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Let the Children Lead

IUCC Guatemala Trip – February/March 2012
Reports from Members of Irvine United Congregational Church
On a Week Spent Building Stoves, Immersing Themselves in a New Culture and Studying the Needs of Students at San Bartolome School in San Andres Itzapa

(Yvette Hill with family which received a stove)

Let the Children Lead by Yvette Hill

     As she stood up to address the children gathered to bid us goodbye, I could see her eyes fill with tears.  The outpouring of love and gratitude they showered upon us during this quaintly formal ceremony – where their small, scrubbed hands presented us with a beautiful tapestry woven by the parent of a former pupil and then carefully served us coffee made from organic beans they had grown at the school – was poignant and achingly beautiful.  But still it startled me that a fifteen year old hip American chick could be so overcome by the unsophisticated, albeit theatrical, gestures of Guatemalan tweens.

     As we watched her struggle for words to convey not just reciprocal gratitude, but the totality of what this week meant for her, I think most of us found our tears coursing right along with hers.  Here was a young woman touched so deeply that one could see her very spirit had been altered.  This will be a different person who returns home to California from the bright-eyed, socially-savvy teen who left, I think.  Her heart will be softer; her hand will extend more readily to those around her; her ears will be  more finely attuned to those small clues that inform us of another’s need.  And again I am reminded of how much we gain in spiritual growth and appreciation for our blessings by venturing out of our comfort zone to engage with our far-flung neighbors here on this small world. 

     Watching the group of “youth”  (I use term broadly, as they ranged in age from 15 to 26) interact and express themselves during our weeklong stay In San Itzapa de Andres was one of the more profound blessings of the experience for me.  Granted, I probably come from a slightly skewed perspective, given that most of my professional career was given over to work with severely emotionally disturbed children.  The majority of my interactions with youth groups in past decades were fraught with diffusing anger, providing a safe container for feelings of self-loathing, and trying to channel aggressive outbursts into better expressions of fear and anxiety.  But still, these kids were amazing.

(Students gathered to say goodbye)

     They bonded quickly and easily, despite half the group not knowing each other prior to the trip.  There was no fighting or pouting or adolescent arm-crossing, no cliquing or gossiping or intentional ignoring.  They listened attentively as Carlos spoke at length in Spanish (and Elizabeth translated every five minutes or so!) about building the school, trying to keep it funded and the constant struggle of the students own lives.  But when an intuitive grandmother finally suggested that they be released to play with the school children, they burst out the doors running, gathering kids in their wake, and were soon engaged in a spirited game of soccer in the dirt between two makeshift goals.  No matter that the skin colors and body types and clothing and lifestyles were so markedly different; the universal language of play united them in an indistinguishable mass of laughing, teasing, energized children. 

     Most of their experiences were more sobering, however.  A Lutheran Bishop who had been jailed as recently as 2010 because of his advocacy for the Mayan people came with two of his daughters to speak about the tireless struggle of these people to gain some voice in their government.  They talked with a young woman not more than 18 or 19 years old, who took a bus at 4:30 each morning to be at the school by 7:00am, where she taught all day before taking another bus to the next town over at 5:00pm to attend law school until 11:00pm.  As they walked the dirt-packed streets of town, mud-spattered children with tangled hair and missing buttons toting toddlers or babies on their backs would follow, shyly smiling, grabbing for their hands.  In the market stalls, four and five year olds were sent out with baubles and bright tapestries draped over them to pull on their sleeves: “Please buy, please buy, only one dollar.”   They dodged skeletal dogs with protruding ribs and visible back bones which snaked through the garbage-strewn alleys and rivers looking for food.  They oohed and aahed over the handiwork of Everilda’s nine-year old daughter, who has learned to weave tapestries so that she can help pay her tuition and keep attending school. They helped assemble primitive stoves in dirt-floored houses with cinderblock walls and corrugated tin roofs, where eight children and their parents shared one bed in a room the size of a California closet.  Knowing it could make them sick, they still graciously partook of the cut fruit offered them in gratitude for their help, swatting away the flies that inevitably teemed and gathered.  

     Our nightly reflective gatherings were centered around really tough questions about poverty; the centuries-long after effects of European subjugation; the role of the church in the suppression of women; how free trade and tourism play out in third world markets; why governments do not always facilitate the best interests of their own people.  These are issues we adults grapple with, argue about, study, meditate on and sometimes, because they’re too overwhelming and unanswerable, put aside and ignore.  For the first few days, the youth were mostly silent, obviously stunned and disoriented.  But then, at first tentatively and then more assertively, they were voicing their concerns and questions and observations and opinions, not expecting but still somehow surprised that we adults could offer no summary replies.  For many of them, I suppose, this might have been their most intimate exposure to such blatant inequality, generational hardship, and the oppressive effects of social injustice.  

     I asked my own daughter to accompany me on this trip and I am so thankful that she accepted.  One of my biggest regrets as a parent was my failure to provide her with a spiritual home, a place where she could have been grounded in the lessons of human interdependence and communality.  Because of my negative experiences with doctrinal authoritarianism and empire-building, male-dominated conglomerates masking themselves as “religion,” I left the church of my childhood and never looked back.  But this past week, I got to look again through the uncluttered, ingenuous eyes of young people, both Guatemalan and American.  I saw how much our children will be asked to answer for, how deeply the problems of the world will weigh upon them, how unprepared many of them might feel to address the global ills that adults continue to foster and perpetuate.  I felt how much the support and nurturance of our church community is needed, both by the poor and by those of us with the ability and opportunity to be of service.

     I commend you parents, especially, who make the leap of faith to expose your children to these troubling questions and issues.  You obviously believe in your children, in their good intentions, their intelligence, their resilience, their humanity.  You probably are the source of their most important values and ethics so far.  God bless you for your perseverance, your courage, your example.  You are parenting amazing children who are gaining such valuable awareness and the guts to not turn away from what makes them uncomfortable and confused and sad.

     Last Sunday my daughter and I attended my father’s 70th birthday.  Whenever our family gathers for more than hour, talk inevitably curves into the political arena.  Maybe it’s the Scots-Irish in us, but we just can’t seem to avoid a good argument.  Usually it’s me, the raging progressive of the bunch, lifting the flag for social justice, political reform, and environmental ism.  This time, though, I was surprised.  Rhiannon, my daughter, engaged my libertarian parents in a spirited debate about American consumption, global resource hegemony, and our national tolerance for the economic inequality and social injustice this engenders.  I love my parents deeply; however, their perspective on third-world poverty has been mostly constrained to the view from the window of a tour bus, the tenth floor patio of a hotel, or the deck of a cruise ship. As I watched her become more and more animated, I realized that Guatemala had followed her home, was sitting right next to her there at the table, had become an indelible part of who she now was.

     She finally interrupted my mother, hands shaking, eyes watering, and mouth trembling: “Grandma, you didn’t TALK to these people, you didn’t visit their homes, play with their children, see where they lived.  If you DID, you would see what I mean, you would understand what I do now.”   The room grew suddenly silent.  My mom put her arms around my daughter as she cried.

     Let the children lead, I say.

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