or enter a shop, they are going to try to convince me that I need what they are selling – and it will be hard to leave without buying. My anxiety level rises because I know that they are going to try to convince me that it is for my own good and that I should want it and do need it, when I know I don’t. They are going to make my acceptance or rejection of their offer the basis of our relationship, and their behavior towards me will change from warm and inviting to chilly or awkward if I do not buy what they want. They will try to convince me that their desire/need is what I desire/need. It is going to feel awkward and stressful, because I know that I neither need what they are selling, nor can I afford it. I also can’t go around picking up every pretty thing I pass by, because – for the rest of my journey – I will have to carry it all around on my back. So, no, I am not going to be willing to pick up just any trinket that I can find in any vendor’s stall in the country. To even tempt me, its got to be pretty darn special and unique. Its got to capture my heart, and make me feel like I can’t continue on my journey without it.

So don’t put me through that. Once you pose the question, you have changed our relationship. Unless you can somehow be sure you are not making someone really uncomfortable, it is probably not worth trying to pressure and convince them that your wants are their needs.

When I was in my late teens, I decided that the fundamentalist reasons for abstaining from sex were bullshit – because they were about me giving myself as a gift to a man and saving myself for him – which is incredibly dishonoring to women and should have stopped hundreds of years ago, along with our belief in women as the property of men.

I do, however, have the right to choose what to do with my own body, and I have the right to abstain if it makes me feel closer to God. And I am tired of people outside and inside of the church making me feeling shitty about it. Some of you may not like that; some people have not liked that. Some people think that I am somehow judging them if they choose differently. To them I say – stop making everything about you. I love you and I don’t have time to waste on judging you, nor is there any part of me that wants to do anything but honor you and the choices you make. I’m too busy loving you and living my own life. I respect your choices, respect mine.

I know some people I love have been hurt by the church, and feel judged, but I’m not trying to continue that trend. I am not cold, I am warm. I am not weak, I am strong. And I am not trying to hurt anyone, I am saying we need to fight to make this a world that is safe for everyone.

I don’t “gusto sexo” outside of the bounds of some kind of committed, covenant relationship. That is my choice, and I have every right to make it. If you are not in a committed relationship with me, then whatever you may want or may think or may feel – don’t even ask. Ask me for dinner; ask me for coffee; ask me to go dancing – but never ask me for “sexo.” It is my right and my choice and one I have maintained for the past 31 years, not because I am weak, but because I am strong.

And for that matter, those that do “gusto sexo,” please don’t treat me like an unfinished project, left on the easel without the finishing touches put on. I am complete. I am whole. I am proud. I am happy. I am strong.

You may think your “sexo” is a gift to me, that no matter how much I protest that I am going to be grateful that you showed me a whole new world. You may think that all’s well that ends well, and I may be upset at the beginning, but I’ll be grateful in the end. Really? Let’s be honest. Don’t you just want what you want, and you don’t care how it makes me feel?

I don’t care if you love me, or lust me, or just saw me – walking up the calle in my absolutely irresistibly sexy outfit, consisting of dirty, sweaty Chacos, Merrell and Duke Divinity gear – you better respect me. I can’t expect as much from strangers, but I hope I can expect that from my friends.

If you care about me, you won’t want to conquer me or possess me – you’ll want to protect me and honor me.

Innocence is not ignorance. Respect the path I have chosen; because it’s my body, my choice.

Yes, I’m angry.
Thank God, it is about darn time.

(Oh, and to my dear tuk-tuk driver… the police are looking for you.)

Jesus loves the little children… and their parents too

“Preparados, listos, va!” mi amiga Delia said just as a spoonful of manzana baby food hit me smack in the hollow above my clavicle, before being dragged slowly up my neck, around my chin, and – finally – into my mouth. Inches from my face stood an 8 year-old Guatemalan niña who was attempting to feed me while she was blindfolded and I was sitting on my hands. We did not win the game, to say the least. I ended up with manzana mash all over my face, neck, and even my lap. Yet, to see the unfamiliar gringa act like such a good sport was a good laugh for the room and made everyone more comfortable. In addition, my trial by manzana seemed to earn the respect of the elderly abuelita, sitting next to me in traditional garb at the baby shower of her granddaughter; the tiny woman continued to offer me warm smiles throughout the night, as she indicated the manzana stains on my pants, that would have been embarrassing under any other circumstances.

