free electronic edition
why is this free?
thanks to W Publishing/Thomas Nelson. After selling out the entire first printing
of the book Four Souls in only five weeks, the publishing house has made
the unprecedented decision to release the text version of Four Souls
via email and the web free of charge for a limited time. Seeing the remarkable
initial response to the book, W Publishing believes that once readers get a
taste, theyll likely buy a print copy for themselves or others. On your
computer, though, the entire text costs nothing. So simply scroll down
to begin the story of an epic journey around the globe. We hope the journey
will provide not only a window upon far-flung places, but also an authentic
look at questions of faith, community, and what it means to really live.
-Matt, Mike, Jedd, and Trey
Authors of Four Souls
Copyright © 2001 by Matt Kronberg, Mike Peterson, Jedd Medefind, and Trey Sklar.
W Publishing Group, A Division of Thomas Nelson, Inc.
Published in association with Yates & Yates, Literary Agents, Orange, California.
We would like to extend our heartfelt gratitude to the many remarkable individuals from around the world who welcomed us into their homes and lives throughout our journey.
This book would not have been possible without the generous help and love of our dedicated wives, families, and friends. We are deeply grateful to you all. A special thanks to Dr. David Winter, Coach Jim Birschbach, Mr. Jason Hamm, and Senator Tim Leslie for believing in the vision behind this book and working with us as we seek to travel the most excellent road called Epic Life.
do you have that you did not receive?
1 CORINTHIANS 4:7
TO GOD BE THE GLORY
Introduction: First Seeds of an Adventure ix
1. 3,000 Miles in Ten Days 1
2. A Lesson in Generosity: Guatemala City, Guatemala 21
3. The Four Amigos! Together in Guatemala City 34
4. Into the Highlands: Uspantan, Guatemala 47
5. A Scathing Letter and Some Sweet Sorrow: Leaving Guatemala 61
III: Russia and Beyond
6. The Wounded Bear: Moscow, Russia 71
7. The Secret Police: Orekhovo-Zuyevo, Russia 75
8. Scarred Hands and Iron Doors: Serpukhov, Russia 92
9. Village at the Edge of the World: Loly, Russia 102
10. Heart of the Gulag Region: Yemva, Russia 117
11. Waltzing through the West: From Moscow to the Mediterranean Sea 139
12. Land of the Pharaohs: Cairo, Egypt 153
V: South Africa
13. Beauty and Strife 171
14. The Mountain Kingdom: Maseru, Kingdom of the Lesotho 176
15. The Road to Durban 193
16. Rajas, Rice, and Rickshaws 215
17. A Change of Plans: Chirala, India 238
18. Sisters of Charity: Calcutta, India 249
19. The End of Our Rope 261
20. 100,000 Rickshaws: Dhaka, Bangladesh 285
21. From Mosquito Nets to Marble Tile: Bangkok, Thailand 301
22. Notes from the Underground 329
The Adventure Begins 358
There was definitely some fear. Hope as well. The two are always intertwined
in one way or another.
The four of us-Matt, Jedd, Mike, and Trey, all seniors at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California-stood at one of those points in life where the future seemed to lay spread out before us like a boundless landscape, heavy with both expectation and uncertainty.
We could not shake our feeling that the expected, sensible routes might not actually lead to the fullness and purpose we hoped for. Would life out there ultimately leave us weekend-waiting, vacation-dreaming, diversion-driven, and dissatisfied?
We knew we had to choose our own route, or else the expectations of others, along with the ruts of our culture, would make the decision for us. If we were serious about pursuing something more in life, we had to start now.
Grad schools pressed for decisions and job opportunities tugged at our shirt-sleeves, but a different idea also began to take shape: the prospect of traveling around the world working with local Christians for the better part of a year after we graduated.
Perhaps we heard the same voice calling us that has beckoned young people throughout the centuries, drawing them to board an explorers ship, enlist in the cavalry, or join the wagon train heading west. We wanted more than just adventure, though. We wanted to discover something we called epic life, the kind of living that would make each day worth waking up for. We desired to see our character grow stronger, our relationships deeper, and our vision of life clearer. Though we did not know exactly what epic life would look like or just how it should be defined, we simply knew we had to find it.
This story is about that quest, as best we can tell it, our discoveries alongside the bumps, bruised expectations, and jagged edges. Many of the questions we ask-and sometimes try to answer-are questions others have wrestled with as well: Is the good life really the best life? Who defines success? What will I value on my deathbed? How can I best serve God and my neighbor? What can I learn from people whose lives are radi-cally different from my own? How can I learn to love my friends well, day after day and mile after mile?
We do not venture into these questions as theologians or philosophers, but as fellow explorers on a grand journey. Our hope is that the stories can be experienced by you in much the same way they were experienced by us: sometimes provoking, sometimes enlightening, sometimes confusing. If you are looking for a master plan for life, you will not find it here. You may end up with more to wrestle with than when you started. But if you are up for a journey, join us for the adventure of four souls in pursuit of real life. Our travels together just might get you moving in the direction you want to go.
Kronberg Jedd Medefind
Mike Peterson Trey Sklar
First Seeds of an Adventure
little knots of Friends who turn their backs on the World are those
who really transform it.
-C. S. LEWIS, THE FOUR LOVES
Trey burst through the front door of our apartment.
Sorry Im late! he called, slightly out of breath. His hair stuck out every which way, and his wire-rimmed glasses were slightly askew. He had been driving his Jeep with the top down, as usual.
Matt looked up from his philosophy text. Were all ready. Lets get Mike and Jedd in here.
Mike came in through the back door, his surfboard under his arm.
Whats that smell? Matt wrinkled his nose.
Just fiberglass. I had to patch a ding in my board.
If you dont mind, let it dry outside. Youre going to get us all high.
A moment later, Jedd emerged from the closet he had converted into a study. It was humorous to see his tall body squeeze out of that small space. He shoved aside a pair of dirty socks and flopped down on the old orange couch between Trey and Matt.
Jedd looked at the other three. So, tonight we decide.
Matt agreed. Graduation is just a few months away. Were going to have to nail down our decisions about grad schools and job offers.
Ive already put down one deposit for law school and the next one is due soon, said Jedd.
Trey nodded. The trip will fall by the wayside unless we commit to it now. As I see it, tonight we have to decide the question one way or another.
Someone want to pray before we begin? suggested Jedd.
Ill do it, said Mike.
We bowed our heads as Mike requested Gods guidance in our decision. Then, Jedd picked up again. Okay, guys. I think we all feel the same. Weve talked about the trip plenty. But now were at the point where if its going to happen, we have to totally plunge in and let our other options go.
Let me say something real quick, said Trey. He could hardly hold himself back. Treys energy and irrepressible optimism were probably the main reason we were still discussing the idea of such a venture at all. See guys, weve got to think about the purpose of a trip like this. This vision we have isnt just about traveling. Everywhere wed go, wed live with the locals. Wed be working with them and learning from them. Itd be incredible! Even if thered be some things that would be a little hard, it would shape us into the kind of men we want to be.
Mike smiled at Treys enthusiasm. Hey, Im definitely in, he said. The work I do with my concession business wraps up by October. If we can wait until then to leave, Im committed. Mike worked in the family business, selling concessions at summer fairs. Recently, he had purchased the business from his grandfather, which committed him to operating concession stands at nearly a dozen fairs over the course of the summer.
Jedd offered his verdict next. Well, you know law school was my plan. The more I think about it, though, the more I want to put it on hold. Once the wheels of grad school start turning and the loans build up, Ill probably never have another chance to do something like this. If Matt is in, too, Ill call UVA tomorrow and tell them to pull my application.
We were not sure what to expect as we turned toward Matt. His parents had expressed reservations about the trip, particularly regarding the safety of traveling in Third World countries.
Ive told you guys its difficult for me to feel totally comfortable with something like this, he said, pausing momentarily as if still thinking it through. I usually like to know exactly what Im getting into before making any big decisions.
Trey groaned, but Matt continued. Ive been thinking, though, about what I want my life to be about. I really do want to be someone who steps out and takes risks, who grows deep with a few good friends, and learns how to better serve God and people in need. I really cant imagine a better way to do that than . . .
So youre in! declared Trey.
Thats what Im saying, affirmed Matt. He paused, then continued, Grad school can wait. I dont really know what we are getting into, and I still have some doubts. But Im excited, and right now Id rather have this uncertainty than anything else.
We fell silent for a moment, feeling as if we had crossed a line in the sand. Expectations we had held for years were now officially shoved to the side. The only thing standing in their place was an idea, a somewhat vague idea, that was far-fetched and perhaps even impossible.
Trey wrote in his journal later that night.
Were all committed! I feel just about as excited as Ive ever been. This trip idea is what Ive always hoped for: a great adventure that will help lead me to be the man I want to be.
When I think of previous generations-even my fathers years as a soldier in Vietnam-it seems that people faced such amazing challenges. For my generation of Americans, these kinds of trials have become rare. Like it or not, this is the generation of cushy circumstances-no World War, no Vietnam, no famine, and jobs available for just about anyone who is willing to work. On the surface, this is a blessing, but I believe our character is weaker.
