Sunday, December 25, 2011

Posadas, Pachas, and Prayers

Feliz Navidad friends, family and loved ones! For unto us a Savior is born- Hallelujia!

Since I have been horrible at this blog thing, I have decided to write a Christmas blog, then rewind and recap the last two months!  Am very sorry for my absence but here is what I have been up to the past few weeks…

December 17th-20th, the four of us YAVs and Marcia (our site coordinator) met here in Xela for our own little Christmas retreat. We got lots of rest, watched lots of Christmas movies, discussed the books we had read over the previous few weeks, cooked a delicious Christmas lunch, exchanged secret Santa gifts, and I gave a presentation on feminist theology. There was also a lot of laughter involved throughout the entire retreat! (Below: Austin, myself, Julianne, Marcia and Jackie with our prepared feast!)

Upon my return to my host family, I learned just how beautiful Christmas is here in Guatemala! The week before Christmas is celebrated by Posadas. The word Posada is defined as a government operated or approved inn offering moderately priced rooms to tourists. However, the word posada has a different meaning for the church! Each evening, members of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church would meet at a church member’s house. The children would dress up: Mary would wear a white cloak, Joseph a cowboy hat (very cute!) and there would be several children wearing colorful cloaks to represent the kings. The rest of us would wear santa hats or reindeer ears, and follow behind the children. At the front of the crowd was always a child holding a star. In addition, we would all hold sparklers, and some would hold lanterns with candles in them.

We paraded through the neighborhood for about twenty minutes- singing carols all the way! Once we arrived at another church member’s  house, a couple people would step inside and we engaged in a sing-a-long. The people on the inside would sing Who is knocking on the door? And the rest of us would sing the story of Mary’s pregnancy and the need to get her a room.

Once the song was finished, we would step inside and sing some more. Than; the Padre would read some scripture and give a short message. We sang some more and recited the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles Creed. After all of this, the family served a small meal and a hot drink (usually ponche- a cider drink with papaya, pineapple, and apple- yum!). The remainder of the evenings were filled with laughter, children running around, more Christmas music, and good fellowship. The next night, we always met at the former house, the children got dressed, and we caroled to the next house. (Below: the children singing and patiently waiting for dinner. Behind them is an example of a Nativity scene found in most houses this time of year) 

Christmas Eve at midnight is when Christmas is celebrated here. So last night, our evening started at 8pm. We went to church and had the final Posada. Then the children acted out the nativity scene. Following the performance, we had mass and sang Silent Night by candlelight. (Below: St. Marks church during the candlelight vigil; my host family and I)

After the service, we went back to our house for un rattito(a quick minute that usually lasts much longer than that) and opened gifts to/from each other. I bought each of my host sisters a blouse and my host mother a dress. They gave me a purse and a scarf- very thoughtful!

Next, we went over to my host-father’s parent’s house, where we ate pachas: rice, chicken and sweet olives in a delicious sauce wrapped up in banana leaves. After this, we made our way over to my host-mother’s parent’s house. Around midnight, we all gathered around the Christmas tree with the nativity scene and said a prayer. Each person prayed for what they were thankful for. I expressed my thanks for this experience in Guatemala and the family that I have been placed with. One of my aunts expressed thanks for my presence. This prayer was followed by the Lord’sPrayer and the Apostle’s Creed. Then one of my aunts placed baby Jesus in the manger scene. (Below: Pacha!; the Christmas tree and Nativity scene at my grandmothers house)

As we were praying, fireworks began going off like crazy! We all stood up and hugged each other. There were many Feliz Navidads and Dios Se Bendistes. There was hardly a dry eye in the room- it was a beautiful experience. Afterwards, we all went outside and watched the fireworks. I have never seen such a display- fireworks in every direction! The show went on for about thirty minutes. I stood there praying for each and every blessing in my life- including those of you reading this blog. I am told that the same tradition takes place at New Years- and I look forward to it! (Below: My host mother and grandmother on Christmas Eve)

We then stepped inside and ate…yup, more pachas! And the children opened their gifts, including my two year old 2nd cousin who loved the tennis shoes I bought him! Then we popped open some bubbly and shared in some more fellowship. (Below: my 2nd cousin, Victor, opening his gift from me!) 