That evening on one of my first nights in Guatemala, in a small village near Antigua, we were celebrating something very important. A child was to be born.

Probably the most important thing that I have learned about the Guatemalan culture is that they love their children. Although I need a stronger word than love… adore? cherish? celebrate? Every morning here in San Pedro, I watch parents and siblings and abuelos heaping hugs and kisses upon the thing they prize most in life – their children. Back in Antigua, everywhere I looked children were on the shoulders of fathers, in the blanket cradles slung off the shoulders of their mothers. It seemed that laps were for sitting upon, hands were for holding, and shoulders were for riding.

I am under no idealistic assumptions that there is any culture that can ensure that every child is safe from neglect, and abuse, and hunger. However, the fact that children are so cherished in the countries I have spent time in, and especially so here in Guatemala, is important.

It is important because, as an American, I detected a note of unexpected visceral surprise several years ago when I left Los Estados Unidas for the first time and began to encounter this adoration of children in my journeys out of the States. We are taught, tragically, in America that the poor children of the world are our responsibility and we objectify their starving bodies on our televisions and posters in order to elicit the dollars that guilt induces. Without realizing it, years of seeing those commercials pass by my television screen had left a subconscious impact that all of my education and training in justice work had not eliminated. When I detected that visceral surprise for the first time years ago, I realized that there was a prejudice that had been implanted in my subconscious that I was not even aware was there.

We ought to feel guilt and conviction when we know that there are children around the world starving, as Lazarus starved at the gates of the wealthy man. However, our sense of conviction has been twisted. We tell our children that they need to eat all that is on their plate – because there are starving children in Africa – and we begin to implant from an early age the idea that the guilt we feel is because we have more, not because we have anything to do with the fact that they have less.

When we focus our attempts at assistance upon the imagery of children it is incredibly effective in prompting us to open our wallets; because just like adults in Guatemala, we respond strongly and reflexively to the needs of children. We have been biologically wired to do so. However, the other side of it is that when we focus on the imagery of children, without the visuals of the adults in their community that care about them, we treat them almost as if they are disembodied from the community that makes up their corpus. We also imply, subtly, that there is something insufficient about the adults in their life, and that we in our American beneficence, must supplement what is lacking in the other adults of the world. We implant the subconscious idea that the parents of the world – the mothers and fathers – are not capable, willing or loving enough and so we in our superiority have to take over. What is troubling is not that we want to help the situation – we ought to – what has been troubling me is that we are prompted to help the children rather than the parents.

Walking the streets of Antigua, during a time of processionals and alfombras, I saw many loving parents and children of every class and economic situation. Just as in America, I saw everything from wealthy Guatemalan business owners with their children in little suits, to women sitting on the sidewalk while their many children tried to help them sell Chiclas gum to passersby.

One image stayed with me more than any other, however. It was a woman who walked ahead of me through the Santa Catalina Arch near Iglesia de Merced. On her head she carried a tray of churros; with one hand she held it in place, and with the other, she gently but firmly grasped the hand of her son. At one point the tiny boy strayed too close to an alfombra and a woman harshly shooed him away. Their clothes were worn and tattered, and he was the perfect poster child for World Vision or Feed the Children. Someone indicated that they wanted to purchase what the mother was selling and the niño promptly positioned the stool that he was carrying so that his mother could put down the tray. She shifted the tray down from her head and the customer made their purchase. Then looking at him lovingly to ensure ‘todos bien,’ she hoisted the tray back to her head and they continued their journey, hand in hand.

I wondered how that mother would feel to see her son in a Feed the Children commercial. I wondered how any mother would feel, how any father would feel. I felt shame at the thought of them watching us watch their children on our televisions. It was an uncomfortable thought indeed.

I understand that, from a practical viewpoint, objectifying the poverty of children is the most effective way of eliciting the assistance that can make a difference in their lives. I want them to have that assistance. I want them to have their school fees paid, their books purchased, their food supplied. I want them to have a chance to build up the prosperity and peace of their family and community. I just wish there was another way.