Trials test character. In an extended difficult situation, you find out how long you can last on nothing but your deepest beliefs-and if you make it through, you come out stronger and ready for more. I hunger to be sharpened into a man who can be used by God. This trip around the world could do just that. I know it would involve some trials, but Im willing to accept those for the benefit I see in it. If it can lead toward the kind of meaningful, purposeful life I hope to live, then it is worth anything I can put into it.
Getting It All Together . . .
To actually begin was thrilling . . . and also daunting. How would we ever organize
an around-the-world trip? Discovering the right places to go would be a task
much bigger than us. And what could we actually offer to the people with whom
we would stay?
Our little apartment soon became the incubator for the specific plans for the trip. International phone calls, e-mails, and letters-often to people we had never met-began to open possibilities for living and working all around the globe.
The time we planned to spend in each country would be relatively brief-probably only one or two months. People who had spent years in overseas service warned us about the pitfalls into which short-termers often fall. Many rush into a place expecting to perform some heroic work in only a few days. As a result, they leave either disappointed or bloated with what they think they have accomplished. Although service projects and other work alongside the locals would be a central part of the trip, they would not be the foundation. Instead, we would set our vision based upon what we believed were the key aspects of epic life.
We expressed our priorities in the following mission statement:
To come to know and love Jesus Christ in a deeper and more meaningful way through loving and serving people throughout the world.
To come to know and love each other in a deeper and more meaningful way.
Finally, to share the love of Jesus through our actions and our words.
The question of funding soon became significant. Though housing costs would
be low, due to the fact that we planned to live and eat with the local people,
there were still travel expenses. And our little savings accounts would not
cover it all. Mike was strongly opposed to seeking outside support for the trip
and our work. He hated asking for money, especially from people he knew. Mike
had always been self-reliant, working long summer hours in the family concession
business and starting a few of his own entrepreneurial ventures to pay his way
Well earn as much as we can during the summer, but I dont think we can do it without raising some support, argued Trey.
I dont like asking people for money, either, added Matt, but I think there are some people out there who would be excited about being a part of this. Im sure our churches would help some, too.
We realized right away that we did not all have equal fund-raising connections. If each of us had to be responsible for our own funds, it seemed likely that not all of us would be able to go. We would be a true team in all respects. Each of us brought certain talents and abilities to the group-access to funds was only one of these. The early Christians described in the book of Acts would serve as our model. Every cent brought in for the trip would be shared equally. Either we would raise enough money for all of us to go, or we wouldnt go at all.
Opportunities for places to work and live on the trip showed up in the most unexpected ways. Time after time, it seemed that one friend knew another who happened to know someone who just might want to put us to use. In the final weeks of school-after months of planning-a tentative route for our trip began to take shape.
We would start in Guatemala with Salomón and Mery Hernández, a Guatemalan couple committed to serving their poorer countrymen. We would help them construct a clinic from which they could help those otherwise not able to afford medical care. Since the soon-to-be-built clinic would need an ambulance, we planned to purchase a used one and drive it down through Mexico to Guatemala.
We intended to fly to Russia next. Since Treys father worked in Moscow, we could stay with Treys family for a few days before joining the work of a former world-class wrestler named Steve Barrett, who did service and evangelism throughout the former Soviet Union.
From Russia, we would pass briefly through Europe and Egypt on our way to southern Africa. We would teach English and other classes at the Mount Tabor school for village children in the Kingdom of the Lesotho.
Next would come India. In addition to spending some time with an Indian pastor and his family, we would volunteer at Mother Teresas Home for the Sick and Dying in Calcutta.
From Calcutta, we would fly to Bangladesh, and join the work of Bangladesh Christian Service, a branch of the JESUS Film Project run by nationals.
After Bangladesh, we would assist in a microeconomic development project in Thailand operated by World Vision. Finally, we would smuggle Bibles to the underground church in Vietnam, and attempt to join the work of another World Vision group during our short time there. Before returning home, we would stay briefly with Matts aunt and uncle in Shekou, China.
And Taking It on the Road
Graduation was bittersweet. We had never felt both so sad to leave a place and
yet so excited about what lay ahead. Countless details would need to be worked
out over the summer months-visas acquired, more contacts established, funds
raised, train and boat schedules obtained, and much more. Since his father had
served in the army, Trey grew up living all over the world. His international
studies major in college-which included a semester studying in Zimbabwe-also
contributed to his excellent sense of the world and travel. He was the natural
for our logistical point man. Within a few weeks after graduation, he had already
set up a makeshift office, complete with a phone hot line and Web page.
With little more than a month remaining, we still did not have an ambulance lined up to purchase and drive to Guatemala. A company that sold used ambulances continued to promise that one would become available, but as the departure date drew near, nothing had materialized. If we could not purchase an ambulance, we would need to buy plane tickets to Guatemala.
Just days before we planned to purchase the tickets, we received a phone call from a fellow Westmont alum, a young man who had spent time working with Salomón and Mery some years before and had come to believe deeply in their work. Hearing of our trip, he had decided to donate his 1993 Ford Ranger with a camper shell to their work in Guatemala.
We contacted Salomón to ask if he thought the truck would meet their need for an ambulance. He said it would work perfectly. Jedd and Mike would drive the truck down through Mexico. Matt and Trey would travel via plane, arriving in time to welcome them to Guatemala.
The only major dilemma remaining was funding. We had pooled our summer earnings in a single, shared account. Friends, family members, and our churches contributed significantly as well. Even so, we were more than $10,000 short of our projected budget as the day of departure approached.
Matts face was uncharacteristically flushed when Trey informed him of the financial situation. Treys prior reports on the success of our fund-raising had suggested a much more optimistic picture. What do you mean, Trey? That is all we have in our account? I thought you said we already had most of the money we needed. After we pay for our plane tickets, well hardly have a cent left for the trip itself.
Trey was apologetic. I thought we had more than we do. Its been really hard to get any information about our account the last few weeks. Theres quite a few people who told me theyre still planning to contribute, but I dont exactly feel comfortable reminding them.
Well, what should we do? If were still planning to go, we have to send in our check for the plane tickets tomorrow.
It doesnt seem like a question to me. Were just going to need to jump and expect that the parachute is going to open. I think it will.
Phone calls to Mike and Jedd confirmed we would proceed as planned. We would depart with enough in the bank to get us through two months of the trip and trust that the rest would come through.
Ive been in few situations that require faith like this. Usually I set up my own safety nets-just in case things dont work out like I planned.
The place Im in now is different. I dont have anything to fall back on. This trip can only succeed if God comes through for us on the money and everything else. If He does, it will be a great faith-building experience. If things dont work out . . . well . . . I guess it will be an adventure nonetheless.
- one -
3,000 Miles in Ten Days
He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
That puts it not unto the touch
To win or lose it all.
-JAMES GRAHAM, MARQUESS OF MONTROSE
The truck border station appeared strangely deserted. Just a few miles away, the main border station in Nogales passed hundreds of cars an hour through a half-dozen kiosks. This one did not even have a stop sign. Its fluorescent lights looked feeble beneath the jeweled stars that spattered the desert sky.
You think this is really where we were supposed to go? questioned Mike.
Jedd shrugged. We followed the directions that guard gave us. I would have expected something a little bigger, though.
We had begun the day in California, Highway 8 carrying us east and south from San Diego to the edge of Mexico. We arrived at the border town of Nogales, Arizona, as the last traces of a watercolor sunset faded from the sky. Our first attempt to cross at Nogaless main border station had failed when one of the guards would not let us through.
Youve got too many boxes of medical supplies. You need to go to the truck border crossing, he insisted.
Now we were making a second go of it at the truck crossing, hoping we would not face any further complications. A uniformed man leaned back in a wooden chair in front of the office, chin on chest. Without raising his head, he waved us through with a flick of his hand.
Jedd waved back. That was easier than I expected.
The highway ahead loomed lightless, save for a handful of cracked reflectors that offered back the glow from our headlights. We had not driven more than a few miles when a fluorescent blaze rose out of the darkness. Signs in Spanish and English indicated a stop was required.
I guess I spoke too soon, said Jedd, a bit disappointed.
He turned into a pebble-strewn lot and parked next to a few other vehicles. Nearby stood a complex of several buildings-mostly concrete painted green. Inside what seemed to be the main building, several people were filling out papers, writing against the bare wall since there were no counters. A Mexican-American was arguing with one of the officials who would not let him take his daughter any farther into Mexico without written permission from her mother. The little girl sat quietly on a wooden chair, glancing around with large brown eyes.
It took forty-five minutes to wade through the paperwork and fees. We had to charge an amount equal to 20 percent of the trucks estimated value onto Mikes credit card, nearly $2,000. If the truck did not exit the country within a month, they would assume we had sold it and would collect the money as a tariff. If we left the country as we promised, we would get the entire amount back . . . hopefully.