After arriving back at our house around 2am, we all crashed until the next morning when we ate- you guessed it- pachas! Then at noon, we went back over to my host mother’s parent’s house and said another prayer around the Nativity scene. Then we ate lunch (not pachas this time, but chicken and rice) and watched the kids play with all of their new toys. We did, however, have pachas for dinner(: (Below: Victor and I on Christmas day- with the scarf my family gave me;- my cousin, host sisters and I on Christmas day)

My prayer this day is that we all remember our blessings- no matter how big or small. Please know that I am grateful for your presence in my life- I am grateful that our paths have crossed…however that has happened. Know that there is someone in another country who is thankful for the blessing of your love and friendship.

Feliz Navidad, dear ones! Dios Se Bendiste! Love, Kristi

Thursday, October 13, 2011

“For Every time there is a season…a time to embrace…” Ecclesiastes 3:5b

Hello from Quetzaltenango, Guatemala! After a long four weeks in San Juan Del Obispo and a one week stint in Pachaj, I am settled in to my new home for the next 9 ½ months! The last six weeks have been a complete whirlwind but I am happy to finally be settled in and getting in to a routine.

I apologize for being incommunicado, but living in very rural areas does not really offer much opportunity to be on the internet. That being said- this is a very long series of blog posts, my apologies! Now that I have internet in my house, I promise to be more in touch!

Before I explain everything I have been doing for the past six weeks, it is with a humbled and grateful heart that I let you know that, in just a short three months, I have been able to raise the total $8,000 necessary for my stay here in Guatemala!

I want to thank you for whatever ways you have supported me, be they words of encouragement, financial donations, warm hugs at my send off, prayers, or even a fleeting thought regarding my time here. I have most certainly had a faith-enriching experience. I praise our maker for such supportive people in my life! Goodness and mercy surely flow!
For the four weeks we were in language school in San Juan, we stayed with host families in town. My host mother during this time was Rosa- she is 48 and runs a daycare center out of her home (which was fun to help with in the afternoons, but made studying a bit difficult!).  My former host father’s name is Chico- he is 68 and a gardener in Antigua. My host sister was Les- she is 16, very good at math, and hopes to be an accountant one day. My host brother was Oto- he is 12 and is very in to soccer these days. We watched a few games together and he got me really excited about Xela’s team “XelaWho.” (Below: my family in San Jaun from L to R: Chilo, Oto, Rosa, Lys & Tanya (a family friend; my room; myself with the kids in Rosa's school)

During language school, my routine was to wake up and eat breakfast at 7, then walk to school, which ran from 8am to noon. At noon, I would return home and have lunch with my host mom, brother, and all of the children at Rosa’s daycare (which totaled 18-25 on any given day!). In the afternoons, I would either play with the children, head to the small town cafĂ© to study, or take a bus in to Antigua for activities with the school and/or our site coordinator, Marcia. In the evenings I would return home and have dinner with my family. Often, we would play a game afterwards, such as “Uno” or “Loteria” (the equivalent of “Bingo”).

Language school went well. It was, of course, challenging, but I feel that I can adequately communicate here in Xela. People speak very fast here, but I feel that I am making slow progress every day! Once things settle down a bit more, I hope to take a weekly class in order to improve my grammar. I really enjoyed working with my teacher, Carmen. She is a law student who is taking a bit of time off to teach. She has a long-term boyfriend and promised to keep me updated, as they hope to be married next fall! (Below: Carmen and I & The teachers and students goofing off on the last day of school)

Along with language school, we took part in several cultural experiences throughout the country. One Saturday, we climbed the volcano “Picaya.” It was about an hour and a half up the mountain and once we got there, we got stuck in the rain! It was very cold at the top, but we could stand in or near crevices that had steam coming out of them because of the lava below- this kept us pretty warm! 
We also climbed “Cerro de la Cruz,” “The Hill of the Cross,” which gives a breathtaking view of the city of Antigua. It’s a good workout too!