What if appeals to partner in relationships of equality with the parents and communities were just as effective as appeals to support their children? What if we saw families that were struggling as a unit of loving and devoted people, rather than isolated needs? What would it do to us psychologically to recognize that the parents throughout the world are just as hard-working, well-intentioned, and loving as parents in Los Estados Unidas?

Perhaps what would be most effective would be to understand that many times the money that we send to children in other parts of the world has been earned in part through profiting from the resources and people of their nation in a way that is neither just nor Christian. America is a nation that often builds our products with the resources and labor force of other nations. Or, at other times, a nation that acquires an immense amount of possessions at a comparably low cost because corrupt systems in other nations have used their own people and resources to produce those products at an unrealistic cost compared to the labor that has gone into them, when viewed in the context of what would be a living wage by American standards.

Tracy Chapman calls this, “The rape of the world.”

Perhaps we are not giving “charity”, perhaps we are just giving back a portion of what we have taken away.

Here in the market today, vendors are selling and families are buying, those same products. However, unlike their state when we acquire them, these clothes and products have often first been used by Americans and come to the street markets in other parts of the world second-hand. And so we see people all over the globe wearing t-shirts just like ours; and we don’t pause often enough to consider what it means that those t-shirts are just like ours because they were ours first. Because we take first dibs on everything we see.

We need to imagine new ways of looking at the inequalities and needs of the world. We need to imagine and take action on methods that will empower rather than humiliate the parents of the world’s most needy children.

Because Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world – and he loves their parents too.

Family love during the procession of the nin@s in Antigua
Family love during the procession of the nin@s in Antigua
Mother holds the hand of her niño tight while they sell churros in Antigua
Mother holds the hand of her niño tight while they sell churros in Antigua
One of many happy moments for children in Antigua
One of many happy moments for children in Antigua
Children help their parents with the family alfombra
Children help their parents with the family alfombra
The procession of the niñ@s in Antigua
The procession of the niñ@s in Antigua
An alfombra, made with stencils, powder, plants - because you were wondering what that is
An alfombra, made with stencils, powder, plants – because you were wondering what that is

Climb Every Mountain

“¿Taxi, Amiga? ¿Taxi, Amiga?” As the words dripped down on me like a persistent drizzle of rain for the first half an hour of my hike up Volcano Pacaya, I could not help but feel that the man on the horse was taunting me. Everyone at the National Park near Antigua had their job. The children tried to sell walking sticks to hikers for 3-10 quatzales (depending on whether you knew how to barter – I got mine for 5). The women sold food or water to those about to make the trek. And this man, apparently, tried to weed out the weak hikers at the beginning of the hike, presumably so that things could move smoothly and safely for the rest of the time. Little did he know that with every drip of his words down on me, he made me less and less likely to be willing to take the horse he offered.

“He’s taunting us,” I said with a wink to the man beside me, who agreed that he was equally determined not to surrender. Unfortunately for him, within 20 minutes he had to give in, and I watched him pass by me, slumping in the saddle of the offered horse. In my case, on the other hand, the taunting drove me to the front of the pack – away from any question about whether I was going to give up (I’m not very good at giving up).

The guide for the hike knew that he had a group of 20 and 30 somethings, and he seemed to be determined to get us to the top and back in what can only be described as record time. The pace was unrelenting, but none of us wanted to be the one to ask for mercy.

When the guide reached under a hot rock at the top of our hike and slipped me the piece of silvery vulcanized stone he pulled out, I could only assume that I had earned some kind of respect. Some mountains are hard to climb, but some spirits are harder to break.

You cannot make it through a volcano, or a mountain, or a challenge without tenacity. The moments of “¿Taxi Amiga?” come as regularly as the phases of the moon. You see, the thing about mountains is that when you get to the top what you usually see is a breathtaking vista. But along with that beautiful view you are reminded of an ironic truth: there are many more mountains to climb.

So what do you do? Well, first you rest for a minute; because you sure earned it, and the view is a gorgeous reflection of God’s love for you.

And then? Then you climb the next mountain. Because you are neither the kind of person who gives up, nor the kind of person who takes the easy way out.