As we pulled back onto the road, we noticed that at the far end of the complex stood a lone guard shack. We slowed as we approached. It was nearly midnight. Two men were smoking and talking inside.
Do we have to stop again, Mike?
I dont know. Did you see any signs telling us we need to?
Well, lets go then.
Once past the shack, Jedd pushed down on the accelerator. He took one last look in the rearview mirror and saw two men come out of the shack and run toward a military Jeep parked nearby.
Uh-oh, Mike, I think those guys are coming after us.
Think we can outrun them? said Mike dryly.
Jedd laughed. Not in this truck.
We slowed, moved onto the shoulder, and turned around. As we pulled up alongside the guard station, the two men stepped out of their Jeep, yelling in Spanish and motioning to the area under a large awning that covered several long, green tables. We stopped next to the tables and got out. The man was still shouting, his speech so rapid we could understand very little of what was being said. Jedd gave Mike a rough translation: Hes mad at us.
After another string of angry Spanish, the shouter stormed away and reentered
the guard shack. The other fellow, a younger man, stepped forward. His English
wasnt bad. You speak Spanish?
Only a little, said Mike.
Okay, I will try English then. You see, that man, the captain, he is angry.
Whats the problem?
He wants to know why you tried to sneak past us.
We werent trying to sneak past you. We didnt know we were supposed to stop.
Yes. You must stop. We put up the red light for you.
Mike was growing defensive. I didnt see that. Did you, Jedd?
I didnt see anything that looked like we had to stop.
The guard glanced back at the shack before giving us orders. You must go unload everything in your truck on those tables.
Mike was carefully laying his old surfboard on the table next to our backpacks when the captain emerged from the office. He went straight for the largest boxes, his face deadpan as he riffled through the medical supplies: cases of gauze, empty blood sample vials, aspirin, rubber gloves, and the like. Among the donated medical supplies there was even a box of three hundred Chap Sticks.
The junior guard spoke up again. The captain wants to know what is all this.
Jedd responded in Spanish. It is all medical supplies for the poor in Guatemala.
Do you have permission for them?
We showed them the papers we had acquired at the last station, but they were not satisfied. We had heard that a special permit might be required to bring medical supplies into Mexico. Such permits, though, were to be acquired three months prior to entry, and our supplies had been donated to us only the previous month. We had decided to risk it, as most of the supplies were past their official expiration date and would just have gone to waste in the U.S. even though they were still usable.
The captain stomped off to his shack again. The guards eyes narrowed as he turned back to us. This is very bad. The captain says we are going to have to impound your truck.
Impound our truck! exclaimed Mike.
Yes. And we will fine you three times the value of your medical supplies, which the captain says is $3,000. Your fine will be $9,000. When you pay it, you can get the truck back.
We looked at each other. The guard seemed to be waiting for something. We felt the first tinges of desperation. Is there anything you could do to help us?
The guards face didnt flinch, but he smiled faintly. He opened his palms toward us and tilted his head to one side. Yes, we are men of honor. Let me go talk to the captain. I will try to help you.
The captain was standing, arms crossed, next to the guard shack. Beneath his narrow mustache, a hand-rolled cigarette hung from thin lips.
The two men disappeared into the office. A minute later the guard returned. I think I have been able to help, he announced with a magnanimous gesture. This is a very bad situation, but I have told the captain you might not be able to pay the entire amount. How much of your fine can you pay?
We exchanged glances, wondering what to suggest. It appeared that a game of good cop/bad cop was developing. Mike took a stab. Forty dollars.
The guard snorted. That will not be enough for the captain. Wait a minute. He returned to the office.
When he rejoined us, he had the look of a warm-hearted benefactor on his face. The captain is still very upset, but I argued with him. All you will need to pay is $200.
We are not wealthy. We are only going to help the poor in Guatemala. We just do not have enough money, replied Jedd.
The guard let out a sigh. Just a minute. I will see if there is anything more I can do.
When he came back, he was shaking his head. The captain says $40 is still not enough. You will need to come up with more.
We huddled for a moment. Finally, Mike offered, We can give you $40 and this box of Chap Stick. That is the best we can do.
I will see if that is enough.
After another brief conference with the captain, the guard announced that our proposal would be sufficient. The only problem is, he said apologetically, we will not be able to give you a receipt. We ran out yesterday.
We reloaded the truck quickly. As Mike reached into his pocket for the money, the guard blurted out, Wait! Do not pay us here. Just drive down the road a little ways and put the box and the money by the side of the road.
He waved as we drove off down the road. Jedd glanced at Mike and shook his head. Those jerks. Im tempted to hit the gas and not look back.
Still within sight of the station, we pulled over. The box of Chap Stick was behind the drivers seat. As he placed the forty dollars in it, Jedd scooped a few handfuls of the tubes out onto the floor of the truck. Mike chuckled. Whats that for?
You never know when we might need some Chap Stick.
We set the box by the side of the road and hopped back into the truck. The blaze of the station, like a bad dream, faded as quickly as it had appeared. A few house lights twinkled on the horizon, timid reflections of the stars above. We drove on, our adrenaline slowly beginning to ebb.
Several minutes later, Jedd broke the silence. I really dont know what to think about that, Mike. I just dont know.
We didnt have much of a choice.
We could have said, Go ahead and impound the truck if you want, but we wont give you a bribe . . .
They said it was a fine.
It was pretty clear what it was.
They were the government officials, demanding a payment. We gave it.
Theres a lot of good officials out there who would probably like to root out this sort of thing. Then we go and . . .
Come on, youve got to deal with the face the government gives you. What do you do-tell em to go ahead and impound the truck?
I dont know. Its not clear-cut. Whats the higher good-refusing to cooperate with corrupt officials, or just trying to get this stuff to people who need it? I guess I feel all right about our motives. I just wonder if we should have done things differently.
It seems pretty simple to me.
Mikes Reflections-October 9
I dont understand why Jedd is worried about what we did tonight. It seems he wrestles with his conscience so much. At times he reminds me of what I have read about the author Leo Tolstoy-always determined to do the right thing, yet sometimes tearing himself up as he wrestles over the questions of which path is best.
Maybe I should be worried about this bribe issue, but in all honesty Im not. Corruption in many governments goes all the way to the top. Paying bribes is just part of the unwritten law down here. The locals understand that. As foreigners, I think we need to be flexible and, at times, work within their system.
By 2:00 A.M., our conversation had run out, along with the last bits of our
I dont know how much longer I can keep my eyes open, Mike, said Jedd. I thought for sure wed come across a little hotel or something by now.
Lets just take a dirt road a ways up and find a place to lay out our sleeping bags, suggested Mike.
A half-hour later, however, we still had not come across any promising side roads. Jedd pulled to the side of the highway and parked behind a thin patch of bushes. The truck would be only slightly visible from the road. We tossed our pads and sleeping bags on the ground and climbed in. Even the semitrucks, rumbling past ten yards away, could not keep us from sleep.
The dawns first light pried our eyes open. Traffic on the highway was picking up, and it was hopeless to try to go back to sleep.
Mike, look at this, said Jedd, indicating the area around our bags.
Mikes puffy eyes surveyed the ground. Wads of toilet paper-some old, others fresh-lay everywhere.
I think we just slept in the middle of a truckdriver poop stop.
After tossing the bags back in the truck, we downed a couple of bagels and got back on the highway. Three thousand miles of Mexican road lay ahead. If we were going to meet Matt, Trey, and Salomón at the border in ten days as we planned, wed have to put in some long hours behind the wheel.
Mike reached down and tried the radio. Nothing but mariachi. He popped in the trucks only tape instead-Selenas Greatest Hits in Spanish.
I cant believe we didnt think of bringing any music for the drive, said Mike, shaking his head.
Look at the bright side. Well know every word of this Selena tape by the time we get to Guatemala.
Meanwhile, in Santa Barbara . . .
With less than a week before their flight to Guatemala, Trey and Matt still
had to take care of dozens of last-minute details. Once on the road, communication
with people in other countries would be extremely difficult.
The majority of our plans were well established, but the itinerary still had some gaps. Our Russian and Bangladeshi visa requests were still being processed. We had yet to find contacts for India and Vietnam. Our budget was still more than $10,000 short. These details and more would need to come together long after we were past the point of no return.
Thick vines and ivies, accented by flowers of pink and purple, covered everything
that had not been cultivated in the previous year or two. Nestled within the
tropical valleys, rows of corn, fruit orchards, and expansive fields of sugarcane
fought to hold on to the space they had won from the wild growth. The buzz of
unseen insects filled the car when the windows were down.
Mike glanced over at Jedd. He seemed to be in thought after a conversation they had had earlier. Still thinking about your mom?
Jedd nodded. His mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer just a few months before. He thought about not leaving with the other guys, but she insisted that he go-he could fly home quickly enough if he was needed.
Mike reassured, Your dad and your brothers will take good care of her.
I know. Its just hard sometimes to think about not being there with them.
Your familys really close.
Yeah. Im definitely going to miss my brothers and my parents.
Mike grinned, trying to lighten the conversation. Ive always said, youre the all-American boy.