One Friday, we visited a group called “Corazon de Mujer,” “The heart of the Woman.” Guatemala has a sad history of civil violence that ended within the last thirty years, but the effects are still evident. The indigenous Mayan population found themselves victims of a horrendous genocide. Even now, as it is safe for them to return to their homes, some refuse. This group, Corazon de Mujer, is made up of several Mayan women who weave for a living. Their products are scarfs, headbands, table runners, purses, etc. Basically anything you can make from woven material. Pictured below is a picture of myself with the two women who made the scarf and headband I bought.

Guatemala is also known for exporting Macadamia nuts. That being said, one of the after school programs offered a trip to the macadamia nut farm. While there, we learned the process of making macadamian butter, candles, and natural oils. 

I’ve also had the opportunity to learn some salsa around town! They offer free classes on Monday and Tuesdays. I’ve learned the Pachata, Salsa, and Merengue. Once I get more settled in, I hope to take more classes!

We also took a field trip to Guatemala City, where we had a Bible study with the staff of CEDEPCA. CEDEPCA stands for “Centro Evangelico de Estudios Pastorales en Centro America.” CEDEPCA is an ecumenical program in Guatemala that hosts visiting groups from the states, provides education on women’s issues, facilitates emergency assistance during times of crisis (such as landslides and earthquakes), provides assistance to working single parents and works fervently with community ministry programs. There is some chance that I will assist with groups visiting from the United States in the future.
We also visited an immigration office in the Capital. This office assists several groups of people: individuals who have been deported from the states after living there for years (and sometimes decades) and need assistance with finding any family members in Guatemala; individuals who have migrated from other countries and have found themselves hungry and without shelter; and individuals who have been manipulated by coyotes and have been captured, kept under house arrest, and sometimes forced in to prostitution (this group mostly consists of women and children). The goal of this office is not to smuggle individuals into the states (as some might assume). Rather, the goal is to care for those who are living on the streets and have no place to go. Much like First Presbyterian Church’s Stewpot program ( ), The Migrant office offers breakfast and dinner and a place to sleep. During the day, patrons are expected to go out into town and find work. Social workers and volunteers assist the patrons in networking, finding jobs, and locating family members.

We also visited Ventanas Abiertas (“Open Windows”), where Young Adult Volunteer Austin Langley will be working. This is a program in San Miguel Duenas which provides after school programs and character building to children in the surrounding areas. The program offers after school tutoring, computer lessons, community projects, and education to parents. Below is a picture I snapped of a group of donors- not sure if it is Kerrville, Texas, does anyone know??

Another program we visited near the Antigua area is “Common Hope,” where Young Adult Volunteer Julianne Blaha will be working. This program, in Ciudad Vieja, was founded by Americans and provides a plethora of services. They have a large dorm where they host international volunteers. They are in the process of expanding their library, which is available for use by the children involved in the program. They train teachers and volunteers that work in schools they sponsor and offer literacy classes, breast feeding courses, and computer literacy classes to parents. 

We also visited Young Adult volunteer Jackie Wonsey’s hometown of Pachaj, where  she will be  working in a women’s shelter as well as a clinic for Indigenous women and children who do not have easy access to medical aid. This clinic has a regular doctor and nurse who bring supplies from larger cities and educate the women on proper nutrition, breast feeding, and vaccinations.

