My Guatemala Journal

Friday, August 11, 2006 —From Libertyville to Guatemala City

My mission for this journey to Guatemala is to conduct community development workshops for Play for Peace. Play for Peace is a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering harmony in areas of conflict or destitution by developing leaders within that community, who will work towards promoting cooperation and communication between adults, teens, and children. They operate not only in Guatemala, but internationally, with projects in India, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, South Africa, North America, and—most recently—Germany. My mentor and dear friend, Bill Lofquist, is a nationally recognized expert in community development. His methodology, which we will be teaching, is remarkable for its simplicity.

He has used it with people of all ages. Sarah Gough and Andres Armas, the Play for Peace representatives, are eager to learn a new way to increase their program’s effectiveness in changing community conditions. For Bill, this will provide a perfect opportunity to test his method in another culture. We both have come as volunteers.

My journey began with a challenge. Terrorists had been arrested at Heathrow Airport in London the day before I was to leave Chicago, affecting airport operations everywhere. That meant I had to arrive at Midway Airport by 3:00 am for my 6:30 am flight to Atlanta. Several angels were instrumental in helping me get there. Judy Condren drove me down to Chicago on Thursday night so that I could stay overnight with Andi and Al Tauber. Andi was willing to awaken at 2:00 am to drive me to the airport. A long line had already formed at the Delta counter. I was told that my flight was delayed due to weather, meaning I would miss my connecting flight to Guatemala, the only one that day. Fortunately, the counter attendant suggested that I list my name as a standby on an earlier flight which was already fully booked. I figured I had nothing to lose. Hooray! There was room for me.

I brought with me a journal called Interreligious Insight in which I discovered an apt quotation from Brother Wayne Teasdale:

The best spirituality is both an interior cultivation of the mind and heart and an exterior application in public life of values and ethical dreams. It is a commitment to prayer and meditation and to bringing about change for the sake of a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world. No longer is spirituality a flight from "the alone to the alone." My flight will not be taking me "from the alone to the alone"—Guatemala will be a place of engaged spiritual action.

1:00 pm—in Guatemala City

As I was waiting in baggage claim to pick up my suitcases—a very slow process—a Guatemalan woman whom I had chatted with at the Atlanta airport asked me to hold her baby girl while she pulled her bags from the line. I asked her again—"Me?"—and she said, "Of course." An act of complete trust with a stranger.

Sarah and Andres were waiting outside for me with big grins and hugs all around. My first meal was at Wendy’s! Sarah, who is pregnant, said she could trust the food quality and preparation. I guess there are some good things about U.S. chains. Guatemala City is a bustling place with all the corporate features of home—Office Depot, McDonalds, etc. I saw many people talking on cell phones, which are much more affordable than land lines here. Heavy, brightly colored buses with names like Josefina or inscriptions like "my difficult woman" blasted their horns to get through crowded streets. Ayudantes (assistants), young men, hung out the front door in a risky position, to guide traffic away from the buses. We saw pickup trucks packed with people standing and holding onto a bar for stability. No helmets on motorcyclists either. I held my breath watching and praying for the people in traffic.

The hilltops are reserved for the wealthy class while the poor gather at the base of the hill. I saw women and children collecting firewood, a primary source of energy, and carrying large logs on their heads on head cushions. As we passed, one woman shot an angry glance at me as if to say, "Why should you be riding when I must work this hard to survive?" As we rode along, Sarah reported the evidence of social disintegration in the country as a result of the 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996 with a peace accord. More people are dying now than during that time. Kidnapping, rape, murder, and dismemberment are commonplace occurrences, she reported. Yet when I see the people of Guatemala I am deeply impressed by their peaceful and friendly faces. This is truly a land of contradictions.

We stopped by CECI (the Canadian Centre for International Studies and Cooperation), which hosts Play for Peace in Guatemala, to say hello to the staff. Ana DeMendez, the director, is a wonderful, warm presence and highly committed to her work. She and the rest of the staff are Guatemalan. Sarah and Andres are considered the equivalent of Peace Corps volunteers. I overheard them speaking about a Play for Peace facilitator, 16 years old, who had been abducted a few days prior. He was simply snatched off the street in an unmarked car, probably the police, because he was suspected of gang activity. Ana said that this type of police action is "business as usual." She promised to investigate the matter further. (Later she discovered that the boy was given a 3-month jail term without due process, as far as I could tell.)

Everywhere in the city I saw billboards of a handsome, stern general running for president in 2007. His message is to "urge a firm hand" with delinquents. CECI’s mission is to find a way to reduce delinquent behavior without using violent tactics. Here is where Play for Peace comes into the picture. Youth violence and the drug trade are invasive across Central America. The Colombian drug traffic runs through Guatemala because the government is too weak to stop them.

At last, San Jose Penula!

Sarah and Andres live on a farm outside this small town. The farmhouse is brown adobe with a tile roof and sits on the side of a hill overlooking gently rolling mountains. Bougainvillea and bottle brush plants provide splashes of red and purple to the canvas. Overhead are towering conifers, which occasionally shed spiky leaves and heavy cones. Four large Labrador retrievers raced out to greet us, along with a pet lamb and ram. Andres and Sarah love their animals. We enjoyed a quiet time overlooking the sunset and the mountains while eating bread and cheese. Later we shared a simple meal of yogurt, fruit, and grains. I fell asleep easily at the end of my first day.