So, this morning, I woke up at 2:30 a.m. (yes, a.m.) and I hiked Volcano San Pedro, which made Volcano Pacaya feel like a walk around the block. It should have been a warning to me that Gloria, who was born in the shadow of Vulkan San Pedro, told me last night that she had only hiked it once in her life. Seeing as it was the most difficult physical thing I have ever done, I now understand why she only did it once. Six miles up from the edge of Lake Atitlan to the summit of San Pedro, with an extremely steep incline every single step of the way – prompting my pedometer to tell me that I had walked up the equivalent of 500 staircases by 6:00 a.m. (not stairs, staircases). I feel pretty certain as I write this that I will not be able to walk tomorrow. But I saw the sun rise over Lake Atitlan from the summit of San Pedro, and I saw a gorgeous reflection of God’s love for me.

Once again, throughout the entire hike, there was a voice behind me, but this time it had a tone of gentleness, compassion, encouragement and solidarity. “¿Consado?” my guide, a young man from the village, would say each time I paused in the 6 mile vertical ascent. “Si,” I would respond as we looked at one another understandingly. I made it to the top, every agonizing step, but this time, I did it because someone was behind me who believed that I could. What a beautiful, beautiful thing.

That word, “¿Consado?” stayed with me just as “¿Taxi Amiga?” had, and it brought up memories as well. It brought to mind my friend Rev. Carolene Brubaker, who is one of the strongest and gentlest souls I know. It brought to mind my friend Rev. Anna Layman Knox, who told me on my thirtieth birthday that she believes I can do anything I set my mind to, and every day I get to try to prove her right. It brought to mind all the people who I know are behind me, saying “Tired? I know it is hard. Step by step, poco a poco, we’ll get up it together.”

Friends, there are a lot of mountains in life to climb. Each one looks different, but they never stop coming. Learn, then, how to choose the right climbing partners. Or as one of my friends put it: “Stop being a Uriah.” When you go into battle, do it with people you can trust to have your back. You can certainly “climb every mountain, fjord every stream”, but you really do not have to do it alone.

When you find those friends, remember that your words have power. Try to be the kind of person who says the things that make people want to prove you right, not the things that make people want to prove you wrong.

Getting hot near the top of Vulkan Pacaya
Getting hot near the top of Vulkan Pacaya
Horse Taxis at Vulkan Pacaya
Horse Taxis at Vulkan Pacaya
Horse Taxis at Vulkan Pacaya
Horse Taxis at Vulkan Pacaya
Sunrise over Volcano San Pedro
Sunrise over Volcano San Pedro
Sunrise from the summit of Volcano San Pedro
Sunrise from the summit of Volcano San Pedro

Growing up is hard to do

“Ella quiere beber leche de peche,” Gloria said to me, glancing over at me with her usual gentle smile. Her nieta was having a hard day, pulling at her mother’s clothes and resisting the bowl of food in front of her. Then turning her big beautiful baby eyes (a color difficult to identify, maybe hazel or purple) pleadingly on her grandmother Gloria, the baby gave it one last shot. Eventually her mother relented, explaining that the baby had a stomach ache. All was well with the world again as she climbed into her mother’s arms to bebe leche de peche.

“En Estados Unidas nosotros llamos este tiempo ‘weaning’,” I tried to explain in my beginner’s Spanish to the family I was living with during my time in San Pedro. I am pretty sure they thought I was trying to say the baby was whining, but that was close enough I guess.

I thought about the scripture that speaks of weaning, that says that the time comes spiritually as well as physically when we must grow up and stop drinking baby’s milk and start to feed ourselves. We fight it; we whine; we cry; but we never grow up if we don’t do it.

Growing up is hard to do.

Feeding ourselves is hard to do. The discussion of that verse and spiritual food often devolves into what type of food we are to feed to others or be fed by others. But at the end of the day, isn’t growing up about learning to feed ourselves? Learning what it is that feeds us? Learning how to be healthy and whole?

