Note: The photos may take a while to come into view. Patience, dear reader. My brother just told me how to take photos with a smaller file size so hopefully future photos will load up more easily.
I was raised Catholic and although I left the church as a teen, I remain in awe of the ceremony of Mass. I love visiting Catholic churches at times to sit and pray but it’s the history of the church’s abuses against indigenous people of the Americas as well as those against children that prevent me from remaining a member of the church. So while my religious faith has ended, my spiritual faith has flourished and that is why I love visiting churches to sit or kneel and pray whenever I get the chance.
The church in the town I visited on my FBT was beautifully preserved. I heard that it is 500 years old. I imagine that the church received funding for its preservation after the war ended because it is in a beautiful though modest state.
As with every Catholic church, the walls are adorned with religious reliefs. This church had stunning reliefs.
While I sat in the church, there were a handful of other people there, either sitting or lighting candles on metal floor plates. Pine needles were laid on the floor near the altar. At various times, a woman would be on her knees praying, moving forward all the way up and around the altar and back down again to her original seat. Some people prayed aloud, some sang or chanted softly.
The next day when I returned to the church, about a hundred women had gathered for a forum about women and the church. Domestic violence and women’s empowerment seemed to be important topics in the forum. Before it began a young girl came over and asked me, “What is your mother’s name?” I was surprised by her question since I am a grey-haired woman. I told her the names of my mother, daughter, and grandchildren. Then I showed her pictures of them in my android computer. She liked seeing the photos so I showed her how to take photos with it and let her walk around freely taking photos. She took a photo of the girl seen in the next photo who then, stepped in to take some photos, too. The next four photos are theirs. Actually, I saw several teens with iphones taking selfies outside the church, so the technology is there though it may not be in everyone’s hands.
The last woman made her way to the altar on her knees before the forum began.
The forum was opened by a nun who introduced each speaker. The guest speakers spoke in either Mayan dialect or Spanish. Each woman had a strong presence and message (at least from what I understood). If you look closely at the photo below (behind the woman on the left side looking backwards) you can see an older woman with a sútil on her head. It is worn out of respect while in a church. Today my language teacher who is also Mayan, told me that it is also sometimes worn to protect the head from the sun.
Outside, Dichaba told me that the courtyard in front of the church had been the site of many killings between the armed guerrillas and the government soldiers. People had been hung from the balcony of the building on the left (below). It seems that the building may have either been rebuilt or renovated since the end of the war.
We visited the cemetery a few blocks away. I was able to pay my respects to and stand for a moment in silent prayer for the souls whose bodies had been found in a mass grave there. Below are the grave sites with small cement holders for candles.
Sometime later in the day (or was it the next day?) we were standing outside an office in the building next to the church. We were aware that there was a funeral mass taking place in the church. All of a sudden, a couple hundred people emerged from the church and descended the steps en masse. In the midst of them, were eight men carrying a coffin on their shoulders. They walked slowly and surely down the steps and proceeded past us. The sight of so many people in red and black, carrying a beloved to their final resting place left a powerful imprint in me.
There were many powerful things to see, hear, feel (and enjoyably, to eat) in that small community. On my last morning, we walked to the micro-bus to leave town, making our way through muddy, rocky streets. A group of four giant, black pigs sauntered past us as did the normal array of dogs and ducks.
Leaving for home, I felt enormous gratitude for what Dichaba had shared with me. I got to see her co-facilitate a meeting with parents which was interesting. I was also impressed with her ability to deal with such an isolated site and face the challenging conditions of cold, wet weather. The town and its beautiful people remain in my heart; such a deep impression after only a few days. Winding down the road, reuniting with some of my fellow Bak’tun 8 PC Trainees on the last bus before home was an absolute joy.
Tomorrow we have class at the PC offices and we can share stories of our FBTs. I can’t wait. Tomorrow is also the presidential election in the United States. We are all freaked out but hoping for a positive outcome and better times.
postscript: I have not even mentioned the reasons behind the war or its factions or even the emergence of the Evangelical churches which grew into prominence during the war. There is so much for me to learn and I am definitely interested in reading about the Guatemalan war as well as Guatemala’s longer history and culture. But I must wait until my training ends and I am in my permanent site next month before I begin reading any new books. If any of you can suggest readings, please do let me know.