It was the summer 1985 when I hopped off of the chicken bus in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala. I was just out of college, hopeful, and full of beautiful ideals. I was in Guatemala to study Spanish, explore the culture, and consider whether I might be called to some kind of ministry in a Latin culture. My life was laying out before me and I was on my first international trip. I was cheerful, but unsettled.
The previous year I had spent large portions of my spare time working at a women’s homeless shelter in Seattle, listening to Bruce Cockburn, and pouring through liberation theology like it was the cup of life. I was a shy, anxious, principled young woman, but seeking adventure, men, and authentic encounters with God. This specific part of my summer in Guatemala was really a culmination of a spiritual journey for me. Funny that graduating with a Theology degree can propel one into more wondering than prescriptions for life. I suppose this shouldn’t surprise us.
Previously that year, I had read a book by Henri Nouwen, called Love in a Fearful Land. It was the true story of Father Stanley Rother, a Catholic priest from Oklahoma who had become the pastor of the church of Santiago Atitlan. He was a peaceful, attentive man, but not in the public eye. He was a humorous, yet serious man, but wasn’t so sure about “liberation theology”. He was no Archbishop Romero.
Instead of making inflammatory statements, he layed low by setting up funds to support families of disappeared men. He began food banks. He wanted to care for and carry their frailties as he care for his people. For some reason I felt a kindredness with him. He seemed a little like me in ways, someone who loved easily and whose heart was easily broken by people’s pain, someone who strived to remain faithful to God, sometimes succeeding, mostly faultering. Aside from the whole “celibacy thing” he was really a pretty “normal” Christian like me – ministering in a difficult setting. He said things like: ‘praying is letting one’s own heart become the place where the tears of God and the tears of God’s children can merge and become tears of hope’
This was not an easy time in Guatemala. In 1981, Central America was coming out of major upheaval. Archbishop Oscar Romero had been assassinated in El Salvador in 1980, President Reagan was in office, and John Lennon and Anwar Sadat had been assassinated.Guatemala had been in a bloody civil war for two decade. Rios Montt had been abducted on US- war planes and the military leader Mejilla took his place. There were many military and paramilitary groups, and Guate was as restless as I was. Personally I had broken up with a serious boyfriend, and was looking for my first full time job in ministry..
Part of the reason I loved Rev. Stan, as he was called, was his imperfection. (Even then I was a proponent of “imperfectionism” – read here for that post.) When Rev. Stan discovered that his name was on a hit list, he did what many wise people who do. With the encouragement of many worried friends and paritioners, he had returned to Oklahoma. I wonder how he felt and what he thought about late at night, laying there in the safety of his home. He knew he needed to return and when he heard his name was off the hit list, he boarded a plane to celebrate the high holy day of Easter in 1981. He was relieved and hopeful.
But the violence wasn’t over. He watched his paritioners and friends abducted by the military, tortured, and assassinated, he witness his good friend and catechist, Diego Quic, yell out “Ayudame! Ayudame!” as his head was covered and he was tossed into a car. He stood over 17 civilians who had been murdered at a nearby coffee plantation.
As I walked up the road to the church, my heart was palpitating. I was aware of my surroundings as if the past might come running out the door in front of me. But I continued on until I found a caretaker who pointed to the room where he had been killed. I walked into his tiny room, with candles, crucifixes, an old photograph, and written prayer scribbled on bits of paper. I saw the corner where the blood lay and said, “Oh dear friend, I am so sorry.” And I wept. It was like sitting at the grave of a dear friend.
With a heavy heart I left the room, lost in my connection with this man. I walked around into the courtyard. Three black-eyed, bare-footed children began chasing a squawking chicken around – giggling and carrying on. I felt the impulse to join them. It was as if light had broken over me in their laughter.
I wish I could say that blessing comes in a sustained, overwhelming joyous sense of life – and that it is sure to “show up” when you “do the right thing”. But it sometimes comes in unexpected places; in unexpected moments; from unexpected sources. For me, at least, it usually comes in, through, and around the deepest of grief and wondering.
So today I will let go a little, remembering that the “whole catastrophe” of living, as Zorba the Greek says, is where we find ourselves blessed. And when are awake enough to recognize it, we are grateful.