Learning to eat is just as much about learning what to say “no” to putting in your mouth as it is learning what to say “yes” to eating. Walking around the streets of Guatemala, either here in San Pedro or back in Antigua, the most frequent phrase out of my mouth is “No, gracias… No, gracias… No, gracias.” Blonde hair, friendly blue eyes and a traveler’s backpack are like a huge glowing “Abierto” sign to those who are working hard in honest jobs to feed their families. And so it goes, “¿Pan con banano?” – “No, gracias.” – “¿Mango, linda?” – “No, gracias.” – “¿Tortillas?” – “No, gracias.”

For those that sell the food, the cost is sunk. Whether they make a big profit, or a small profit, or no profit from the wares that they sell, the quatzales they can receive will feed their families a small meal or a large meal that night. For me, my money is little and getting less every day, and I know Gloria will have una comida waiting for me at home. So as often as I am able, as much as it pains me, it has to be a “No, gracias.”

This year I have been given two pieces of important advice by my mentor, the Rev. Melinda McConly, about growing up. Both of them involve the word “No.” Thankfully, for once in my life, I have been taking her advice and abiding by it very strictly. Which, considering the fact that I’m not great at taking advice, may be the surest sign of my growth.

The first piece of advice was to say “No” – not to learn to say “no” – simply to say “no.” So many of us spend our lives “learning to say no”, in other words telling other people that we are learning to say “no” while never ever actually doing so. This can go on for decades of our lives, if not interminably, and is one of the greatest sicknesses of leaders in the church. “I am learning to say no” is something that people with no boundaries can say while continuing to make themselves the burnt-out “saintly” servants of all. People who are “learning to say no” can often be the best people to get to say “yes” when you need something. Like those who are “trying to stop smoking,” those who are “learning to say no” are trying to resist while desperate for a fix.

When offers began to come in within days of resigning from a job that, quite honestly, fractured my heart, my mentor said to her vacillating colleague, “Why don’t you just stop.” Under any other circumstance, I would not have had the strength to break the addiction to “yes”, or had the courage to live the life where “no” meant a journey into the unknown. But I knew she was right. I had been working since I was 12 years old, serving the church since I was 18 years old, and consumed with the kenosis (“self-emptying”) of Philippians 2 since I was 20. It was time to say no.

Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn in life is that every “yes” is a “no” to something else; and every “no” frees us to say “yes” to something more important.

I was no longer “learning to say no”, I was actually saying “no.” To everyone. To some pretty amazing people. To some of you. It was hard, but it had to be done.

My journey of “no” had enabled me to say “yes” to volunteering for two months on the island of Eleuthera, and allowing my beautiful friends there to do first aid on my soul; it had enabled me to say “yes” to searching the States and listening for guidance and for the voice of God; and now it had brought me to a small Mayan town on the edge of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. I was there so that I could learn to say much more than “Si” or “No” to nuev@s amig@s I encountered in Estados Unidas, and Gloria y su familia were helping me to learn.

“Gracias!” I said to Gloria, as I got up from the lunch table. “Buen provecho!” she and her daughter responded. “Hasta luego, bonita bebe,” I waved at the pequeña niña as I went out the door.

Taking a piece of paper with me, I trotted down a dirt path. I was working on drawing a map of San Pedro and trying to figure out where mi casa was amongst the maze of unmarked alleys and dirt footpaths that traced through the homes of the town. Finally finding a cafe with internet, I settled in to let folks know I was alive, and as I did, I overheard another young searcher at the next table.

“My mother said to me, like, ‘Just so you know, I have no attachment to your name. Like none. At all. So change it if you want.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I never thought about it before, but, like, what would I change it to. I can’t think of anything, so I guess I’ll just leave it. I don’t know.”

Growing up is hard to do. And confusing apparently. And I was grateful not to be at that stage of growing up.

I am at a different place in my journey than most people I come across. Or perhaps I am just different. I stick out like a sore thumb in this place, in amongst locals and the hippies and backpackers. In my traveling clothes, I look different both from the Mayan women in traditional shirts and skirts, and the hippies in hemp pants and dreadlocks. For half a minute I was considering which costume to adopt.

And then I remembered the other important piece of advice that Mindy had given me. It is okay to say, “No, that is not who I am. Let me tell you who I am.”

