Giving Thanks

I can’t believe it, but Thanksgiving is already gone and Christmas is now just around the corner. I’m surprised that time has passed this quickly since I’ve come back from Guatemala, and I’m also surprised that this is the first blog post that I’ve written since my return in August. I’ve now been back home for over 3 ½ months, and can’t seem to track where the time has gone. Leaving Guatemala was extremely difficult, and the last week there was full of a rollercoaster of emotions that I hadn’t experienced in quite a long time. Not a day went by when I wasn’t both laughing and crying (and sometimes at the same time). Although it was painful to leave the place that I had called home for a year, it was also wonderful to know that my heart was hurting for people who I deeply love and who truly had become my family. Equally wonderful was seeing the 3 faces that I perhaps know and love best in all the world waiting for me at the airport and falling into an exhausted family hug, my newly acquired flu bug and my mom’s shoulder/arm brace and all.

By the grace of God, my transition into life back in los Estados Unidos has been pretty much as great as it could be. All of the circumstances that have come together up to this point have been touched by God’s hand, and it’s been humbling and wonderful to see the way that God is continuing to provide and pour grace, love and joy into this new period of my life. When I got back to Woodinville, my mom was in the first month of recovery from a shoulder surgery. She had very limited mobility in her right arm, and with my dad busy at work and school it was actually a blessing for me to be home during that time. I spent much of my first month helping out with things around the house and spending a lot of great quality time with my family.

Since I didn’t yet have a job I was also able to travel a bit and visit friends and family, including going to two weddings and the YAV re-entry retreat. These trips were also a huge blessing, allowing me to reconnect with family members and friends I hadn’t seen in over a year. Celebrating a cousin’s wedding and then the wedding of two of my college classmates were both wonderful times of joy. The reunion of many of my college friends at the wedding was absolutely awesome, since we all studied abroad together for 4 months in Central America and became a little family during that trip. Although I hadn’t seen almost all of them in close to a year and a half, we fell back into laughing and conversation as naturally as if we had been together for all of that time. It was also really great to share about some of my experiences in Guatemala with people who had already been there. Aside from my CASP friends, God also provided many people with whom I could share some of the most important and meaningful parts of my year, along with just goofy stories that would surface in my mind. Having a supportive community right from the start was a wonderful gift, and made me incredibly grateful for the wonderful friends and family that I have in the States, too.

The YAV retreat in Ghost Ranch, NM was also a great time to process, share, reflect, and think about how to integrate our experiences of the past year into our lives now. All of the volunteers who served a YAV year, whether nationally or internationally, came to the retreat, and we had 3 days to share, cry and laugh together. Before the retreat all four of us “Guat-girls” got together for a few days, which was a really nice way to go into the weekend since it was our first reunion in the US. The retreat itself was wonderful in many ways (especially the beautiful location and reunions with friends!), but also held a few unexpected challenges. During my time at Ghost Ranch I heard stories from people who had extremely challenging years and were still processing through a lot of hard stuff. This made me feel incredibly grateful for the richness of my year in Guatemala, but also made me mourn the brokenness that is so pervasive in our world (and sometimes even invisible or unnoticed in our own backyards). It also really made me admire some of my volunteer friends who stuck through situations where I might have been tempted to leave. Throughout all of our stories I saw different ways that God was at work in our lives and in the places where we were living and working. While this was extremely different for each person, and sometimes came through extremely hard circumstances, it was amazing to see the ways that God has and is continuing to shape us through those experiences. I left wanting to hold on tighter to the idea of God’s redemption, and also started to think more about how God might be using me for His purposes now that I’m back in Woodinville.

While I don’t know exactly what my next step will be, I do feel a strong sense of purpose in being home in Woodinville for this season. Since I’ve been home, I’ve been blessed with a job teaching Spanish to elementary school kids in schools in the area. The opportunity has certainly been challenging but has also been a huge blessing, especially during a time when I am trying to discern what is to come in terms of grad school / further studies. The kids are great (with a few rowdy ones thrown in, of course :p), but one of the things I love most is the opportunity to use Spanish and share my love and passion for this language to plant seeds in the students. If even just a few kids get excited about learning a new language or thinking about traveling to a new place and getting to know other people and other ways of life, I would consider it a job well-done.

The community here has also been a huge blessing and help in my transition. One of the things that I was worried about was that I couldn’t find outlets to use Spanish once I was back in Woodinville. However, God has once again proved himself extremely faithful and has provided me with various ways to use Spanish and get connected with people and form new friendships. It’s been amazing that one of my best friends from school, Jillian Abendroth, is also home in Issaquah now after her year in Guatemala. Since we’re both in really similar stages of life right now it’s been awesome to have her so close by, and we’ve started getting together about every week to talk in Spanish, read the Bible, share and pray together. I’ve also made a Spanish-speaking friend through my Zumba class, and have been able to plug into a few different volunteering opportunities at my church where I can use Spanish every week. I’m also getting to know other young adults at my church and starting to form friendships with them, which is great since many people I used to know in Woodinville now live in other places. On top of all of this, it also helps that I’ve been able to stay in touch with my Guatemalan host family through phone calls so that I don’t feel quite so far away :)

All of these things have come together beautifully, and it is such a blessing to be reminded of these tangible ways that God is showing his love and faithfulness. Of course, there are still challenges and difficulties that present themselves, and the occasional lingering doubt of “what’s next?” However, I still feel very much at peace about what is to come, and know that I can hold onto God’s faithfulness through all seasons. During this time of Advent, I hope that I can also hold onto this feeling of gratefulness for God’s blessings and for the person He revealed himself to be as Jesus over 2,000 years ago. Thank you again for all of your love, support and prayers. May God continue to bless you throughout this year and into the next. Muchas bendiciones, y feliz Navidad!

A God who Heals

Recently, I have been seeing how much the themes of pain and healing have been present in my time here in Guatemala. As the months are winding to a close, I see how much my heart feels at home here among the beautiful mountains, pines, and corn, and among these incredible people who continually radiate hope and joy. At the same time, my heart breaks for the pains and hardships that these people and this country are facing— poverty, malnutrition, corruption and lack of access to education and healthcare, among many other things. During my ‘honeymoon’ phase of being in Guatemala, I was blind to many of these problems and didn’t realize the extent to which this country suffers. However, as my eyes have been opened to more of the hardships here, they have been equally opened to the miraculous ways in which God’s hand and Spirit are moving among these people and providing hope and healing in the most desperate situations.
 
