A Little Space in Guatemala

(Amistad Newsletter.)

“We are not able to stop the killing, at least not now… So, we are simply trying to find a little space.  A little space to do something good, something peaceful, something life-giving for the people.  And we believe that God will work with that and multiply it… if we can open a little space…”  (Paraphrased portion of a conversation with a Maryknoll Sister in Guatemala during the 1980’s)


The killing in Guatemala began with the 1954 overthrow of the democratically elected and extremely popular government of Jacobo Arbenz, in a coup engineered by the CIA under President Eisenhower.  From the mid-1950s until the mid-nineties, more than a quarter of a million people- over 80 percent of them indigenous, and about 95 percent victimized by government-sponsored military and paramilitary groups- lost their lives to the violence.

In 1995 there were peace accords signed between the government and its main armed opposition, and this “opened a little space” for the people. A process of recovering the historical memory of these dark times was commissioned by the Catholic Church under the direction of Bishop Juan Gerardi, an undertaking which took three years and involved the investigation of over six hundred massacres.  Several of the investigators were assassinated.  On April 26th, 1998, Bishop Gerardi released the report, several volumes in length, entitled “Guatemala, Nunca Mas”.  Two days later, Bishop Gerardi himself was brutally murdered by military personnel in his garage at the church of San Sebastian.  In the decade since his death, Bishop Juan Gerardi has become widely recognized as a martyr, and a great symbol of faith and courage in the struggle for justice and reconciliation among the people of Guatemala.

Our visit to Guatemala from October 10-20, 2008, took place in this historical backdrop, among a people struggling to nurture the seeds of justice and reconciliation sown by Bishop Gerardi and so many more like him.  We came at the invitation of fellow Catholic Worker friends, Father Tom Goekler, Mario and Danilo Torres, and Carlos Flores.  They have opened Casa Juan Gerardi,  a tiny house of hospitality in Zona Diez, a barrio in Guatemala’s huge capital city.  The group began arriving there eight months ago from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where for eight years they had grown a very successful program of outreach to youth in the street (Jovenes en la Calle) and built dozens of houses for families who had lost their homes in the devastation of Hurricane Mitch.  For the Casa Juan Gerardi Catholic Worker, the work at hand thus far has been simply to build a presence, and they have done little during the past eight months besides live an intentional commuity life (common prayer and meals, work, study) and develop relationships with their neighbors. As for the coming year, they expect to move deliberately toward raising issues in the neighborhood- mostly focusing on confronting and reducing the violence- and to begin reaching out more substantively to people in need. [see p. 6]

The arrival of our group- Jackie and Ammon Allen-Doucot from the Hartford Catholic Worker, Cristina White (a student at Central Connecticut State University), Herb Turner, Justin Colville and I from the Amistad House- coincided with the beginning of a work project designed to expand the living space of the house of hospitality.  More importantly, this work brought together people who normally would not encounter each other, because of the social and psychological barriers inherent in the disparity between wealth and poverty in Guatemala.  The Casa Gerardi community is working to break down these barriers, to build a local movement among the poor that is oriented toward justice and nonviolence.  And so we soon found ourselves working side by side with campesinos, middle-class Guatemalans from a nearby parish and neighbors from Zona Diez.  We were all laboring to open a space- a physical space for people to gather and find one another.

For me, this was the highlight of a trip in which the Casa Gerardi Community showed us more of Guatemala in ten days than a seasoned tour guide could probably have managed in a month.  We saw all sides of Guatemala City, including an excellent school run by Maryknoll Sisters, the Church of San Sebastian (where Bishop Gerardi was killed), and a large municipal dump at which many families live and scavenge to survive.  We swam in the Pacific Ocean, drove through the mountains to Lake Atitlan, and celebrated the feast of St. Luke in a town of the same name, with a priest from Minnesota who has been serving there for forty five years. We toured the old city of Antigua.

Along the way, we seemed to be engaged in an ongoing clarification of thought meeting, with Father Tom incessantly challenging us to examine our consciences, our attitudes and our position in the world.  “Poverty means to have no options,” he reminded us more than once, “and we will never be poor, because we have options.”  To work effectively with the poor, he’d say, it is best to start with the conviction that poverty is my fault.  The violence and oppression in Guatemala is both a byproduct of a system that I benefit from, and a reality that I aid and abet with the choices I make.  To deny complicity in the oppression of the poor is to delude myself, and to ignore it is to refuse the grace of God that comes by way of repentance.

In short, we were not about to hit the airport with little more than a feel-good experience.  We were held responsible for what we saw and heard.  We were invited to put aside our own agendas and enter into a process of community building among the poor, a process in which we were neither the directors nor the main focus. And it was clear by the end of our stay that whatever work we were able to do was far less important than being present to, and in relationship with, the people of Zona Diez as they began to move together toward a more peaceful reality.  it is our hope to continue in colaboration with Casa Juan Gerardi and to be in solidarity with their ongoing struggle.

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