Being different, I have had a lot of people along my journey this year very eager to help me “find myself.” It is as if each person looks at how I am different from them, and assumes that the destination of my journey is to arrive at where they are. Therefore, the things I have not experienced are inadequacies and innocences that need to be overcome and eliminated. Wanting to help, they try to expose me to experiences that I may not want to be exposed to, on the way to a destination where I may not be headed. Sometimes it has made me sad, sometimes it has made me frightened, sometimes it has made me mad.

When I asked Mindy what to do about this dilemma, she told me to be comfortable being who I am and telling people who I am. Being who I am is not a judgment of who they are, it is just that I have a right as well to be my own person. I may be on a journey of discovery, but that does not mean I do not know who I am. I do not need to allow others to live vicariously by trying to take control of my journey. Hearing the confused girl in the cafe, trying to decide whether to change her name so her mom could feel like a truly enlightened parent, really helped that hit home.

I do know who I am. Like the Estados Unidos and this beautiful land of Guatemala were 600 years ago, I am not a land waiting to be discovered. I am already populated. My soul is already full of identity, will, hope, and boundless strength. I have no need to be discovered, explored and colonized by those who do not understand my history, honor my present, or respect my future. I existed long before explorers found me; I had my own gifts, resources, and contours; I had my own sources of living water, my own sense of the sacred, and my own traditions to honor.

I know who I am. I do not want to be someone else. It takes strength to say that. It takes strength to say “no” to those who would take control of your journey and colonize your identity.

Thankfully, I have strong women in my life that set that example. Women who give me very good advice. And, thankfully, I am finally taking it.

En mi escuela, Casa Rosario
En mi escuela, Casa Rosario

Words were meant to be Spoken

“Pato. Duck.” She taught me, as I repeated it to her delight and we fell giggling against each other on the deacon’s bench in my mother’s living room. It was my first and my favorite Spanish lesson. We were five years old, and we were the very best of friends. To my little literary mind she was the Diana to my Anne of Green Gables, the Jane to my Elizabeth Elliot, and the David to my Jonathan. When she moved away, she would leave an imprint on my heart of such devoted love that it would take a good decade before anyone could come close to the legend of Nina in my mind.

Over time I would pick up other words and phrases here and there. “Pato,” which humorously held such power over me throughout my childhood, would be replaced by words whose power was rooted in meaning rather than memories. Phrases like “La vida es la lucha,” whose force would hit me like a bucket of cold water to the face when those palabras opened to me the powerful truth that life is not about escaping struggle but engaging it. Phrases like “Vaya con Dios,” that millions have heard from the lips of priests with varying internal responses.

“Vaya con Dios,” indeed. “Vaya con Dios,” the words I had worn on a ring given to me by a couple at the first church I pastored. “Vaya con Dios!” the last words from my brother-in-law Jorge as I boarded a plane to Guatemala this morning to continue the journey that the word “pato” began. “Vaya con Dios…” the words that I fervently prayed I had the courage to live out as I left behind family and friends for more than a month to journey alone. “Vaya con Dios.”

I have been collecting beautiful Spanish phrases my whole life long. The problem is that like many collections of beautiful things, they become somewhat ironic when not put to their intended use. Like the collector acquiring, as time goes on, more and more beautiful specimens of stamps or cars or stones, I have transitioned my collection from words about farm animals to words about God. I have treasured the words, and admired the words.

But words are not meant to be curated, words are meant to be spoken. I don’t want to polish them and preserve them like artifacts. Unlike stamps and books and baseball cards, words don’t become less valuable with wear; they become more beautiful and powerful when they are used well.

I do not know how to use my words, to speak all the beautiful specimens and sentiments in my head, but I will learn.

I am weary of the privilege of my language, the language of the modern empire, that expects all the world to learn it and speak it, while we do not learn the heart languages of others.

One would think that the more languages a tongue bears, the heavier it becomes, but the reverse is true. The more words one puts to use the lighter the tongue flies, converting each syllable from collector’s curios to communal energy.