Independence Day in Guatemala happened to be September 15th. We had a wonderfully cultural day where we watched the parade and had a barbeque in the afternoon with friends of our site coordinator, Marcia. There were parades throughout the entire day with bright colors and school bands, some of which included members of our host siblings! (see below)

After four weeks of living with my language school host family, we said a very tearful goodbye and they gave me a pair of earrings as a parting gift. I miss them dearly and look forward to visiting when I am in the Antigua area again.
The weekend before we left for Pachaj, Julianne and I decided we needed a break! We found a group of people we had met throughout the month and took a shuttle to Monterrico, a beach town on the Pacific coast. There, we relaxed, caught some sun, swam, and took in a breathtaking sunset. (see above)

From there, we headed to Pachaj- a very rural town about thirty minutes outside of Xela. We lived in Pachaj to get a better idea of what a rural part of Guatemala looks like. Julianne and I lived with a family of seven: Great grandmother, grandmother, two daughters, one son-in-law, and two little boys, Benjamin and Bryan. This Mayan family was very sweet and spoke not only Spanish, but also Quiche, an indigenous language (I picked up a few phrases- but not too many, because my head was so full of Spanish!). Jackie and Austin lived with another Mayan family of four. (see Julianne and I's family above)

While in Pachaj, we participated in more cultural experiences. One day, we were given a tour of Xela (very helpful for me!), another day, we talked about the 30-year war and the conflict between Catholic and Evangelical churches. We relaxed one day, and then we visited one of my favorite sites thus far: Fuentes Georginas. Fuentes Georginas are a set of natural springs in Zunil, about an hour outside of Xela. This was a much needed relaxing morning, and I enjoyed it thoroughly! (see above)

The next morning, I would have participated in a Mayan ceremony with the rest of the girls…but I was in bed nursing a terrible bought with food poisoning. The only conclusion we have come to is that Austin and I drank some homemade juice with fruit that had been cut with a dirty knife. Julianne and Jackie never came down with the issues Austin and I had- and it only took about 24 hours for both of us to recover. Attached is a picture of the outhouse I had to use during this time… I will spare you all the details, but it was probably the worst place to come down with food poisoning! (Above: infamous toilet above; below: our second Spanish school in Pachaj)
This past Sunday was difficult for me because the other three girls left Xela and went to their sites for the year. Watching them drive off, knowing that two of them would be four hours away from me and that I was on my own was a tough pill to swallow. Things are getting real now- the experience I have been interested in since age 18 has begun!

But my sadness was short lived because a taxi soon picked me up and took me to San Marcos Episcopal Church- where I was welcomed with open arms!! The Presbyterian Church in Guatemala is very different than that of the PC(USA). Here, Presbyterianism is considered more Evangelical than Reformed. For this reason, I am ecstatic to be working and building community at San Marcos because it is the closest practice to Presbyterianism in the area. Shortly after being greeted by everyone, the Padre asked me to preach at the English service in two weeks- so I’m hittin’ the ground running! In addition to preaching, I am also volunteering at the church’s lunch program.

On Tuesday, I met about 30 individuals who come to San Marcos every day for lunch and social interaction. Enrique is a 55 year old recovering alcoholic. He claims God alone is responsible for his recovery- for he stumbled into a church drunkenly 30 years ago and has never been the same. He has two daughters, age 16 and 18- one who is single and pregnant with her second child. He has no other family but those at his church and San Marcos’ lunch program. He makes his living by leatherwork- making saddles and belts.

Norway is a 48-year old woman who has found herself homeless in the last week. She has no family but finds comfort in the company of those at the lunch program. Thanks to networking among this group, Norway is looking in to housing options this week through a local community ministry.

Juan is a deaf and mute mid 50-year-old who finds spiritual, physical, and relational nourishment in the company of the members of the lunch program. He has one of the most beautiful smiles I have ever seen.  

I am very excited about this ministry- I will be building community with those whom society often deems “the least of these” by sharing a meal, playing games, and giving them a space to tell their stories. Praise God from whom all blessings flow!!