Jedd smiled. When they had first arrived at Westmont, neither he nor Mike had thought much of each other. Mikes waist-length surfer hair and undershirt tank tops did not sit well with him. Jedds near-perfect grades and athlete status did nothing to endear him to Mike, either. It took several years for them to realize they actually did enjoy each other despite their differences.
As our road rejoined the coast late in the day, orchards of coconut trees stretched
along the shoreline as far as the eye could see. Banana trees had been planted
between the taller coconut trees so that two expansive planes of greenery ran
parallel to the ground. In the open spaces, palm-covered huts appeared amid
the high grass.
This place looks like Hawaii without the tourists, Jedd remarked.
Youve been to Hawaii?
No. It just looks like the pictures.
Neither have I. Id take a place like this over Hawaii for a vacation any day, though. No tourist traps or crowds. Just relaxing, eating tacos, and surfin.
Sounds nice. My family never took many travel vacations when I was growing up. I guess with my dad working as a ranger, we saw the whole summer as a vacation.
Jedds father was a high school biology teacher, but in the summers, he worked as a horse patrol ranger in Yosemite National Park. Every year when school got out, the family headed up to their little two-room cabin in the mountains for three months.
You guys really liked living in Yosemite, didnt you?
Jedd smiled at the thought. Seasonal rangers dont earn much more than minimum wage-they say they get paid in sunsets. It sure wasnt the money. My dad-we all-just loved being up there.
Thats great. Ill tell you one thing-I dont want to be the type of guy that doesnt do anything more than survive fifty weeks out of the year just so he can get to his two weeks of vacation.
Its pretty sad how many people seem to live that way. I mean, not only the high-stress guys who hate everything except for their vacation time, but, you know . . . there just dont seem to be that many people out there living with the kind of purpose or joy I want to live with. Theres so much halfhearted-
You mean, the way most people live seems to be less than epic life?
Jedd nodded. Part of me is afraid thats just the way its going to be now that college is over. So many people graduate just praying theyll get well-paying jobs. What good are big paychecks if life is just ho-hum?
Jedd continued, Last summer I worked for Price-Waterhouse. The guy I was working for was billing at over $500 an hour. But I kept thinking, Even if I make it to be twice as successful as this guy, I wouldnt necessarily be all that happy.
Mike nodded. Yeah. You see so many people out there and you wonder, Is that going to be me in ten years?
I hope not.
Yeah, but whats going to keep it from happening?
Were on this trip now. Thats a good first step.
Yeah, but how are we going to live out epic life when we get home at the end of it all? Thats the most important question.
Im hoping well have figured that out by then.
I hope so, too.
Jedd glanced out the window and took his foot off the accelerator. You mind if we stop for a minute? I want to see if I can climb one of those coconut trees.
Mexico - Jedd & Mike near Puerto Vallarta
The beauty stayed with us the following day, but large chunks of the road were
missing in places, often opening into drops of a foot or more.
Hows your back doing, Mike? asked Jedd. A slew of snowboarding accidents over the years had left Mikes back with a few odd kinks. Jedd knew that repeated ten-hour days seated in a truck must be agitating it a little.
Mike shrugged. Not too bad. Jedd doubted Mike would admit it even if he was in pain.
Jedd swerved to avoid another large pothole. These are the biggest holes weve seen yet.
Its getting worse. Im wondering if its from the hurricane.
A few miles later, Jedd was forced to bring the truck to an abrupt stop. I expected some bad roads, but I never expected this.
A large fissure, six feet deep, jagged across the highway.
Man, Mike responded. He peered over the dash into the crevice for a moment, then suggested, It looks like you might be able to get around up there.
Jedd managed to squeeze the truck between the cliff wall and the crack and continued. As we drew nearer to Acapulco, the destruction of the hurricane grew increasingly pronounced. More fissures, some more than twenty feet deep, split the road and forced major detours. Cement bridges had been torn apart and washed downstream. Cars lay where they had been crushed against houses, some covered almost completely by sand.
Groups worked here and there to clear the wreckage and begin the long rebuilding process. A few just sat, staring futilely at the wreckage that had been their homes.
The Mexican army had been called out to help. Some of the green-garbed men repaired roads or cleaned debris from the streets. Others worked alongside the locals to construct short-term shelters.
The newspaper I saw this morning said Hurricane Paula killed more than two hundred people, remembered Mike.
I cant imagine how these people feel.
You get a sense by looking at their faces, dont you?
Unable to pass through the center of Acapulco, we returned to a detour that led through the hills and back down to the highway on the far side of the city.
Once past Acapulco, we covered a hundred miles in less than three hours, only occasionally forced to circumvent major potholes and encountering fewer than a dozen cars. The day and our energy were on their way out when we came upon an unlikely sight. There appeared, out of nowhere, a vicious traffic jam-both lanes of the road, and even both shoulders, were blocked by lines of cars facing away from us as far we could see.
We pulled to a halt and sat speculating on what might be happening. It was several minutes later that Jedd commented, You know, Mike, I dont see any people in any of these cars.
Youre right. We could not help but laugh. Not much point in sitting here.
We hopped out to investigate. Sure enough, all of the cars ahead of us were empty. A hundred yards up the line, people were milling around.
As we approached, they greeted us in Spanish. Good evening. You want to get across the river here?
Is it possible? asked Jedd.
Yes, but you will need to leave your car here. The ferry can take you across. The bridge was destroyed by the hurricane and will not be repaired for two weeks. When it is fixed, you can come back and get your car.
There is no other way to get a car across?
The man shook his head. Im sorry, no.
Thanks for the advice, but we need to reach the Guatemalan border by Sunday.
Then you will need to go around, back to Acapulco and then up toward Mexico City.
The road toward Mexico City rose steadily for several hours, taking us into
the heart of the country. It was near the end of the rainy season, and the high,
rounded hills were a vibrant, if tenuous, green. Late in the day we decided
to take a shortcut and turned from the main highway onto a winding road that
promised to cut hours from our route. The dizzying turns and jarring potholes
brought us to the Mexico of yesteryear. Clay-brick homes dotted the countryside.
Men in white cotton clothes tended to the sprawling cornfields that grew up
and down the sides of even the steepest hills.
Descending into a lonely valley toward the end of the day, we were jolted back to modern times. Two sleek, black Suburbans-parked sideways-blocked the road. Men in dark aviator glasses stood in front of them, brandishing machine guns. Jedds hand squeezed the steering wheel. He looked back. We would not make it far if we tried to turn around.
These guys look like professionals, said Mike.
Yeah, professional whats?
Thats just what I was wondering.
A tall, handsome man appeared to be the leader. He stepped to the drivers-side window and fired a series of words in Spanish. Mike indicated he did not quite understand. Jedd pieced together the gist of it: They were, or at least claimed to be, federal drug officers.
Something seems a little off, said Mike in a hushed voice.
Its out of our hands, Jedd whispered back.
The agents, if that is what they were, apparently thought it odd that gringos would be driving this far south in Mexico, and on such back roads. The detour shortcut explanation did not seem to satisfy. They launched into a search, tearing through everything we had brought and even spent a good ten minutes underneath the truck.
It appeared they had exhausted all the cracks and crevices of the vehicle when an officer approached us. Like the others, he did not speak English.
Whats in the bag? he demanded, holding up a small paper sack that had been wrapped with masking tape several times. It looked like the classic Miami Vice package of drugs. We had never seen it before.
That is not ours. We have never seen it before.
We found it in the back of your truck. His tone permitted no arguing.
We knew we were being set up. We looked around. The hills were empty, not a house in sight. Night was fast approaching. Were they just trying to extort a large amount of money from us, or was it going to be worse than that?
The man pulled out a knife and slid it into the bag. Small green-brown seeds spilled out. What is this?
We do not know! Our sense of desperation was growing. Jedd set his jaw. Where exactly did you find this bag?
In here. He indicated a cardboard box that another man brought forward. We could see similar bags packed within.
That box did not come from our truck.
Yes it did.
With few other options, we set to digging through the box as the men appeared to want us to do. Beneath the taped bags lay an odd collection of American goods: a shirt, blank tapes, a book on farming techniques . . . peanut butter?
Suddenly, Jedd broke into a broad grin. Mike, I know what this is. Its the box my aunt packed for my cousin Jared, who Im going to visit in Guatemala. I never had a chance to look in it. Those bags must be special varieties of seeds he wanted to try planting down there. Mike opened his eyes wide and let out a deep breath.
Jedd turned to the agents and explained as fast as he could. They detained us for another twenty minutes but seemed to accept our explanation. The first stars were popping out as the agents gave us leave and moved aside. One of the men even waved as we drove off.
Some time around midnight, we set up camp at the end of a dirt road. A heavy rain soaked through our sleeping bags by two. At three, we concluded there was not much use in trying to sleep in the trucks cab. We got back on the road, heading ever southward.
Surrounding the central plaza in the colonial city of San Cristóbal was
a collection of outdoor cafés. Tourists and college students-both Mexican
and European-talked over coffee or strolled the square. A band played music
from the center of the plaza, and roaming musicians performed at its edges.