One stirring example of this which I encountered a few weeks ago was during a visit to a theater group in Guatemala City called Las Poderosas (the Powerful Ones). This group is comprised of six women who are all victims of sexual violence and abuse. However, through the use of theater they are finding strength and healing as they are able to share their own stories and empower other women to do the same. The group not only does performances, but they also do workshops in rural areas around the country, asking women and children in the communities about the most pressing problems they face and giving them tools to tell their own stories. In a culture that is very private and oftentimes oppressive for women, the work of this group is inspirational. As we sat and talked with them, hearing bits of their testimonies and seeing pictures and videos of some of their workshops and shows, it was obvious that these women are no longer living in shame and fear. They are strong and beautiful examples of survival and of the strength and hope that redemption brings. One of these women, who I will never forget, is named Maria. The first thing I noticed about Maria was her brilliant smile- her face just shone with joy, and her eyes gleamed vibrantly with life. It was only afterwards that I noticed that Maria was missing her entire left arm. She later told us that she lost her arm fighting for her life while her husband tried to kill her one night. Fortunately, Maria escaped with her life and her husband was put behind bars (a circumstance which doesn’t always happen). For many years, Maria was ashamed to be seen in public that way, but she shared that ‘Now I don’t have shame to walk around like this… I feel like a free woman.’ Just from seeing her face, worn from hardship but resolute and glowing, I could tell that this was the truth. Her story, and the thousands of others unspoken in Guatemala and around the world, give me hope for the possibilities of healing and leaving situations of darkness and entering into light.
 
That same day after our visit to Las Poderosas, we got to hear from two other strong and faithful women who voluntarily work to help victims of domestic abuse in their communities in Coban. Coban is currently one of the more violent departments in Guatemala, and work like what América and María Elena are doing can be fraught with danger. Even knowing the dangers involved, these women voluntarily open their homes to neighbors and others who come searching for help, even if they come knocking in the night. In these cases they provide food, shelter and help to get these people what they need, all out of their love for neighbor and love of God. Without receiving any financial support, they work in an office to provide information about legal processes and shelters that are available to victims of violence. Although América and María Elena live in full knowledge of the risks they’re taking, they do not live in fear- instead, they say it is a blessing to be able to help their brothers and sisters and continue to work willingly, despite the burdens and struggles involved.
 
We also visited an organization called Fundación Sobrevivientes (Survivors Foundation) in the capital that provides psychological, social and legal assistance to victims of sexual and domestic violence, as well as other types of violence and human rights abuses. Their work was striking, and although they face many challenges and hardships they are continuing to be a voice for the downtrodden and provide help and healing to those in need. 
 
After seeing these different examples in the Capital, I started to realize some of the examples of hardships and healing that I’ve seen closer to home. In the end of May, my host mom here had an extensive surgery because of some health issues that she had been facing. After just 2 days in the hospital, she went home and made it up walking the steep hill to our house! She took the doctor’s advice very much to heart; he told her, ‘Be sure to get some rest, but it’s also important to walk every day. Just don’t do anything too heavy!’ Well, the ‘walking’ advice soon turned into hour outings in the morning… about a week and a half later, she took my friend Jillian and I hiking up to the top of a mountain! I was absolutely in awe of her strength and persistance to be well, which flows out of her desire to be back in the community again to help others. As I talked with her, sharing my admiration of her strength and resolution, she told me, ‘It is the prayers of so many people that give me strength. I feel that without all of those prayers, I wouldn’t have the strength to be well… but God is faithful and good, and He is healing me!’
 
I also think of the children I work with in the daycare, some of whom are suffering from physical and emotional abuse. My heart breaks to see children who are so young going through these hardships, especially when I know that not all of their hurt is visible. However, I have faith in this same powerful and loving God of healing and know that they are in His hands. While I can give them hugs and wipe away their tears, I pray that they can someday know that they are in the hands of their Creator, who ‘created (their) inmost being, and knit (them) together in (their) mother’s womb’ (Psalm 139:13) and who has “plans to prosper (them) and not to harm (them), plans to give (them) hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11). 
 
I know that our God of healing is living and active around the whole world, and this gives me sustaining hope even when we are bombarded with news of death and destruction each and every day. God is sowing stories of strength and hope; He is loving and faithful, and will always be so. I know that God’s Spirit is present in situations big and small, and that his healing will come. For this I am grateful, but also prayerful … prayerful that my eyes will be opened to the pain and suffering in this world, but also to God’s healing hand and the ways that the Spirit is at work and how I can and should take part in that. I also put my hope and trust that God will heal my own mom, and be present with her as she undergoes a surgery later this week. While it is difficult to be away from home during this time, I take so much consolation from the fact that our God is a God of healing and of life and that she is safe in His hands! Most of all, I ask for your prayers as well… for my mom, but also for so many people who are in need of healing, and thanksgiving for those who are healed. Pray for anyone you know, and for any type of healing at all… physical, emotional, spiritual, anything. God is powerful, God is good, God is there. Always. That is a reason to praise!

Grace Like Rain

The rainy season is starting here in Guatemala, and I am falling in love with the rain. As someone who has lived most of my life outside of Seattle I never thought I’d say that, but it is truly beautiful to have afternoon showers where the rain just POURS and lightning bolts illuminate the sky. The rain has been sorely missed by the people here, especially during a year that has had record highs around Xela and other parts of the country. There was talk for awhile that Guatemala was entering into a drought, which would be devastating for a country in which the large majority of the population rely on their crops of corn and beans to survive. No rain means no food… simple when you think about it, but mindboggling to those of us who live in a society of supermarkets and don’t need to think of where our food comes from for the next meal.
Although the rain was late, it finally came- and in grand style. One afternoon, the skies darkened and it just started to pour. It continued raining throughout the night, and I fell asleep to the rain tinkling on the tin roof above. When I woke up the next morning, I was greeted with a brilliant green- a treasure that had been there all along, but hidden underneath layers of dust. All of the corn shoots that have started to come up in Pachaj were vibrant, celebrating the new life of the rain, and the leaves were still adorned with jewels of dew from the downpour. I was amazed by the beauty of it all, and so thankful to God for this beautiful creation and the wonder of life and rejuvenation that He provides.

