Thursday, June 26, 2014

SAN LUCAS TOLIMAN, Pilgrimage continued...

   On Palm Sunday we headed south to the Province of Solola to visit the parish of San Lucas, Toliman.

The winding hillside road just outside of Toliman was blocked by buses.  The buses were transportation for teenagers at a regional retreat at San Lucas Toliman.  Parish officials estimated that there were over 2000 youngsters from the region attending.

   When we arrived at the parish of San Lucas we were invited to dinner in the parish hall.  We met two young women who volunteered at the parish.  They talked about the massive retreat that we encountered in terms that the ‘evangelists’ would use.  One, who graduated from the conservative Roman Catholic Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, was director of volunteers for the many parish projects. San Lucas had not experienced the devastation we saw in El Quiche, Espiritu Santo.

   The moving force behind the outreach of the parish was a priest from New Ulm, Minnesota, Gregg Schaffer.  He had remained neutral during the civil war, but had contacts in the government and was alerted when people in the San Lucas area were targeted.  “Father Gregg saved many lives by warning people of the government’s intentions,” we were told. Among many projects as a priest at San Lucas, he established a medical clinic, a school, a coffee project, a women’s center, and a reforestation center.  He asked his parishioners, what do you need?  Then he went to work.  Schaffer questioned financially desperate coffee growers how much they needed for their coffee in order to survive.  They told him, and he established a coffee cooperative to pay the requested prices to the growers. When peasants were thrown off the land, he bought large tracts of land for them to farm. A baby died in his arms and he responded by establishing a medical clinic.  Financial support came from pleas to faithful funders in the Minneapolis area.   Schaffer was a priest well versed in other world theology, but was basically a Minnesota pragmatist with a strong sense of survival and social justice.

   Gregg Schaffer died in 2012 after almost 50 years of ministry in Guatemala.  At San Lucas they are not sure that the projects he started will continue without him.


   San Lucas was a busy place preparing for end of the week rituals of Holy Week.  A companion and I went into the Church to observe the Holy Week activity.  I pointed out a piece of artwork on the inside wall of the Church.  It was a plaster representation of the Trinity – the triune God, a basic symbol of Christianity.  In the background was the Father with a black beard – very Spanish.  In front was a bird, perhaps a dove, (definitely not an eagle) and also in front, a crucified Jesus.  We asked what it meant.  A young man, who was working on a procession float in the middle aisle, responded. “That is God” he said.  “But then God is three,” I replied.  “No!”  God is one with three aspects, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” “Could a woman represent one aspect such as mother?” “No!” was the answer. 

   We let it go and looked at the float they were preparing.   The float was almost as wide as the middle aisle and about 15 ft. long.   At the head of the float was a large triangle (the trinity) with the ‘eye of God’ in the center.  At the rear was a boat carrying Jesus and companions, perhaps a reference to the storm on the lake.  (Matthew 8:23-27)   I did not want to strain the good will of the people by asking more questions, but I wondered if ‘the eye’ meant that God knew about the genocide.            

   The preaching in the Christian churches presents the Gospels as historical and confuses the mythical – theological with history.  The Holy Week processions in Guatemala seemed to do the same, but there is a difference in Faith and faith or belief in myth.  Scripture scholar, Jerome Murphy O’Connor, said the New Testament writers were not historians, but theologians who presented an understanding of Faith to particular audiences with their stories of Jesus. The accounts of the passion of Jesus differ and attempt to portrait who Jesus was and his mission.  If the passion stories have the character of a myth, what value do they have?  It could it be destructive; for example a cause of the holocaust.

   Since Vatican II Holy Week processions and passion plays have been carefully crafted not to portray the Jews as the executors of Jesus.  In the Holy Week ceremonies in Guatemala I did not see anything that characterized the Jews as the killers of Jesus.

   Rudolph Bultman and his German colleagues debated the issue of the New Testament as myth during World War II and immediately after the war.  In the series of essays, Kerygma and Myth, (Edited by Hans Werner Barisch, Harper, New York, 1961) the war and the holocaust are not mentioned.  Bultman’s original essay in German was published in 1941.  For Bultman, Faith is an existential affirmation that Jesus is Lord and requires radical commitment to the Lord.  Faith, according to Bultman, is between the Lord and me.

   Holy Week in Guatemala prompted me to ask:  is Holy Week there portraying Jesus’ passion and resurrection as historical fact, a myth to be believed?... or simply quaint pageantry for diversion?... or something more?  

Next Posting: Santiago Atitlan, Rev. Stan Rother – Martyr, The Peace Park.    

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Parish of Espiritu Santo in Zacualpa, Guatemala

 From the depths I call to you, Yahweh.                                                         Lord listen to my cry for help!                                                                            Listen compassionately                                                                             to my pleading.                                                          (Psalm 130)   

   The next station on our pilgrimage was the church and grounds of the parish of Espiritu Santo in the town of Zacualpa in the Department of Quiché.  Here we experienced remnants of the war which killed 200,000 people, mostly indigenous. A companion commented, “We were innocent of the story and it is graphic and startling; they walked us through.”