Nearby stood a sixteenth-century cathedral and several mansions built during
Spains colonial reign. It was a strange juxtaposition, this old-world
charm in the midst of jungle hills and primitive villages.
Mike pushed his empty plate away and placed his hands behind his head. What a place, huh? I could live here.
I was thinking the same thing. The cobblestones, the musicians, the cathedral over there, the strings of lights . . . it feels like Italy.
Makes you want to be with the one you love.
Mike was the only one of us who had a girlfriend. He had been friends with Brittney since their freshman year but only as seniors did they begin to date. Mike insisted that marriage was still a long way off, but the once very single guy definitely had only one girl on his mind now.
Jedd returned to his prior thoughts. Whenever I used to picture Mexico, Id think of some border town like Tijuana. Here, theres a lot more beauty than I ever imagined.
Everything seems so relaxed, added Mike. People just seem to have time. In the evenings theres people hanging out together everywhere; guys just squatting and talking on the street corner.
Its interesting. The people down here work so hard, but it also seems like once theyve done the work they need to do, they just dont worry about doing anything more.
Mike laughed. They probably think the workaholics up in the U.S. and in Mexico City are really stupid-working their butts off even when theyve got more than enough to live on. He continued, Of course, youve got to respect the industrious guys who make the American standard of living possible, but theres a lot to learn from the people here, too. It seems like their open schedule allows them to spend relational time we dont have much of in the States. So often, our goals of efficiency and achievement leave us without time for doing much for other people.
Jedd thought it interesting to hear Mike talk this way. Although he was outwardly low-key, the energy Mike poured into his small business ventures often totally consumed him. I agree, Jedd followed. How can a person help a friend or show hospitality when their time, money, and energy are always overextended? Youve got to have a little something left at the end of the day or you wont have anything for others when the opportunity arises.
Exactly! Mike was getting a little worked up. Thats just what most Americans dont have! Hardly any of us live with any extra space in our lives. We push everything to the max, and often go beyond that. Credit card debt. Overbooked schedules. Car payments. Cell phones. When a friend needs help or a visitor could use some hospitality, we have little to spare.
The disadvantages of living like they do down here are pretty apparent, Jedd responded. Just look around at the shape most houses are in. Still, I bet theres more contentment in these guys squatting on the street corners with their amigos than in a lot of offices in America.
Most Christians would claim that what matters most is glorifying God, being happy and content, having good relationships and the like. It seems that in reality, though, we make most of our decisions based on what will bring us the most financial security, status, and whatever else society values, and only hope to glorify God and enjoy His gifts as a by-product.
I hope so much I can make my life decisions based on what really matters. I guess that is what Jesus meant when He told us not to worry about the things most people desire, but to seek first His kingdom and let the rest take care of itself.
beggar, the fifth of the evening, was working her way through the tables toward
I bet shell ask me, Jedd sighed. They never ask you.
Youre just a beggar magnet, Mike teased.
As predicted, she held out a withered hand to Jedd. Por favor?
Jedd looked away for a moment before reaching into his pocket and pulling out a few coins. The woman acknowledged the gift with a nod and hobbled on.
Ive given to two and turned away three, all while eating a big sandwich. Here Im filling myself up while they limp around hungry. What do you think, Mike; should I not eat?
I think you think about it too much. If you feel you should give, then give. If not, then dont. Just dont tear yourself up about it.
Yeah. I know youre right. I just . . . well, I just dont know . . .
Places You Shouldnt Go
Moving south again the next day, we drove deep into the surrounding hills on
muddy roads. Not far from San Cristóbal, we came upon our first Indian
town, a tourist affair complete with food stalls and a museum of
local goods where weavers attempted to sell their wares.
As we traveled farther from San Cristóbal, the tourist atmosphere disappeared. Since visitors to the region rarely have access to vehicles of their own, they are generally restricted to the central tourist meccas serviced by the retired school buses that provide the only method of mass transit. The roads grew narrower as we forged deeper into the hills-more appropriate for burros than motorized vehicles.
A blend of pine forest and dense jungle blanketed the hills, occasionally broken by meadows full of white and purple flowers. Small groupings of mud-brick homes popped up here and there, always surrounded by cornfield quilts. Deep into the hills, our road suddenly emerged into a town that seemed to have been built around a strikingly large Catholic church. We stopped to look around.
This place just seemed to come out of nowhere, remarked Jedd. That huge church looks like it belongs in a city.
Do you see the way people are looking at us? Like were aliens or something. They sure arent smiling like the last place.
As we entered the church through towering wooden doors, our eyes slowly adjusted to the near total darkness. Light trickled in from a row of small windows several stories above us. The air was thick and hazy and smelled of incense. Our footsteps echoed faintly as we walked forward on the cement floor, smooth and without pews all the way to the front. Near the middle of the vast vault of a church, a man was on his knees before a sea of candles. Among the candles were several clay statues formed in the shape of bulls. The man seemed to be bowing down to them, over and over again, murmuring a strange cadence.
Maybe we shouldnt be here, whispered Jedd.
Mike shrugged. It does seem a little . . . Mikes words stuck in his mouth as he glanced behind him. A dozen men had silently followed us in, forming a half-circle that now stood between us and the door. Several had machetees in their hands.
Whered those guys come from? Jedd breathed.
I dont know. They must have sneaked in behind us.
The mens faces were hard, their dark eyes fixed upon us. Jedd glanced once more to the front of the church. His heart raced. He could not tell if an escape was possible from that direction.
Wed better start moving toward the door, hissed Mike. One way or another, were going to be out of here in a minute. Lets try to do it for ourselves.
Heads down, we moved slowly toward the exit. Cold stares followed us, but the men did not move. We passed between them and reached the door.
Silently, the men filed out behind us. Several remained at the entrance to the church, apparently guarding it. Others followed at a distance as we walked to our truck. Jedd struggled with the key for a moment before getting the door open.
Jedd glanced in the rearview mirror as we drove out of town. The men stood, hands on hips, watching us until we were out of sight. Man, what was going on back there? he said.
I have no idea. I wonder if they were trying to hide something.
Or maybe had some bad history with outsiders.
Im glad weve still got all our body parts.
Sunday morning traffic on the road leading to the border moved without any sense
of urgency. We got a later start than we had hoped and could not help feeling
some impatience with the old taxi trucks, their beds crammed with people, chugging
along between residences and churches.
Matters became even more frustrating when we came to a small town having a market day, its main street a mass of carts and stalls, chickens and burros.
I hope we can make it through here before too long, remarked Jedd with a bit of worry. Were so close to the border now.
Mike nodded. It could be pretty bad if we were late. I dont know what wed do if we missed Salomón and the guys.
Buyers and sellers haggled all around us, trading corn, coffee beans, and cows. Some of the men were drunk, stumbling about with dumb, contented looks on their faces. Children, themselves intoxicated with the excitement of the day, chased one another through the crowd. Though the cars in front of us laid on their horns, the crowd didnt care. It took us ninety minutes to inch through the quarter-mile market.
Two hours behind schedule, we arrived at the border. It appeared nearly as chaotic
as the market, with vendors and children, not to mention bureaucrats and soldiers
in army-fatigue green. We parked and began walking into the tumult, not exactly
sure what we were looking for. Groups of men and boys crowded around us.
Change money? Change money? I help you cross border. Border cross not easy. I tell you who to bribe. Come with me.
Jedd turned to Mike. I dont know what we are going to do here. On the phone, Salomón said to meet at the border at Tapachula but . . .
Thats where we are, isnt it?
Yeah, but according to the guidebook, there are two different border crossings in this area. This one is my best guess, but I really dont know.
And were over two hours late. They may have gone to the other border already.
Jedd shook his head. I have the feeling that these border guys could really work us over if we try to get across on our own.
It looks like it will be a nightmare even if we do find Salomón.
Lets just hope we do . . .
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- two -
A Lesson in Generosity
Guatemala City, Guatemala
The Los Angeles evening was still warm, but the planes cabin was cool and hushed. Waiting for takeoff, Matt flipped through the airline magazine and glanced over the safety information card. Trey occupied the seat next to him, poring over maps of Guatemala. Finally the 757 began to roll forward, building speed. With a shudder, the planes front wheels loosed themselves from the runway.
This is it! The trip is really starting! Trey was glowing.
Matts normally calm blue-gray eyes held a flicker of excitement. Its hard to believe were finally doing this.
Are you nervous at all?
Matt shrugged. A little. Less than I thought I would be, though. It feels great to actually be doing what weve been talking about for so long.
How do you think your family is doing with this?
Better than I expected. Theyre nervous about my getting sick. And the crazier places like Africa and Bangladesh. And our smuggling Bibles into Vietnam. Especially my mom. How about your family? I bet theyre really looking forward to seeing you when you get to Russia.
They are. And Im looking forward to seeing them. Im just . . . A shadow seemed to cross Treys face. Im afraid it may be difficult with my dad. From what I can tell from my end of the phone, things are getting worse between him and my mom. I just really hope there are no blowups while were there.