It was such a beautiful reminder to know that those gifts are still present, even though sometimes to recieve them we have to pass through dry spells and difficult times when we question if the rain will ever come.  My life in Guatemala has in some ways been like the corn. Through some of the trials that have happened recently, I sometimes feel that I’m also coated with layers of dust and suffocating from heat and lack of water. Although I’m grateful to have the jobs that I have here, the work can sometimes be frustrating when I feel like my Spanish has hit a wall and when nothing I do will control a room of 11 toddlers. Sometimes I question if my skills and passions could be better used in other ways, and then feel frustrated and guilty for thinking that. However, God has shown me grace through these trials and I am so incredibly grateful for that.
While before I was never extremely passionate about my work in the health center, God has renewed my joy there. I deeply love, admire and respect my host mom, and something she said made me realize that my work in the health center is important even when I can feel like I’m not doing too much. She told me that she is so grateful that I’m there, since it allows her to do other work in the community (with water, health, women’s rights / empowerment, etc.) without worrying about what is going on in the health center. Hearing how much it means to her to have me there gave me new love for my work, rooted in my love and respect for my host mom. The work there really isn’t about me at all- it’s about serving others and loving them as I can, even if that love manifests itself in ways that I don’t expect. God has also blessed me with blossoming friendships with the nurse and the doctor, which I am so grateful for! In a culture when most social circles revolve around the family and people at church, it can sometimes be difficult to form friendships in other places. However, God is blessing me with friendships with these two women, and I am so so grateful for that! Even moreso I am beginning to get more joy out of the work itself, which is an amazing blessing as well. I never thought that I’d be able to help hold down a patient while a nurse and doctor cleaned an open wound, but when a little girl with Downs Syndrome came into the health center with a lesion on her leg, God helped me see His face in hers. The sight, the smell, everything went into the background, and I just looked into her tear-filled eyes and saw the eyes of Jesus. Holding down that little girl’s leg while the nurse was cleaning it reminded me of Jesus’ call for us to be servants and foot-washers, and in that moment God showed his immense love by allowing me to serve and love others in the small ways that I can. That experience was incredibly beautiful, and it is one that I will never forget.
There have also been trials in my work at the daycare, but once again God is showing His abundant and amazing grace. Work there started up again in mid-January after about a month-long break in December, but we went for months without a teacher (even though people from the office arrived on various occasions with promises that a teacher would come soon!). This situation was frustrating and worrying at times, and I began to doubt if a teacher would ever come. Aside from that, there were some worrisome situations that surfaced in the daycare regarding some personal struggles of some of the kids there. These situations seemed beyond my control, and one afternoon I arrived at a friend/ mentor’s house crying because I just didn’t know what to do to help. However, she just sat and listened to me, gave me words of wisdom and prayed with me, reminding me that God has me there for a reason (even if I don’t have all of the answers or help that these kids need). She also encouraged me to pray for guidance from the Holy Spirit and that I could be a vessel of God’s love to the children there. Her words rang true, and I was reminded that the most important thing these kids need is a loving example- something that I can continue to try and work towards each and every day. After praying this prayer, I have felt an abundance of love for these kids and know that it is God who is helping me love them better. I am so grateful for this, but also very humbled, because I know that through my own strength and effort it never would have happened as it is- when I tried on my own, I would only feel frustrated, exhausted and tired. Although the kids are still feisty and rambunctious, I know that I’m not working on my own and take great comfort and solace from this fact. As continued answers to prayer, the psychologist from the health center will also be working with the kids a little bit each Friday, and just today our teacher came! She’ll be coming daily- a huge blessing and help to doña Consuelo, and a great help to me too :)
Going through these struggles, I’ve realized that they’ve just made me more dependent upon God and so amazed by the ways in which he provides grace. I’ve also realized that my struggles are incredibly small in light of what others go through, and this has been a humbling and eye-opening experience (and a very necessary one!). I’ve come to realize that we are all like the corn; we all go through struggles and dry spells, and we all need that sweet, rejuvenating, life-giving grace that God provides. Right now my host mom Juana Herlinda is facing intense struggles with her health (ovarian cists, stomach and back pain, hemorraghes, etc…), and although it is not serious enough for an immediate surgery, it is still a struggle for everyone in the family and is worrisome to not know exactly what is going on in her body. However, throughout all of this she is holding fast to the Lord, and is confident that He will heal her (whether through prayers, a miracle, medicine or a surgery). There are so many other stories of people’s struggles, as well as their faith, and through it all it is amazing to see God’s fingerprints of grace upon their- and all of our- lives.
For this, I love the rain. It is a tangible reminder of the grace that we all need, and no matter what happens we can never, ever get enough.

So grateful for so many blessings

Wow… the past few months have been incredible, and it’s really hard to figure out where to begin. First of all, I am just incredibly grateful for God and all of his blessings and provision. It is amazing to see how much God continues to teach me here, and I feel extremely blessed and grateful for everything that has happened. Here are some of the highlights from the past few months:
In the middle of February, one of my very best dear friends Jillian Abendroth came to visit me in Xela. She is spending this year working in Guatemala City in the International Justice Mission office, and so we’ve both been able to visit one another a bit since we’ve been here. It’s always a blessing to spend time with her and get to share with one another about our experiences, thoughts, and feelings (and also share a lot of laughs and goofiness too!). Her faith, joy, and love of the Lord inspire me, and it is a blessing to count her as a friend and sister in Christ. While she was here, she also got to meet some of my InnerCHANGE friends in Xela which was amazing as well. The InnerCHANGE team has been a part of my life since I first met them in January of 2010, and their lives, faith and love are also inspirations to me. I value their friendship and guidance so much, and it was wonderful for everyone to meet and make connections :) Since Jill was visiting during Lent, there were also special weekend celebrations throughout Xela to celebrate the coming of Easter. Different parts of the city were set up like carnivals, with rows and rows of food stands, flowers, and games for the little ones. We got to walk through the streets and take everything in, and it was amazing to be reminded of the joy of Easter in such a tangible way. Afterwards we entered a cathedral which was bedecked in purple cloth and had an image of the suffering Christ at the very front. While we were inside, people were constantly streaming in to pray, light candles and leave flowers. It was beautiful to see both sides of people’s devotion, faith and love in these two contrasting but deeply connected environments, and in the church I was just struck by the amazing love, faithfulness and grace of our Lord.