At this moment, as I fly on a plane over borders and lines, I once again traverse the man-made boundaries and walls that mar and divide the face of God’s one creation. I once again do so with the full knowledge that whatever struggles and obstacles lie ahead of me, the risk that I am taking to cross this border is minimal and the hospitality that I will find on the other side is almost guaranteed. As I cross this border with only the belongings that I can carry on my back, I do so with the full knowledge that there are others doing likewise – crossing in the opposite direction at the risk of their lives to reach Los Estados Unidas.

I risk very little to be a citizen of God’s world; I risk very little to say “the world is my parish”; I risk very little because I carry national privilege between a folded piece of blue cardboard in my backpack. This month, as we watch the lines being painfully redrawn in Crimea, I recognize that I too come from a country that has historically taken up the sword and the pen to draw lines on the face of the earth that others must obey. And while I may claim the identity of the Irish, a people that “have never been free,” I still benefit from the actions past and present of my nation, as it stumbles forward on the world stage, attempting to balance ethics and profit and all too often lurching into the latter at the expense of the former.

I risk very little as I enter this country tonight with nervous excitement, to experience and enjoy and learn, with the full knowledge that people are dying on their way into my country while hoping for the same things.

I do not have all the answers, but I know that I sure as heck need to be able to say more to them than “pato” when they reach my side of these man-made borders. If I want to live in a world that uses words to heal rather than to harm, than I have got to broaden my vocabulary. I have got to take my words off of the collector’s shelf and have the courage to use them, not only in the cause of compassion, but also in the cause of justice; not only in the cause of hospitality, but also in the cause of solidarity; not only in the cause of teaching, but also in the cause of learning; not only in the cause of giving, but also in the cause of receiving.

Thankfully, I carried with me more than one sheaf of papers fixed between folded cardboard. In addition to the small blue folder with United States of America stamped on the front, I carried a small bundle of paper and words and heart and truth fixed between a folded piece of simple brown paper. As I turned the pages in seat 26B my heart fell and then soared as I made my way through UP NEXT: The Epistemic Power of Spoken Word Poetry. In this small volume by Erica Granados De La Rosa, “hot off the presses” as it were, there was contained the story of the Spoken Word, the power of the Spoken Word.

As Granados De La Rosa shared in Chapter IV, “Spoken Word as Spiritual [Art]ivism,” about her own journey from the oppositional perspective to the non-oppositional spiritual activist perspective, I had one more of those flashbulb moments in life when something changes inside. My breath caught in my throat as she wrote of the oppositional perspective, painful memories flooding in and choking me; memories of feeling pushed away and trapped on the other side of the oppositional border by how I was born. But then my eyes widened as her words tore that wall down, and freedom flooded in as she wrote of discovering the nuances and complicated identities that each of us possess and carry and can share through the Spoken Word.

I sat blinking, as someone who had found what they were seeking at a moment when they were not looking for it. Healing. Freedom. Courage. Inspiration. That is the power of Words.

The written word – my first love – and the Spoken Word are the most powerful tools at our disposal for creating the world of peace and justice that God desires. Words are what we are; when accompanied by action, they are how we show who we are.

All of this brilliant, beautiful world was cast into view when God emitted the Spoken Word, “Let there be light!” And as we lived and breathed and spoke in this beautiful word, God could not resist becoming a part of the conversation. So the Word become flesh, and walked amongst us, and spoke amongst us, and listened amongst us. Just as the poet at the open mic, the Word made flesh chose to become weak and vulnerable and honest for us, so that we might know truth and love and justice. The Word made flesh was the most powerful thing our world has known. The Word said to a woman, “Go and tell!” – and those of us with the courage to obey have not shut up since, though it has meant torture or death for many who came before us.

The Word is not meant to be curated, the Word is meant to be spoken.

They say that you will know that you understand a language when you know when laughter is the right response and when tears are the right response. I am not here in Guatemala to add more beautiful Spanish word specimens to my collection. I am here to learn when to laugh and when to cry – and when to snap – so that I can do both when the Word is Spoken.

On a warm day twenty six years ago, a little tow headed girl laughed herself silly on the hard wood of an old bench, next to the best friend she felt sure she would ever know. If I could experience such deep love through the word “pato” used so very well, how can I not long to use words like Dios y lucha y vida to share that love with others.

The Word is meant to be Spoken.

Mi hostel in Antigua
Mi hostel in Antigua

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