Matt was not sure how to respond. I dont know if youre worried about us guys being there, but if you are . . .
Thats not the main thing. I know you guys are in this with me. You probably wouldnt see anything anyway. Its just . . . Trey paused for a moment. Theres no point in dwelling on it. Whats that book you brought?
Matt accepted the change of subject without hesitation. Les Misérables-Victor Hugo. I havent started it yet.
Its excellent. I read it a couple years ago. Did you see all those books Mike had with him when he left?
Yeah. Books, a surfboard, and nothing else. Hes a contradiction. Youd think hes just a beach bum, and then you find him reading the Wall Street Journal or a thousand-page book by Dostoevsky.
Well be learning a lot together.
Thats one of the main reasons I decided to go.
To learn together?
Not just facts and things about the world, but things about life-really learning how to love as friends, and how to serve people together. I dont think Ive told you guys, but a year ago I prayed that God would give me some friends I could be close with for the rest of my life. I really see living together last year and this trip as the answer to that.
Trey laughed, but not in a mocking way. Thats great.
After a moment, Matt retrieved his journal from the overhead bin and began to write.
Matts Reflections-October 13
It feels so good to actually be off. I can hardly imagine what lies ahead-so many adventures and experiences are just around the corner. It is hard for me not to have things planned out as much as I would like, but I realize it is good for me to know Im not in control of things now. Ive done as much thorough packing and planning as I can. Now, Im just trying to look forward to whats ahead. I feel certain God is going to use this trip to shape and mold us more into the persons we were created to be. I dont know how it will happen, but Im confident that on this trip we will become more like Jesus. I know this is where I am supposed to be.
Trey stared out the window. Holes in the cloud cover allowed quick glimpses
of the Guatemalan countryside. Dense vegetation seemed to coat every inch of
the landscape. Here and there, small towns popped up among the fields. Not far
beyond the end of the planes wing, the tip of a volcano poked up above
the clouds. A moment later, an opening in the clouds provided a window down
upon an expanse of buildings and factories set in the shadow of several massive
Theres Guatemala City, said Trey. The guidebook says the landing here is the second most treacherous in the world.
The plane banked sharply to the right and began descending at what felt like a ferocious rate. Matts stomach slid halfway up to his mouth.
This is great! said Trey, turning from the window to glance at Matt.
Matt peered out the window at the valleys and volcanoes below. So many unknowns, he thought. He was thrilled to be going to Guatemala, but had little idea what to expect. Trey had traveled and even lived all around the world; Matt had spent most of his growing-up years in a quiet town in the Midwest. And while Treys ebullient optimism often drew him to cliffs edges, sometimes even off the side, he always seemed to land right side up. Matt, on the other hand, always wanted to clearly see firm ground before he took the next step. He was cautious, and sometimes overly prepared, never jumping without a careful look.
Hmm, I wonder where Mike and Jedd are now, Trey continued. They should be pretty deep into Mexico.
I hope theyre doing all right. They left a couple days before that hurricane hit Acapulco.
Theyll be fine. Well have a few days with Salomón and Mery before going up to meet them at the border.
Do you know if were planning to start work on the clinic before they get here?
I dont see why we couldnt. Trey lurched forward as the wheels hit the runway. The plane shook violently as it braked, slowed, then stopped altogether. Not a bad flight at all.
As we emerged into the terminal, weary businessmen and thankful homecomers swirled around us. Our eyes searched the crowd.
Bienvenidos, mis amigos! a booming voice captured our attention. Salomón grinned and wrapped us in the embrace of a welcoming uncle. Though in his sixties, his arms were strong and his thick hair a deep black.
You remember my wife, Mery, of course? he said in Spanish, leaning over and giving his wife a kiss. The bright flowers of her dress contrasted with the olive skin of a face that was wide and timeworn, and yet she was glowing with kindness. We had met Salomón and Mery only once before, when some American friends of theirs had helped them to travel north to speak in some California churches.
Salomón next turned to a slender American boy about our age.
Joel has been staying with us for the last month. Hes been a great help, said Salomón, allowing time for handshakes before leading off toward the baggage.
A few minutes later, we were loaded in the Isuzu Trooper that American friends had given to Salomón and Mery some years before. The city traffic was disorienting. The only rule seemed to be Dont get hit. Cars swerved the wrong way down one-way streets. Buses whizzed by, horns blaring. It sounded like the inside of a pinball machine.
Were glad youre down here, Joel. Matt and I are pretty rusty with our Spanish, said Trey.
Salomón and Mery only speak a few words of English, explained Joel. But if you talk slowly, theyll understand a lot of what you say.
Sí! We learn from our gringo friend, shot Salomón over his shoulder.
So where . . . Watch out! Matt blurted as he slammed up against the door.
Sorry, Matt. Salomón laughed, swerving out of the path of the on-coming traffic and back into his lane. There was a big hole in the road.
Driving is about the only thing in Guatemala that people like to do fast, explained Joel. You learn to just close your eyes sometimes.
Guatemala City, in fact, was something like Monets Water Lilies-beautiful from a distance, but blurred and confused up close. Situated on a vast plateau, the city is dwarfed by the magnificent volcanic peaks surrounding it. A few historic buildings crafted by the Spanish during the colonial era still stand in the town center. Across the entire plateau, a boundless urban octopus sprawls out and has even begun crawling up the sides of the volcanoes.
What were you saying, Matt? asked Joel.
I was just wondering where we are going.
Shellys place. Shes Salomón and Merys daughter. Well be staying here in the city until its time to meet the other guys at the border. Salomón and Merys home is up in the highlands, in Uspantan. Well move up there once the guys arrive.
Arent we going to be working on building the medical clinic here in Guatemala City?
Unfortunately not. Salomón hasnt been able to secure all the necessary permits yet. Dealing with the bureaucracy down here can be a nightmare. They also still need to raise a decent amount of additional money before they can start. We probably wont be able to break ground for a few more months.
So what will we be doing?
Salomón has several projects he needs help with in Uspantan. Hell show you when we get there.
The pink of a Dunkin Donuts shop flashed by, looking somewhat out of place, similar to its siblings in the U.S., except that a uniformed man with a shotgun stood before the entrance.
Trey tapped the window. Wow, theyve even got hired guards at the donut shop? Where are the cops?
Joel laughed. Yeah, Guatemala City isnt exactly the safest place in the world.
As the group entered the apartment, Salomón spread his arms as wide as his smile and announced, Our house is your house. Whats mine is yours. Please, make yourselves comfortable. We had been welcomed into homes with similar words before, but never had we felt they were so sincerely meant.
As we cleared the table from our first breakfast, Salomón had announced,
We must go downtown today. He could not wait to begin showing us
his country. A school bus painted with a rainbow of colors-apparently long since
retired from its service in the U.S.-pulled up in front of the stop.
This is it, explained Joel. The bus was packed. Passengers spilled out of the seats, aisles, and exit doors. Trey gave Salomón a questioning glance. He did not seem concerned. There is plenty of room.
Matt could only fit half his body into the door. Push! encouraged Salomón. Matt somewhat timidly leaned into the wall of people ahead of him. With surprisingly little effort, the wall budged. A few more shoves cleared room for the others. The bus lurched forward and the crowd shook like a bucket of Jell-O.
You think this is bad, called Joel over the din, just hope we dont get robbed.
You mean pickpocketed? replied Matt. I hear theyre pretty bad here.
No. I mean robbed at gunpoint. Salomón says that every day at least one or two buses get boarded and robbed.
I guess the most common way is for a couple guys to enter from the front of the bus and a couple from the back. Two of em guard the exits with machine guns while the others go through stripping valuables from everyone on the bus-wallets, purses, sunglasses . . . everything. If you refuse to give them something, they shoot. Its a simple procedure.
While Matt was mapping out what he would do if bandidos appeared at the exits, a man holding a trash bag got on the bus. He squeezed up beside Matt and seemed to be intentionally pushing the bag against Matts side.
A few moments later, Matt felt something wriggle in his pocket. His hand sprang forward and closed over the wrist of a young Mayan woman. Her hand had been in his pocket. She quickly pulled away.
Matt moved the contents of his pocket into his shirt. He glanced at the woman but said nothing. Tangled hair spilled down in front of her face and over a filthy blouse. Her dark eyes stared at the ground, scared, yet somehow defiant. Compassion flooded over Matts anger. How should he respond? He bit his lip and stared out the window.
That evening, after another hearty meal, Matt and Trey settled on the couch to read. Trey was deep in Robinson Crusoe. Matt had just begun Les Misérables. An episode from Victor Hugos classic struck Matt as particularly poignant to his experience on the bus that day.
The books protagonist, Jean Valjean, had just been released after decades in prison. As he roves the countryside, searching for a place to stay, he is turned away again and again. No one will receive an ex-con. Finally, an old priest takes him in. The priest welcomes Valjean not as a convict, but as a child of God and gives him hospitality worthy of a king.