The end of February also marked the end of my 6 month period of being in Guatemala. I can’t believe how fast the time is flying here! For our 6 months, we had to leave the country for a few days in order to renew our visas so our group of YAVs went to Belize. It was amazing to see how different it is there, even though it’s only about 10 hours by bus and boat from Guatemala City. At least in the part of Belize where we visited, there is much more of a Carribbean influence in the culture and we heard very little Spanish being spoken. It was kind of funny for me to experience a bit of culture shock just by going to our neighboring country, but it was a wonderful time to take a step back, rest, and see God’s beauty in a different way. My very favorite part of our time there was a day that we took to go snorkeling… it was absolutely incredible, and something I will never forget! There was an entirely new world beneath those blue waters, and seeing the incredible beauty and the wonders of creation was truly a spiritual experience. We got to swim among fish, past corals, sea urchins and sea stars, and over sharks, sea turtles and sting rays. There were probably hundreds of creatures that I didn’t know, and it was humbling and amazing to think that this was just the edge of the vast ocean…. how much more is there that we don’t know, and never will discover? It was so beautiful to get a small glimpse into the incredible, creative mind of God, and I am so grateful for that experience.
Even after a few days in Belize I was eager to get back to Guatemala, where I feel that my heart is more and more at home. As soon as we arrived in Guatemala again, March Madness began! (sorry basketball fans, I’m not talking about that… :) ) March was one of the busiest months that I’ve had here, but also one of the greatest. I spent a few days at Jill’s house this time, and it was great to see her again so soon after she had left Pachaj. One of the days that I was there I also got to visit the IJM office, which was a huge blessing. I was really impressed with how Christ-centered their work is, and how much all of their interns and employees seem to love the Lord. Each and every morning they start the day with a half hour of silence, to read the Bible, pray, journal… whatever people need. After that time they come together to reflect on a few verses and share prayer requests, struggles and joys in a corporate time of prayer. It was a blessing to get to be a part of that, and the day just continued to get better! As it turned out, the day that I visited was a special Hero Pin day. The main work of the IJM office in Guatemala is to help victims of sexual violence and abuse, and most of these victims are children or young teenage mothers. IJM helps to provide their clients with counseling, legal support, and a variety of other services, all through the love of Christ. Every few months, once clients have successfully passed through all of their legal processes, there are these special Hero Pin days when clients and their families come to the office for a celebration. At the office, all of the children and young women who testified in court recieve a pin that says “I’m a Hero,” and all of the staff and interns celebrate their success and their process of healing with a party just for them. We had pie and punch, and many of the kids came dressed up in their very best clothes to celebrate the occasion. Lots of pictures were taken, and lots of hugs, smiles and congratulations were exchanged. It was such a blessing for me to see, as an outsider, how much of a difference IJM is making in the lives of people here and how God’s love is being so tangibly shared through their work.

 

After the short time with Jill, I went to meet a group of students and leaders from Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina, to accompany them for 9 days as a translator. The Queens group was absolutely AWESOME, and the 9 days that I spent with them were incredibly blessed. I’ve never been in a group like that before that was so open and vulnerable with one another from the very beginning. It was truly incredible, and they made me feel like one of them right away. The students were great, and I felt as though they would have been my friends had I gone to school with them in North Carolina :). They were fun, funny, sincere, and very interested in learning as much as they could about Guatemala and engaging fully with the culture while they were here. Our schedule was full of a variety of activities, but each and every day was full of great lessons and experiences. The trip, partnered with CEDEPCA, was a mixture of learning, work and immersion. We spent the first few days in Guatemala City, where we learned about some of the problems facing Guatemala today (femicide, natural disasters, poverty, lack of education, etc.), as well as some of the struggles that the Guatemalans faced during their brutal 36 year-long civil war. We were also blessed to be able to meet Shorty, an incredible man of God who lives in La Limonada, one of the poorest slums/ neighborhoods in Guatemala City that is located right next to the city dump. Shorty encouraged and inspired us all with his testimony, and it was truly a blessing to have met him (if you’d like to learn more about La Limonada, Shorty, and other amazing work that is going on in Guatemala City around the dump, I highly recommend the documentary ‘Reparando‘. You won’t be disappointed!). On our way out of the city, we stopped by the cemetary and saw a glimpse of the dump- a highly impactful experience for us all. After that, we made our way to Corazón de la Mujer, a cooperative that was created by Mayan women who were all affected by the war. These women make beautiful products and weavings, primarily to support their children in order to provide them with better opportunities for the future. One of the women, Dora, shared her story with our group, and after a delicious lunch we got to help paint the building where the women work and sell their products. My friend Rachel works with the women, and it was great to see her too and see how much she is at home among them! Speaking of homes, that night our group split up for homestays with the women and their families, which was a highlight of the trip for many people. I loved to see how much the group loved their families, and it made my heart so joyful that they got to experience part of the amazing love and hospitality that I have experienced in my year up to this point. The last part of the trip included some work days in San Lucas Tolimán, a town on the edge of Lake Atitlan, and ended with some time to see tourist sites such as Panajachel and the market in Chichicastenango. The whole week was truly an amazing experience, and my heart was heavy when it was time to say goodbye to the group. However, now I know that if I ever find myself in Charlotte, I have lots of friends I could stay with! :)

 

The other highlight in March was most definitely the arrival of my mom, dad and sister in Guatemala for Holy Week. It was so wonderful to have them here, and for them to finally see my heart home of Guatemala. The timing of their visit was really special too since the celebration of Holy Week is probably the biggest and most important of the entire year! We spent the first few days of their time here in Antigua, which is known for its beautiful carpets and processions during Semana Santa. The carpets are made of flowers, colored saw dust and salts, woodchips, and a variety of other materials, and the designs are beautiful and elaborate. It was amazing to walk through the streets and see the carpets that people had lovingly and painstakingly created in preparation for celebrating the death and resurrection of our Lord. When the processions passed, the streets filled with hundreds and hundreds of people who came either to watch or participate in the celebration. 

