What I Brought Home: Reflections on a Visit to San Juan Bautista, Zaculeu, Guatemala

Date posted: Wednesday 17 July 2019

Rain pounded on the roof of the open-sided Bombil Pek restaurant in Chisec as thunder clapped in bursts that made me jump. Around 4 pm on a June afternoon, I sat in the lush, tropical paradise of this retreat, reflecting on the three days I had just spent in Zaculeu, Petén in northern Guatemala. This was the first rain we’d seen during our trip, and I wondered if my new friends in Zaculeu enjoyed the promise of this overdue rain too. They needed it to grow the corn they depended upon for survival.


I also pondered what it was that I would carry with me as I returned to Minnesota and attempted to answer, with the brevity required to match the listener’s patience, "How was Guatemala?". My answer is no clearer now than it was on that early June day. What stands out are images that somehow capture some of what it means to travel six hours by air and another dozen by bus to form relationships with people I would otherwise never meet. Maybe these images will help those unable to make the physical trip engage their senses and form relationships with our companion congregation, too.


See tiny María, an elder in the community, clad in an apron and standing barefoot on the dirt floor of the community kitchen (what once was the church for the congregation of San Juan Bautista). She caught my attention to take a photo of her biting into a juicy mango after she had just presented an overflowing bowl of sweet mango slices for us to enjoy as we took a break from the intense, 100 degree afternoon heat. María led the work of the kitchen and exhibited a bright sense of humor. She also worried about the health of her husband, Nazario, and she worked to care for their 10-year-old granddaughter, Jaqueline, whose mother had gone to Mexico several years ago to seek work there.


Taste the salty tears of Pauline each time she spoke of the youngest of her six sons, baby Pedro, and the surgeries he had yet to face as he approached a year old. Pedro was born with his intestines outside his body, the same condition that led to the death of an older brother about six years earlier at age three. Pauline’s worry over her youngest son and the cost necessary to secure the medical care he needed, expressed itself in the tears that spilled forth each time she spoke of her son’s situation.


Feel the pull of “al otro lado”. This Spanish phrase, meaning “to the other side,” is the one commonly used to mean traveling across Mexico to cross the border into the United States. One member of the church family has recently left the community and made the dangerous trek to work in the United States. Another member, a young woman, has a father who left his wife and children to make that same trip a few months ago. An additional member of the community, a young man, considers joining his wife who has already left. He imagines finding work since none is available in the community and helping his parents afford some forthcoming medical bills. The women of the community chatted casually about “al otro lado” as I listened. They wondered if maybe they shouldn’t be the ones to go rather than always being the ones left behind to try and keep daily life going.


Hear the chatter of three generations of women and smell the cooking of the ever-present corn tortillas. The kitchen, with its dirt floors and its walls covered in plastic tablecloths to keep the wind from entering between the aging wooden boards, remained an active, busy place as the women made tortillas and prepared our food. I sensed an easy camaraderie among the women of varied ages. In some ways it was like the church kitchen at home! They showed us how to make tortillas or cut mango, and yet we couldn’t enter fully into their circle. More time, more listening, more presence would be required to really be one of this group.


Imagine engaging all your senses in the experience of what it means to partner with our congregation in Guatemala as I try to succinctly answer the polite inquiry of “How was Guatemala?”. Will this make the experience real for you, too?


– Andrea Schueler Valley
Our Savior’s Lutheran, Stillwater