Despite the priests kindness, however, Valjean rises in the middle of the night, takes the priests silver plates, and runs away. The police soon catch him and drag him back to the priests door. But instead of berating the ungrateful thief, the priest cries out, Ah, there you are! I am glad to see you. But I gave you the candlesticks also . . . Why did you not take them along with your plates?
The police can do little more, and so they leave the man trembling before the gracious priest. Before letting Valjean go, the priest turns to his mantelpiece and takes down his silver candlesticks and places them in Valjeans shaking hands. Valjean is speechless. He has never known such kindness. The priest leans down and whispers one last thing to him. Jean Valjean, my brother, you belong no longer to evil, but to good . . .
The rest of the novel follows a transformed Valjean as he learns to pour out that same kindness and generosity upon everyone he encounters. A single act of selfless love has changed his life forever.
Matt thought intensely about the passage. The following day, he penned his thoughts in his journal.
Yesterday, when the young Mayan woman tried to rob me, I wonder if I did the right thing. What would have happened if I had given her some money instead of making sure she didnt get anything? Reading the story of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables has really made me think. Perhaps a single act of love could have somehow changed her life.
I want my life to benefit others besides myself. I see that illogical acts of grace can change hearts, and I want to be able to demonstrate this love to others. But I dont know how to love in the way that changes lives. Jesus, give me the strength to live out Your teachings, that I might live my life in a way that will transform the lives of others.
We rose before the sun, excited to be heading to the border for our reunion with Mike and Jedd. The drive would take seven hours, and we had to be there by noon. Mery packed some food for breakfast.
Are you ready, precious one? Salomón asked when the car had been loaded.
Everything is prepared. Mery smiled. I think the boys will enjoy breakfast. They leaned close to each other for a moment, just brushing shoulders. Their affection was never overt, but very tangible, beautiful to see.
Salomón turned the ignition. The Troopers engine coughed, but would not catch. Apparently, the device made to prevent thieves from starting the car had malfunctioned. Now it was preventing us from starting it. We were already running behind schedule, and we knew it was essential that we be on time. Salomón telephoned his son, Dr. Danny Hernández, to see if he could use his truck.
Danny was over with his truck in a flash. In the truck bed lay his bike, which he had brought to save us time in dropping him off. We watched, a bit amazed, as one of Guatemalas top surgeons, to save us a few minutes, peddled off through the morning mist on a bicycle.
The way Salomón and Merys family functions seems to be totally unique. They do not hold on to what is theirs in the way that most people do. They hold their possessions loosely, as if they had just been entrusted to them temporarily. They do not insist on what is due them, even in regard to position. Within the family, whoever needs a particular asset most-whether car, house, money, or even time-is given it. They are hardly less open with those outside the family. I guess that is how Christian community is supposed to work. I love it!
Gracias a Dios
The drive to the border called for seven hours in the back of Dannys truck.
Perhaps it was not the safest setup, but we could not complain, for the back
of a pickup is a great place from which to experience new territory. Plantations
raced by us on both sides of the roads, most dominated by rubber trees. An occasional
banana or coffee plantation added some variety. The plantation borders have
to be tended constantly to keep out the invading forces of the jungle. Even
the roads seemed to be under constant attack, broken branches and vines filling
the highway, giving the impression that only the continual traffic kept the
growth from taking over.
As the miles rolled by, we talked about the previous days and the things we had learned. Guatemala City had been interesting, but we were far more impressed by what we had seen in the Hernández family itself. We were beginning to understand that the way they lived was not quite like any we had encountered before. The centerpiece of their existence was loving others in the name of Jesus. Over Merys delicious meals, stuck in traffic, or just hanging out in the evenings, we began to hear the stories of what such a life involved:
Salomón and Mery were driving down a dirt road through the highlands.
The foliage on the edges was especially dense. Mery could tell Salomón
was nervous by the way he tapped his fingers against his machete. Friends had
warned them not to take this route today. There had been a lot of guerrilla
warfare in this area in the past several months. They knew, though, that the
mountain village to which they were driving badly needed the medical supplies
they were bringing.
Around a sharp curve, three men with machine guns were blocking the road. Salomón slammed on the brakes, bringing the Trooper to a sliding halt.
Salomón froze. Mery, please pray.
They opened their eyes to a man tapping the barrel of his machine gun against the window. Salomón rolled it down and greeted them with as much aplomb as he could muster. Hola, mis amigos. What may I do for you?
Little old man, you will do as I say, the guerrilla leader ordered in Spanish. Salomón nodded in agreement as the men climbed into the backseat.
Take us to Nebaj. We must get there quickly. Now!
Throughout the rest of the drive, the guerrillas spoke no Spanish. They conversed only in the local Mayan dialect, Quiché.
After we arrive, the leader said, we will kill the little man and have fun with his wife. We will be able to make good use of this truck.
Salomón winced slightly, trying not to reveal that he understood their words. Virtually no Guatemalans of Hispanic descent know Quiché. They would not dream of stooping so low as to study the language of the poor. But Salomón had. He felt he could not fully serve the Mayans without knowing their language.
Just as Salomón was maneuvering through a streamlet, the Trooper stalled. Unbeknownst to the guerrillas, Salomón had used a mechanism installed to prevent car theft to cut off the gas. He turned the ignition, but the engine would not catch.
Little man, what is wrong? Start it! Now!
Nothing is happening. May I get out and see what is wrong?
No, try again.
After several more attempts, the guerrillas well of patience was nearly dry. Salomón remained calm. Maybe we need gasoline. My wife can run into the nearest town to get some. I will stay here with you. The guerrillas had little choice but to oblige.
Mery raced through the jungle, fearing for her husbands life. She made it to the town in only a few minutes. Breathing hard she begged the first town official she found to aid her. But the man would not help. Neither would anyone else in the town. They felt sorry for her, but even the police were afraid to face the guerrillas. If they did, they might just end up with their throats cut in the not-too-distant future. Mery began to despair. All she could do was pray.
Things were tense back at the truck as well. The soldiers fingered their triggers and glanced around nervously. Just then, another guerrilla appeared out of the jungle and greeted them. The men explained how they had hijacked the truck and were planning to kill Salomón once they reached their destination.
Kill this man? asked the new arrival.
Yes, the little man who is driving.
I know this man. You should not kill him. He has fed many of my friends when they had no food. He will help anyone, no matter who they are. If you are hungry, he will feed you, too.
Mery soon returned, preferring danger at her husbands side to the safety of the town. She came upon a surprising sight. The guerrillas had volunteered to try push-starting the truck and, with Salomón quietly switching on the gas, it worked. They greeted her as she approached. Smiling and a bit confused, she climbed into the cab next to Salomón. The Lord protected us, he whispered to her. The guerrillas waved as Salomón and Mery drove off the way they had come.
Reunion in No Mans Land
The mileage signs on the side of the highway suggested we were going to be more
than an hour late to the border. Salomón did not seem visibly concerned.
He pulled out into the opposite lane and passed a row of cars. A semi, announcing
itself with several horn blasts, forced Salomón back into our own lane.
You know, said Matt, I love being out here on such a beautiful
day, but riding in the back is making me a little nervous.
Trey just smiled. Itll be great to have Mike and Jedd here. I cant wait for them to get to see Guatemala and spend some more time with Salomón and Mery.
Yeah, its hard to believe weve been here less than a week. I feel like weve been friends with Don Salomón and Doña Mery forever.
Well, remember that we did spend a little time with them when they came to the States last year to deal with Salomóns heart problem.
Thats true, but it was different then. Its so amazing to see Salomón and Mery in their own element. I dont think you can experience the whole of Don Salomón in America. Here he just boils over with confidence. His spirit seems to touch everyone he meets-even the guards at the supermarket.
And Mery, she has such a servants spirit and always seems totally content and full of joy. In the States shes just a quiet presence. Here you can tell Salomón would be lost without her. Its amazing to see them in action.
If we pay attention, well learn a lot about how to love people from them and their family.
Being so late to the border, it seemed there was a strong chance of missing Mike and Jedd. It had been several days since we had talked with them. What if they thought they had mistaken the day or time or place of meeting? With our late start and Mike and Jedds remarkable ability to get lost, some real problems seemed likely.
I hope they have the sense to wait for us, said Trey.
Yeah, me, too. Why dont we say a quick prayer for them. We bowed our heads. Lord, I ask that You guide Mike and Jedd safely to the border. And even though we are going to be late, I also ask that we both arrive at the border at the same time. Please bring us together without complication. Jesus, we ask these things in Your name. Amen.
The clock read two oclock as we crested a hill and looked down on the
border. A line of cars extended back from a mob of vendors, travelers, soldiers,
and bureaucrats who whirled around a series of concrete buildings. Salomón
had no interest in driving into that quagmire, so he parked and we went the
last half-mile on foot.
The guards at the gate paid little attention as we walked by. In doing so, we passed out of Guatemala, but not yet into Mexico. The narrow swath of land in between is claimed by neither country. The tumult of no mans land churned around us. On our left stood a ramshackle collection of hotels and eateries. Apparently, they had sprung up to accommodate those unable to negotiate the perils of a not-always-by-the-books border stop in a timely fashion.