After spending a few days in Antigua, we made our way to Lake Atitlan for a day and then continued on to Xela, where my two families finally got to meet! The days that we spent in Pachaj were by far my favorites of the trip. The family welcomed us with open arms, lots of smiles and lots of delicious food. It was so wonderful to have these two worlds of mine come together, and it was an incredible blessing to see how my two moms especially connected right away. Despite the language barrier, it was a wonderful time together that just continued to get better over the course of those 4 days! We shared stories, laughter, and tears, and had times of worship together at the church as well as a blow-out birthday party for my mom, complete with a delicious traditional meal called estofado (beef stew with vegetables, served over rice), birthday cake, candles, prayers and songs. My sister and I both wore traje típico, and my mom wore one too for the sunrise service on Easter Sunday :) Another HUGE highlight of the time in Pachaj was when my family could meet the family of our sponsored child, Danilo. Danilo and his family also live in Pachaj and he goes to the Compassion International Student Center that is run out of the church that I attend here. We got to spend a beautiful morning and afternoon with Danilo and his sister, brother, mom and dad. Their family is so wonderful, and it was amazing to hear them talk so freely of God’s blessings and how now God has blessed them with an even bigger family- us. They ended up giving us an amazing gift as well; a traditional weaving from Cantel, that had my mom and dad’s names embroidered into it, as well as Danilo’s. When we saw their incredible generosity all of us started to cry. It was truly a blessed time, and it was so wonderful to be together as one family of brothers and sisters in Christ. Lesly, Danilo’s sister, clung onto Gracie and I, all smiles, and said that she had never had sisters before but now she does. We all got to play and run around outside with a soccer ball, and we enjoyed a delicious lunch together as a family. We departed in prayer, feeling incredibly blessed for Danilo and his family and so grateful that they are truly a part of our own.
I am constantly reminded by all of the blessings that I’ve truly experienced here so far, and all of the ways in which the people here have opened their hearts and homes to me and let me into their lives. I feel as though I really do have family here in Pachaj- with Juana Herlinda (my host mom) and all of the family there, Danilo and his family, and my friends, brothers and sisters in the church and the community. I cannot even put into words how full my heart was during these few days, when my families could meet one another and share time together just being in one another’s presence. I’ve never quite experienced anything like it, but it was a rich blessing and I am so grateful that God gave us all that opportunity. He has continued to pour out his blessings throughout the time here- both very difficult circumstances and incredibly joyful ones- and I continue to stand amazed at everything that God is doing. Life is blessed, and I am so grateful for everyone here and all up North as well!
Love,
Annie

Faithfulness in All Circumstances

Well, in all honesty I meant to write this post about a month ago, but time slipped away from me (as it seems to be doing more and more, recently!). Many more things have happened since, but I wanted to devote a post just to the month of January since it was pretty amazing. So, another post should (hopefully!) be coming soon, but here’s a little glimpse back into the first month of 2013 :)

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.

“Estén siempre alegres, oren sin cesar, den gracias a Dios en toda situación, porque esta es su voluntad para ustedes en Cristo Jesús.” 1 Tesalonicences 5:16-18

That was the verse on my calendar for the month of January, and it is certainly something that I witnessed throughout the month and am striving to work on more and more in my own life. This verse captures beautifully the way that I’ve seen people live here; obviously we are all humans and all have shortcomings, but I am amazed again and again by the faith, hope and joy of my family (and so many other people I’ve met!), even in the midst of really difficult circumstances. The month of January has been one of my favorites in Guatemala so far. It was filled with many wonderful things, but some pretty hard ones too. Even through the midst of the difficulties, God has been helping me to learn to rely more and more on his strength and to give thanks in all situations. As my host mom Juana Herlinda tells me, “you never know how the things that you’re experiencing now will help you in the future. Maybe it’s happening so that you can have more compassion for other people, or maybe it’s happening to draw you closer to God and help you to grow in faith. No matter what God can work through the good and the bad times, and we can always trust him. He is good!” That’s what I’m seeing and living here each and every day, and I am so grateful for these experiences that are helping me to learn and grow!

One of the things that made January an extremely special month was the fact that we had prayer services with the brothers and sisters of the congregation every single night of the week. This has been a long-standing tradition in my church here, as a way of remembering to start out the new year by dedicating it to God and spending more time in intentional prayer and community. Each night the service would be in a different house, and the hosts would willingly open their doors to everyone who came. It was such a gift to enter into so many different homes for these times of prayer and worship and to feel more and more a part of the church family. The services would also be directed by a different person each night, which was wonderful as well since everyone had an active part in making them happen. Every night we would share in times of worship and corporate and individual prayer, including prayers of thanksgiving, confession, illumination, and blessings. There were also scripture readings and a message, as well as a time for sharing our prayer requests and taking an offering. Each night would end with a snack provided by the host family, and time to just sit and enjoy the food and one another’s company. Seeing this example of faith and community, and getting the opportunity to participate in it, was a huge blessing and helped me grow both closer to my church family here and to God. This month of prayer was especially timely in terms of things happening with my family both in Guatemala and back in the US, and throughout it all I was reminded to give all of my burdens to God and rejoice in my circumstances, knowing that God is faithful and good. I really felt him carrying me throughout this month and reminding me of his faithfulness, and looking back I can see how the good times and the harder times were all full of blessings.

Some other special moments that happened in January included reunions with friends from Whitworth (a group of students coming to study in Xela, as well as some friends visiting in Sololá) and also some more consistent interactions and encounters with my friends from InnerCHANGE. All of these times reminded me of the wonderful communities that I have around me, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to invest in their lives and be filled with their love and friendship as well. Another highlight was our YAV retreat to Monterrico on the Pacific coast. On the retreat we had the opportunity to go on a boat trip through a mangrove forest at sunrise, where we got to see an amazing habitat with an abundance of beautiful and foreign plants and animals. We also were able to release baby sea turtles into the ocean at sunset, which was another unforgettable experience. All of these moments were testaments to me of God’s faithfulness and love, and it was incredible to be able to rejoice in the beauty of creation.