  Next to the church is a large white cross about twenty feet high.  The crossbar displays the word ‘MARTYRES.’ The church grounds, the equivalent of a convent cloister, were the site of massive killings of indigenous people by the military.  Prisoners were tied to trees – tortured and murdered.  The ‘Santa Cruz,’ the holy cross, became real.

    Some were murdered and tortured in the church itself.  Statues and all symbols of Christianity were destroyed.

   Photos framed on the wall of the ‘cloister’ passageways showed the project of exhuming the bodies for proper burial after the peace accords.

   We were led to a small room off the ‘cloister.’  This was another site for torture and murder.  Torture instruments were displayed on the wall.  The horror of the place came home when we were told that the black stains on the wall were blood stains. At a corner of the room was a life size wooden statue of a Mayan woman on one knee lamenting the desecration of humanity. She is a contemporary ‘mater dolorosa.’

   We then went to a small building with a dirt floor for a prayer service.  Attention was directed to a topped well now functioning as a ceremonial fire pit.  A Mayan woman as official spiritual guide conducted the prayer ceremony at the side and over the fire pit. 

The well itself is significant. The guide explained that not only were people murdered and tortured, but the bodies thrown into this well and two other wells.  She gave us wax candles of different colors representing the diversity of the universe; our candles were lit and eventually placed in the center of the fire.  The wax melting together symbolized the unity of the universe.  We prayed.  After the ceremony, our guide thanked us for listening and understanding that the civil war was not war, but genocide – a revelation for most of us.   

   I asked a Guatemalan colleague - member of Voces de La Frontera - if the killing of the indigenous was really racism.  Couldn’t war on the indigenous be simply economic?  After all, the indigenous are diametrically opposed to some neo-liberal policies.  He said, “Racism is ‘infundido’ (inherent) in the Guatemalan upper class.”  In the U.S., to the extent we don’t care to know or care what happened to the indigenous in Guatemala, we internationalize our own inherent racism. Survival of the fittest capitalism is an excuse for racism and genocide.

   Despite war, the parish of Santo Espiritu flourishes.  The building was filled with people preparing for Holy Week.  The church has been repaired and replenished with sacred images.  The trees where prisoners were tortured and murdered have been cut down and replaced, but the stumps serve as a reminder.  We talked to students taking classes in hopes of entering high school and college.   It seemed to me that the Christian myth survived the onslaught at Espiritu Santo, and now has a new respected partner in Mayan spirituality to build a just society.

                     Ch ‘ilom kolonton – my heart is a warrior*

*Laughlin, Robert, with woodblock prints by Naul Ojeda, Diccionario del Corazon, from a Mayan dictionary compiled in 1599 by a Dominican Friar - metaphors of the heart with the Spanish medieval translation and the modern Spanish version.  Taller Lenateros, San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico 2003.

Thursday, June 5, 2014


 Our next stop was visit to a Mayan spiritual guide.  An unusual opportunity was presented.  Would you expect a visit to a spiritual guide of a pagan religion on a tour sponsored by Roman Catholic Religious?  It was an opportunity to compare myths.  Do they compete with each other or are they complimentary?

They raped our mother earth
when they stripped the southern coast
and changed the ecological balance
planting cotton to produce capital
Instead of sacred corn,
which sustains our people.

(Julia Esquivel, “All Guatemala is Rigoberta Menchu,” The Certainty of Spring, Ecumenical Program on Central America, Washington, D.C. 1993)

   We were warmly greeted by the Mayan spiritual leader, his wife and his son at their home and worship center.  There was an open “patio” area, a small room for prayer and reflection and a large room for instruction or discussion.  The large room was equipped with a projector and a large screen.  On display were specially shaped and colored rocks considered sacred.
   The video and the talk emphasized the Mayan belief in the oneness of being.  Rituals are held outdoors in the temple of nature itself. For the Mayans all of nature is sacred without distinct differences in value, hence the objection to indiscriminate mining and cash crop agriculture for export.  Mother Earth is sacred.

   Despite the peace accords of 1996 the racist war against the indigenous continues. In 2012 seven campesinos we killed by government security forces.  The indigenous were protesting government policy.   The Mayans ask an important question about their future and the future of the planet: “What will happen if the megaprojects of neo-liberalism succeed?”  (Estudio Sobre el Impacto de los Megaproyectos en  Relaceion a los Lugares Mayas, Santa Cruz del Quiche, 2012)

   The spiritual guide and a colleague were open to discussion.  I asked, if you do not believe that Jesus Christ is God and the savior of all, are you able and willing to collaborate with Christians?  There was dialogue for clarification, and the answer was yes.  The crisis presented by the global neo-liberal policy on mining, energy production, and agriculture has prompted workshops, sponsored by the Mayans, on how to confront the crisis.  Workshops have included leaders from various communities – “Evangelicos, Catholics, teachers, women and young people.” (Ibid)

   Are women permitted to be spiritual leaders?  The answer was yes.  Our spiritual leader’s wife was also a spiritual guide. At a future stop we would pray with a female Mayan spiritual leader at the site of a terrible slaughter of indigenous people in the church and church yard of the Roman Catholic parish – Espiritu Santo.

      From the beginning ‘till now the entire creation, as we know, has been groaning in one act of giving birth; we must be content to hope that we will be saved….           (Romans C. 8,  vs  20 – 25)