“I invite you to enter into our collective pain.”
With these words, PhD student Joel Aguilar welcomed a group of 11 Redeemer students as they stood near an Egyptian-style pyramid, housing the remains of a leading family, in the General Cemetery in Guatemala City. It was a curious place to start the ten-day trip to Guatemala, run as a partnership between Redeemer University College and Resonate Global Mission. However, the group, led by assistant professor of ministry Dr. Ken Herfst, would return to those words again and again.
Guatemalans have often faced violence and social upheaval. The most recent armed conflict started in the 1960s and lasted nearly four decades. As Aguilar shared an overview of Guatemalan history, themes of socioeconomic injustice, racial discrimination, foreign intervention, gender violence and church disunity surfaced, with impact on the daily lives of Guatemalan people.
On the team’s first full day, they met with Fito Sandoval, a Pentecostal pastor who works for InnerCHANGE, an ecumenical order of missionaries working among the poor. Fito and his wife Nancy live in a corrugated metal shack in a slum settlement just outside the main Guatemala City dump. Each day, 10,000 people scavenge through the dump, looking for recyclables that they can sell.
After describing the scavenging process, Fito took the group through the narrow streets of the settlement, introducing a few of his neighbours. Originally from this slum, Fito was able to leave, get an education and a visa to the States. A powerful encounter with Christ brought him back to work in his old neighbourhood in a way that sought to dismantle the debilitating church disunity and build a life-giving community.
The trip gave students the opportunity to see the needs and strengths of urban contexts and encouraged intercultural encounters. The group took in the stunningly beautiful Lake Atitlán. A visit to San Pedro showed how a small town municipality has implemented a program to ban single-use plastics and chemical fertilizers. In Santiago, the group met with Juan Ajtzip, an indigenous community leader. In the parish church office, Juan would give a history lesson on the events and causes leading up to the Santiago massacre. But first, he introduced himself with striking words: “My name is Juan Ajtzip and I am a person. I belong to the Tzutuhil people.” Centuries of discrimination shape that simple but profound affirmation.
“We didn’t build any houses, paint any walls or run a VBS…Our purpose was to listen, observe, reflect together and then think of ways in which we might be able to embody the gospel of the kingdom wherever God has placed us.”
“In a sense, this was an ‘unmission’ trip,” Herfst reflects. “In fact, it was called a ‘vision’ trip. We didn’t build any houses, paint any walls or run a VBS. No doubt those projects have their place, but our purpose was to listen, observe, reflect together and then think of ways in which we might be able to embody the gospel of the kingdom wherever God has placed us.”
During nightly debriefings, remembers student Megan Andrews, “we did not only talk about what it would look like to enter into the collective woundedness, but we also asked what ‘Good News’ looks like in a place like this. A place where suffering is no stranger and struggle is all too familiar. A place where wealth, power and poverty create a cycle of hurting people who hurt others. How do we bring light into these dark places we find ourselves in?”
If Joel had invited the group into the collective pain at the beginning of the journey, it was perhaps Tita’s perspective that offered the deepest challenge.Tita works in La Limonada, one of Guatemala City’s most dangerous slums. We asked her about how she could continue to work in such a difficult, challenging place.Tita paused for a moment, then responded: “What makes me go to bed crying at night is what gets me up again in the morning.”
Joel, Tita and many others inspired students to join faithful followers of Jesus Christ in living the gospel with a much greater sensitivity and awareness of the complexity of the challenges that we and our world face.