Along with the many moments of beauty and joy, there were also moments of great difficulty. My family here has been struggling economically, among other things, but throughout all of the uncertainty they maintain such a strong faith in God and give thanks for everything they have. They rely so much on his faithfulness that even their struggles are an amazing testament to me of how faith can look in our lives. Towards the middle and end of the month, I also started to struggle with health problems- a muscle injury in my arm from all of the paperwork I’d been doing at the health center, and then later a stomach infection that resulted from some parasites and bacteria left in my stomach from the month before.  Fortunately with a few days of rest my arm injury went away relatively quickly, and the stomach infection was also resolved within about a week and a half after taking medicine, antibiotics and probiotics. Getting sick was a humbling experience, because it put a lot of things in perspective; just getting a receipt from the health center to buy some of my medicine made me think about all of the people who come in every day and don’t even have the resources to buy the medicine they need. I realized that it’s a blessing that I can buy medicine when necessary, and that I’m surrounded by people near and far who love and care for me. It’s a huge blessing to live in that reality, when daily life is so drastically different for so many people around the world. Realizing this was heartbreaking, but also gave me no reason for self-pity; even through sickness God was showing me his goodness and provision, and gave me every reason to praise. This whole month I felt like was a lesson about how to live in the way that 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 directs us to live: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Living this way, despite surrounding circumstances, is choosing a lifestyle full of richness and blessings. While I still so often fail to do this, the people here – and most especially God – are teaching me how to live more faithfully to this call of Christ, and I am incredibly grateful for it all.

A Very K’iche’ Christmas and a Happy Bak’tun!

Hola todos, y feliz Navidad!

I can’t believe that Christmas has already passed and that I have already been in Guatemala for just over 4 months. My, how time is flying! Things have been going really well here, and aside from perhaps enjoying the food a bit too much, I couldn’t be happier. This December was significant in a number of ways: it was the first Christmas I spent away from my family, but also the first Christmas I spent in a foreign country; although I missed my family back home, I feel blessed to have been able to experience some Guatemalan traditions and to have shared in Christmas celebrations with my Guatemalan family here! Also, believe it or not Chrismtas music has been playing since about the beginning of the month, there are Christmas trees set up in various places around Xela, and I’ve even seen a few Santa Clauses meandering around. I don’t know whether to be happy or sad about that, since US culture seems to be permeating so many places around the globe, but I have to admit that it did do my soul some good to get glimpses of some of my own Christmas traditions here in Guate :)
 
Celebrating Christmas with my Guatemalan family was something that I’ll never forget. First of all, at my church here they take Chrismtas celebrations VERY seriously! At the church there is a tradition of dividing the congregation into 2 groups and having each group come up with a 30 – 45 minute participation event for the Christmas Eve service. Even before the start of Advent, the groups had started meeting – in secret of course, because the other group CAN’T know what’s going on! This year, the group that I was in decided to do something that they had never done before: do the whole participation for the service in K’iche’. Sadly, Mayan languages around Guatemala are slowly dying out, and the people in my group wanted to use the Christmas Eve participation not only to celebrate the birth of our Savior but also celebrate their language and culture in the process. We decided to do a rendering of the Nativity story and sing three Christmas carols in K’iche’, also wearing the traje típico (traditional dress) of our region of Cantel. 
 
Even though it was an ambitious plan, everyone excitedly hopped on board. We even decided to sing two of the Christmas songs with marimba background music, which is the national instrument of Guatemala. I never in my life imagined that I would sing ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ in K’iche’ with a marimba soundtrack (let alone ‘White Christmas’ or ‘Silent Night,’ for that matter), but it was one of the most beautiful and joyful Christmas experiences of my life. Our choir was far from professional – consistently off beat and out of tune, even to the night of the performance – but joining in song with my brothers and sisters in celebration of their rich culture and the good news of the incarnation was absolutely incredible. Probably the thing that I love most about my church here is that people just belt out the songs with all the gusto they can muster. It doesn’t matter if they sing in tune or on beat, because they are singing for God. They just sing from their hearts, and it is a beautiful thing. So, as we were singing on stage, I just got a goofy grin across my face from the joy of it all, celebrating the best news that we could ever receive: that our Lord came down to us. Wearing the traje típico and speaking in K’iche’ was also a profound reminder of what the incarnation really means; Jesus met us (and meets us) exactly where we are. He ‘pitched his tent’ among us and just came to live as we do, out of his great love for the entire world. THAT is a pretty incredible gift!
 
On Christmas day I wore my traje again and celebrated with the family. There was no gift exchange – just the gift of one another’s company. We ate a big lunch together, complete with meat from a pig that had been slaughtered the day before, and then enjoyed some cake and hot chocolate later in the day. The floor of the room where we ate was covered in pine needles, which made it smell divine! The little ones were playing and laughing, and we all shared a lot of laughs together. I also shared some tears, but mostly tears of joy, as I tried to tell the family how grateful I was for their love and care for me, how grateful my family is back home knowing that I’m in good hands here, and how much of a blessing it is to be in their family. It was an incredible Christmas, and I was just sad that my loved ones back home couldn’t share in that experience with me. However, I know that the lasting gifts of Christmas are also the bonds that last over miles and years – faith, hope, love, joy, peace – and those can never be taken away.
 