Saturday, August 12—International Youth Day, San Jose de Pacul

The much-anticipated gathering of Play for Peace teams from all around the country was held today in Pacul, a rural village about one hour from Guatemala City. We traveled through lush country where agrarian reform apparently succeeded. Many small plots of corn, beans, cabbages, and other crops dotted the hillsides. I could see children planting seedlings while farmers hoed well-established crops. The children were smiling and well fed in this village.

Winding down a rutted road, we arrived at a beautiful white stucco Catholic church decorated with angels, saints, and stars. The road is on a rim overlooking a deep bowl, and down below we saw the soccer field and community center. Youth began arriving in the "chicken buses" (buses that carry various cargo on their roofs, including live chickens for the market) from many provincial towns and barrios—city neighborhoods. The field began to fill up with teenagers dressed in every style, from hip urban attire to traditional colorful textile skirts.

La Reina, a beautiful local queen, greeted us in her tiara and sash. Beauty pageants are very popular everywhere in Guatemala, I was told.

Inside the community center Soraida, the college intern who conducts Play for Peace in Pacul, was busy organizing for the day. Play for Peace hosts 20 projects across the country led by Guatemalan interns from the University of San Carlos. Nearly all of them participated in the event except for the group from Mesquital, where the teen had been abducted a few days earlier. Their young people were afraid to leave their houses to attend the festival.

Colorful circles of mixed groups of indigenous and urban youth began forming all around the field. For some of them this was their first experience of interacting with people different from them. The games could now begin. The Play for Peace facilitators (the college interns) began with get-to-know-you games like tossing a stuffed animal around while saying your name and then adding up to four more animals to increase the difficulty. Very quickly the ice was broken, and everyone was laughing. One of my favorite games was a lineup where each person put his right hand on the shoulder of the person in front while using the left hand to hold the left foot. In this awkward line everyone had to bounce in unison. Laughter was spontaneous.

They played hard until lunch was ready. Two guys drove up in a pickup truck and set up a gas grill inside the community center. We ate beans and rice with tortillas and hibiscus tea with sugar. Sarah told me that the cook was an architect who makes money on the side by cooking for events. He is also a dedicated supporter of Play for Peace.

The day ended with a large circle dance in the middle of the field. Everyone went home with an enriched image of their country and lots of new games to play to foster peace in their neighborhoods.

Sunday, August 13

Today I visited two Play for Peace projects in the barrios of Guatemala City. First we observed a small group of Catholic teens in a tourist campsite in Barbarena. Bessy and Freddy, the coordinators, engaged in cooperative games and then reflected about their experience in Pacul. They admitted to feelings of curiosity and discomfort because they had never before mixed with indigenous people. Their class is called Ladino, which refers to a mixture of Spanish and Mayan culture, as well as to their educational status. The youth were eager to continue their Play for Peace activities as a result of the festival experience.

In the early evening Andres, Sarah, and I set out to visit a Play for Peace project in a paroquile (a Catholic parish church) in Villa Hermosa. For the first time, we passed a shantytown where the houses were constructed of corrugated metal. Some had porches and flowering plants. Others were rather desperate-looking windowless enclosures. Somehow the people have created neighborhoods in the midst of poverty. They are self-organizing.

As we continued driving, the condition of the houses improved. In my mind I began comparing the culture of these middle-class barrios to South Louisiana, where I was born. Small, intact communities share a heritage and language that is cross-generational. The feeling I had was one of openness and friendship. Everyone in the barrio, young and old, was on the street buying things from the tiendas (small shops) and talking with one another. Such friendliness is rarely seen in the Midwest, where everyone is encapsulated in a car.

When we arrived at the Catholic Church, which was at the end of a cul-de-sac, we found crowds of people dressed in their Sunday best crammed inside. I could hear and recognize Gregorian chants from the old Latin mass, as well as more familiar hymns from the modern liturgy. The church was the centerpiece of the neighborhood. People embraced and kissed me on the cheek as they greeted me. They offered intimacy even to a stranger.

Andres gathered a large group of young people and began conducting the Play for Peace games. They wore fancy jeans and responded to their cell phones just like U.S. kids. The boys were like gamboling ponies unable to settle down. When Andres began to facilitate the process afterwards in his quiet, gentle way, they all centered and listened to his instructions. The games create a framework for new learning, and the style of facilitation encourages self-reflection and change.

Suddenly the skies opened and rain poured down. The priest, carrying a large bag, arrived in our space followed by a pack of kids and parents. He started handing out candy to the kids. Was this payment for attending mass?

One of the teens approached to ask me a question. He spoke too rapidly for my limited Spanish, and we were both disappointed that I could not understand him. Later I was able to tell him that he looked a lot like my nephew Tony who is a professional comic in Chicago. He answered, "I am a comic too." Yes, I had noticed that he was the class clown. He kept teasing me about coming from Chicago. Sarah told me later that nearly all of those young teens have relatives in the United States. Guatemala’s refugees are filling our bowl like the rainwater that fell on Villa Hermosa that night.

A Workshop with Bill Lofquist

In one of the workshops using Bill’s methodology for community development, we asked the question, "What is happening now in your community?" Then the students divided into small groups to discuss their insights, both positive and negative. When we asked them to share their thoughts, they said that they were concerned about hygiene, health, and education. They spoke of the need for participation, communication, and responsibility in their community. They were a lively, committed group of young leaders with a passionate love for their community and country. When Bill asked them, "Is there any reason why you could not lead your community right now?" One young woman smiled and said, "I really like that question. Yes, we are leading right now."

Maurine Pyle

Maurine Pyle, a member of Lake Forest (Ill.) Meeting, is the field secretary for Illinois Yearly Meeting and a volunteer for Play for Peace.