Another very significant thing that happened this December was the Trece Bak’tun, the end of the 12th cycle of the Mayan calendar and the start of the new era on Dec. 21, 2012. Since these cycles only come around every 5,200 something years, it was pretty awesome to experience it in Guatemala! In the afternoon I went into Xela’s Parque Central and met up with another volunteer to see the activities. Stages were set up all over, and different groups were speaking, playing marimba, dancing, and practicing religious ceremonies. There were also vendors everywhere, selling food and different goods. One of my favorite parts was hearing what people had to say about the ceremonies and the meaning of the bak’tun. In a ceremony that I saw later in the evening, the priest was talking about how the bak’tun is the beginning of a new era of hope for the world. He talked about how we should hope and pray for a world with less violence, less hunger, less sickness; a world where children don’t work on the streets, where people aren’t shot, where people don’t starve, where we don’t pollute our earth. He talked about a world in which we care for one another and for our earth, which is our home. It was all very beautiful to hear, and very true. Instead of being a day of destruction as so many had feared, the bak’tun really was a day of hope and renewal for the future. After saying these things, the priest invited us all to lift up our eyes to the heavens and pray to the Creator God. While I was doing this, looking at the stars among the Christmas lights in Parque Central and the firelight of the ceremony, two Mayan elders raised conch shells to the sky and blew through them. Standing there praying, listening to the conches and looking at the stars was also an incredible moment that I will never forget. There was a sense of unity amongst all those standing in the circle, and I felt that this kind of unity is what God longs for for all of his people.
 
The bak’tun also marked my reunion with my InnerCHANGE friends, which was another incredibly rich blessing. It was wonderful to share with them about how my time has been here so far, and it was great to hear about how they have all been as well. I felt a bit of a homecoming, but in sharing some of the things that have happened to me so far and the ways that God has been so clearly present in Pachaj, I was also reminded that I have another wonderful home in Guatemala. Right now I feel as though I am exactly where God intends for me to be, and it was so neat to be reminded of that. 
 
As the new year is fast-approaching, I pray that we can enter into it with a sense of hope and renewal. I pray that we all work towards a world filled with more hope, peace, love, joy, health and well-being; in short, a world that is a brighter reflection of God’s kingdom. May you feel God’s blessings in this Christmas season and throughout the New Year! Or, as the song goes, ¡Feliz Navidad, Próspero Año y Felicidad!
 
Wishing you much love and joy from Guatemala, 
Annie

Maíz, Medicina y Milagros

Hola todos! My, it has been a long time since I’ve posted so I appologize for that. I’ve been busy with my family and my jobs here and just falling into the rhythm of life in Pachaj, and time has absolutely flown by (which I take as a good sign :)) It feels very fitting that I’m writing this post over Thanksgiving weekend, because I couldn’t feel more grateful for the things that God has blessed me with and has been teaching me here. I have an extremely loving family, and although I was hit with a wave of homesickness spending my first Thanksgiving away from home and missing my dad’s birthday, it is such a blessing to be surrounded by such kind and loving people at my home in Pachaj. I am reminded each day of the strength of the bonds of love between family and friends, and although I can’t always communicate with my loved ones back in the States, it makes me so grateful to have wonderful people in my life both here in Guatemala and around the globe.

 Well, after almost 2 months of living in Pachaj there is TONS to update about. But, to keep things relatively compact I’ll just touch on a few of them here. The first that came to my mind is corn, believe it or not. There are cornfields everywhere in Pachaj, and they have turned into a common sight for me as I’ve adjusted to life here. Corn makes up the base of life for people in Guatemala, since tortillas or tamalitos are eaten with every meal each and every day (No, I’m not sick of them yet (I actually like them!), and yes, I can now make a decently round tortilla and fold the corn leaves for tamalitos! :) ). It’s now the time for harvesting the corn, which the families here will use for their food supply for the coming year. It’s been fascinating for me to learn more about this process and to see just how much the people depend on the crop. Since corn is a lifeline, many people that I’ve met and talked with have a deeply strong bond with their land, which I find very beautiful. They are also proud of the land they have, and it is almost a part of their identity. However, it becomes very difficult for families who have fewer economic resources, because many people are not able to afford plots of land to cultivate their corn. That means that they have to buy corn flower, which has fewer nutrients and also ends up being a more expensive investment in the long run. However, since these families do not have to pay it all upfront like they would for land, they are able to afford payments in smaller bits for bags of flour. The corn harvest is also intertwined with the weather, and my family has told me that the climate changes that have been happening can have big effects on the harvest. Once the corn is harvested and shucked, it needs to dry out in the sun before it can be stored for the year. However, if it rains consistently while the corn is outside, the corn can become moldy and the crop can be ruined. Usually the rainy season stops at the end of October in Guatemala and the corn is harvested in mid-November. However, this year it continued to rain into the first week of November, which worried the family. They’ve told me that they’ve noticed changing weather patterns in Guatemala, and sometimes wonder how it will continue to affect their lives. This just makes me reminded all the more of the importance of caring for our earth, especially for people whose very lives are so strongly tied to the land.

 Another theme that has been coming up again is medicine, and how much of a difference it makes in people’s lives. My job at the health center has taught me a lot about medicine, and the importance of health education in general. Although I don’t really feel called into a medical profession, I am so grateful to be here and to be learning about these things. Health is a basic right of every person, and it has been heart-wrenching to meet mothers who can’t even afford to give their children food with enough nutrients to ensure their healthy development. All of the medicine and supplies that are given out at the health center are free for the people who come, which seems like a good and necessary idea in a place that has people with fewer (if any) resources available. However, the supply at the center is limited, and whenever the doctor or nurse prescribes a medication to buy at a pharmacy it is doubtful if the family can afford it. Partly as a result of this, one of the main focuses of the health center is on preventative medicinea and health education. The idea is that with more education, the families will be able to learn simple methods that they can use at home to lead healthier lifestyles (drinking purified / boiled water, eating more fruits and vegetables, practicing family planning, etc.) and hopefully not have to rely on the health center only after they need medical attention.

 Another big thing that happened was that a medical mission team came into Pachaj and the neighboring communities for a week in early November. I got to spend the week with them helping out as a translator, and it was an incredible experience. I loved the chance to get to meet the team, and just being with them each day and seeing how grateful the people were when they received medicine was amazing. Many of the people we saw had parasites, and quite a few had diabetes as well. These cases reminded me once again about how important education is; many, though not all, of these cases could have been prevented if people knew more about the importance of drinking purified water and not eating too many foods that are high in carbs and sugar. The week was a mixed blessing, since it felt so good to help people doing the little that we could. However, some had cases that we couldn’t really fix (a lot of people suffered from nerves / nervousness from traumatic experiences in their lives), and most of the medicines, vitamins and parasite bars we did give out were only temporary fixes. I pray that the people we saw, and their families and communities, continue to stay healthy, and I hope that health education can continue in these communities to ensure a better future.

 Last, but certainly not least, are what I can only describe as miracles that have happened since I’ve been here. It has been absolutely amazing to see the way that God is working here, since it is so far beyond my comprehension. I just know that I am humbled and grateful to be here in the midst of it all, even if I don’t know yet exactly what my role is or will be. The two things that come predominantly to mind are the stories of two little boys, Carlos and Danilo. Carlos is 12, and he had an extensive open-heart surgery before I arrived in Pachaj. He lives in a neighboring community with his widowed mother and 3 siblings. Although Carlos had been suffering from heart problems for years, his mother had no way of paying for a surgery for him. Last January, a medical team (many of the same people who I worked with!) met Carlos and wanted to do something for him. They, along with a group from a US Presbytery, helped to pay for the costs of his surgery in a hospital in Guatemala City, which never would have been possible otherwise. I got to meet Carlitos and his mom Rosa earlier this month, and immediately fell in love with them both. Carlos has the most heart-warming smile, and seeing him sitting there it was hard for me to imagine what he looked like a few months earlier – completely blue from lack of circulation. He is now a healthy and healing boy, still unable to run and play with his friends, but grateful to be alive and on the mend. We had a scare with him though, because he had a recent development of a little protrusion on his chest right after his checkup visit at the hospital in Guate. A little bump is visible right above his ribcage, and we didn’t know if he was in any danger because of it. We took him immediately to the hospital in Xela for an x-ray, and all of the internal things with his implant came back normal. When the medical team saw him a few days later, the doctors also said that the protrusion is ok, and that sometimes the sutures shift slightly while the chest bone is mending back together. It was so wonderful to see the reunion of Carlos and the medical team, since they could see him before and after his surgery and see how much of a difference that had made in his life. One of the most impactful parts of that week with the medical team for me was translating a message from an emergency pediatric nurse to Carlos’ mom. Susan has worked in emergency pediatric medicine for years, and she wanted to tell Carlos’ mom Rosa how brave she was, to bless and encourage her in this process and thank her for the way that she loves and cares for Carlitos. She passed along the message to me, and then I said it in Spanish to my host mom, Juana Herlinda. She then translated it into K’iche’ for Rosa, who spoke back to Juana, then me, and then Susan. Seeing the bonds of love between doctors and patients, mothers and children, and women of two very different cultures was incredibly moving experience, and as we all finished the conversation and gave one another hugs, we had tears of appreciation and understanding in our eyes.

 The other little boy, Danilo, has a story that is perhaps even more intertwined with my own. Before leaving for Guatemala, my family decided to sponsor some children through Compassion International specifically from Guatemala, with the idea that I would take on one of the children as his or her sponsor upon my return. One afternoon my mom and I picked 3 kids from the Compassion website. One of them, Danilo, had been waiting for over 6 months for a sponsor and also needed special medical attention for a vision problem. He seemed like a  natural choice. After we had made the jump and decided to sponsor these kids, we looked more closely at their information. Danilo’s description said that he lived in Pachaj. My jaw dropped and I called mom over; I had already received my placement information, and knew that I would be living in Pachaj! However, I didn’t want to get my hopes up too much, since I had already looked at a map of Guatemala and discovered that there is another Pachaj about 2 hours away from where I’m living. When I arrived here and got settled in, I honestly have to admit that Danilo had slipped my mind. I was busy learning about my new jobs and getting into the rythym of everything around me, but obviously thoughts of Danilo hadn’t left my mom. One day on the phone she said, ‘Annie, I just keep getting this feeling that you are going to meet Danilo someday. Do you know if he lives there or not?’ I said I didn’t, but would ask my host mom. The next day, I was working at the daycare, which is my other work placement in Pachaj. When I came back for the afternoon, some of the kids had left and my boss told me that it was because they went to the Compassion center. I almost lost it, and asked her if the center was here in Pachaj. She said yes, just up the road! That afternoon as soon as I got home, I told my host mom the whole story and asked if she knew of a little boy named Danilo. She was amazed and laughed with joy, saying she would ask her sister (who works at the center!) if she knew of a Danilo with vision impairments. The next day, I got my answer. ‘Yes, there is a Danilo with visual needs who goes to the center! In fact, there are two. Which one do you sponsor?’ I was in utter amazement and disbelief to find out that one of those little boys was our new little brother. My host mom and aunt laughed, and we all agreed that this was obviously the work of God. I got to meet Danilo, his mom, sister and brother a few days later at the Compassion center (which, even more amazingly is at the church my family goes to here!). They are such a sweet family, and I almost cried on numerous occasions that afternoon from all of the different emotions spinning around in my head and heart. While the medical team was visiting Pachaj, Danilo and his family came one day with other kids from the Compassion center. There was an optimologist with the group who was able to see Danilo, and he daignosed his problem. Danilo has strabismis, which, Dave explained to me, basically means that the muscles in his left eye don’t cooperate with the muscles in his right. He needs surgery to correct it, and if done right away Danilo can recuperate some of the vision that he’s lost because of this impairment. I was blown away, and so grateful once again that little Danilo could see an optomotrist who could diagnose exactly what he needs. I’m also so grateful that I am living so close to him, and that I’ve met his family. They are a part of my life here now, and I know that God brought me here for a reason (and probably many!). I don’t know as of yet exactly what role my family and I will play in Danilo’s story, but I am without a doubt that he is my little brother here and that we’ll try to do whatever we can as appropriate to help him and his family. In just the two times that I’ve spent time with them I’ve felt incredibly blessed by their love and generosity, and feel that I’m receiving so much more from them than they know. 

 So, on this sunny Saturday in Xela I am thankful for many things: love, family, friendships, health, medicine, miracles, the beauty of the earth, and all of the ups, downs and complexities that this life gives us. Most of all, I am so grateful for God’s grace, sovereignty, provision, faithfulness and love, and the ways in which he is present in the journies that we all face. Happy Thanksgiving, all! There truly is so much to be thankful for, and I’m glad to be able to share just some of those things with you.

Many blessings and all of my love,

Annie