Matt peered at his watch. Were over two hours late. I dont see how . . .
Trey cut him off. Look! There they are! Hey, Mike, Jedd!
The two did not seem to hear. Both looked a bit confused.
Jedd! Mike! Over here!
A shared grin broke across the pairs face as they spotted Matt and Trey. We made our way toward each other through the crowd.
You guys made it! beamed Trey, wrapping the cross-country drivers in a hug.
How long have you guys been here, Trey?
Amazing! Both of us got here almost exactly two hours and fifteen minutes late!
Matt shook his head, thinking to himself, Why am I always surprised when prayer is answered in specific ways?
Bienvenidos, mis amigos, bienvenidos! cried out Salomón, greeting Mike and Jedd with hugs of his own. Is everything well? You look fine. Are you tired?
Were feeling great, Don Salomón, Jedd replied.
Good. Then we will get a hotel and then begin our work.
Mike gave a wry grin. I think he means getting the truck through the border.
- three -
The Four Amigos!
Together in Guatemala City
When checking into one of the little border-side hotels, we noticed its courtyard was littered with rows of vehicles.
A lot of people are staying here, remarked Matt.
Salomón shook his head. No. Most of these cars belong to former guests of the hotel. Their owners are gone, but their cars are stuck here in limbo. The owners were not able to supply a gift large enough to expedite the necessary border paperwork.
It was beginning to become clear why Salomón referred to the border crossing as work. We imagined the medical supplies in the back of the truck would only add to the difficulty. Since the truck was registered in Mikes name, he accompanied Salomón to the main border office to begin the process of securing the necessary permits. A gap in the cement walls suggested that a door had once existed. Through the opening, Mike could see a labyrinth of cubicles and desks. They were more than adequately staffed by friendly civil servants. A sound like a flock of hummingbirds rose from the dozens of fans that whirred from the bureaucrats desks. The relative importance of a given official seemed to be reflected in the size of his fan.
Unfortunately, they provided little relief from the heat. Pearls of sweat gleamed on Mikes brow and slid down his temples onto his glistening cheeks. The collar of his T-shirt was already soaked. Hesitantly, he handed the trucks registration and his passport over the front desk.
The hefty official heaved himself up from his chair, waddled back to a similar-looking man who sat behind a slightly larger desk, and handed him the passport. The bureaucrat glanced back at the pair who had just placed themselves at his mercy. Mike could not hear what the men were saying, but he could see their jowls flapping up and down.
A third counterpart was soon brought in, from a desk with a big fan. This guy will take care of stuff, thought Mike. But it was just the beginning. The trio disappeared into a side office. When they emerged a few minutes later, it appeared they had left the passport in the office. Mikes face began to flush. What are these jokers doing? A glance at Salomón quieted him, though. He was smiling the same as when they had entered, waiting patiently.
A beanpole of a man approached. We will be working on your paperwork as fast as we can. Unfortunately, we are verrrry busy this week and it may take a lonnnng time. We also may have some problems getting the necessary paperwork. There will probably be some significant fees and perhaps some other complications.
Mike clinched his teeth and let out a long breath through his nose. These guys are going to try to squeeze every penny out of this they can, he thought. Salomón just nodded as the man continued. He was used to it. The process continued for twenty-four hours. Salomón kept his pleasant composure the entire time, all the while wrangling like a hardball lawyer for the lowest possible fees. By the end of it all, we had paid $75 for a permit emblazoned with the words, This permit shall cost ten quetzals ($2). A receipt saying we had paid $100 in import taxes for the medical supplies had cost only $25. It could have been a lot worse.
As the border station disappeared behind us, Mery offered a prayer of thanks.
In Salomón and Merys view, making it through the border in only
twenty-four hours was a miracle. We had hardly said Amen, however,
when we were once again stopping at another guard shack.
Please take a bottle for your head, Salmón cheerfully told the officer, handing him a container of aspirin from the medical supplies the man was inspecting.
Thank you, the official said, indicating we were free to leave.
That man will be able to use the aspirin as much as anyone, Salomón explained, the important thing is that it gets to the hands of people who need it.
It was well after dark when we arrived back at Shellys apartment. A guard greeted us at the entrance to the parking lot. Three cars were stolen from the lot last night, he informed Salomón. The guard who was supposed to be here was in another lot.
Welcome to Guatemala City, joked Matt.
Carrying the medical supplies and Mikes and Jedds gear, we plodded up the stairs and through the apartment buildings long corridors. Through an open door we caught a glimpse of a stooped woman pounding dough between her hands into the Guatemalan staple: tortillas.
Bienvenidos! cried Salomón once again as we entered the apartment.
Mike looked from room to room, a bit puzzled. Wait a second. If Matt and I are in that room, and you two are in the living room with Joel, and Salomón and Mery in the back one, where is Shelly going to sleep?
Oh, she is just going to move in with her sisters family while we are here, replied Don Salomón, understanding the question.
And so it was that Jedd and Mike got their first introduction to Hernández hospitality. That someone would move out of their own home so that there would be more room for the guests was beyond our conception of what hospitality could include. To the Hernández family, it seemed the natural thing to do. As if that sacrifice was not enough, Shelly came by every morning and night to make us breakfast and dinner. She voluntarily fought the Guatemalan traffic, just so that we could have home-cooked meals. What mystified us most of all was that we did not feel like intruding guests.
It began to dawn upon us that this was our first exposure to hospitality in its purest form. True service never reminds the recipient that they are being served. That is why it seemed so different with the Hernández family. They actually made us feel as if we were doing them a favor by staying in their home. This was something we had hardly ever experienced, even in the most hospitable, well-wishing homes in America.
As the days go by, Im beginning to see that the amazing hospitality were experiencing here comes as much from Salomón and Merys outlook on life as from their desire to be welcoming. As Americans, we are results oriented. Our goal in life is to get things done. No matter how hospitable we may desire to be, all acts of serving distract us from getting things done, and thus take on the feeling of a burden. The people we serve usually know that they are, in some ways at least, a distraction from the important things. This leaves the host unable to take full delight in giving and the guest unable to fully enjoy the hospitality.
But we never feel like were a burden to the Hernández family. In a sense, it is like we are helping them accomplish their goals, rather than impeding them. Their goal is not to get things done, but to show love to others. I feel I can enjoy everything that they give us infinitely more because of the simple fact that they enjoy giving it.
had hoped to move on to Uspantan within a couple of days after Mike and Jedds
arrival in Guatemala, but it was not to be. Before we could leave Guatemala
City, we had to take care of the paperwork transferring official ownership of
the truck from Mike to Salomón. This placed our fate, once again, in
the hands of Guatemalan bureaucrats. The border was only an appetizer for the
feast of frustration that awaited us in the bureaucratic mazes of Guatemala
City. Each department, branch, division, and subdivision had its own distinct
title and purported function. They all, however, shared a single specialty:
squeezing gifts out of every person unfortunate enough to need their
The conversation formula worked something like this:
Miserable Document-Needing Wretch: Have you processed the paperwork I turned in last month? You told me youd try to have it done in a week. I really need it soon.
Sympathetic Official: Listen, my friend, I have been so very busy. We are all very busy here. I promise you, I will do it as soon as I possibly can. Perhaps later this week . . .
This exchange will be repeated as often as the Miserable Document-Needing Wretch cares to visit the Sympathetic Officials office without bringing him a gift. Once an appropriate gift is provided, the paperwork will materialize within fifteen minutes to three days, depending on the givers generosity.
It is said that the Guatemalan government is excessively corrupt even by Latin American standards. The corruption has become so endemic to the culture that whole industries have grown up around it. In fact, Guatemala has an entire class of working professionals (tramitadores) who exist solely to help people figure out the size of the bribes they must pay different officials to get the paperwork they need. Although sometimes these tramitadores aid in illegal activities, the majority of the bribes they facilitate are necessary just to get an administrator to perform his official function. Those who do not play by the rules of the game most assuredly will see their requests doomed to eternal paperwork purgatory.
Day after day, Mike and Salomón (and whoever cared to join the fun) returned to the downtown offices to check on the progress of the request. The first officials they encountered insisted it was necessary that Mikes passport accompany the stack of other forms along their journey. This added a tinge of fear to Mikes annoyance. There was even a stretch of several days when every official in the office denied knowing where it was.
While these wheels of progress were slowly grinding, we were able to help Salomón and Danny with a few small projects in Guatemala City. A lot of the time, though, we spent at Shellys, talking and reading. We enjoyed the relaxation, and the evenings were filled with rich conversation with Salomón and Mery. Even so, it was frustrating to feel that we were doing so little of anything productive. We wanted to get on with the work up in Uspantan.
Salomón and Mery and Shelly never showed a sign of sharing our feelings, though. For them, life was life. There was no such thing as an interruption. As they saw it, whatever the circumstances, whatever the required task, if it is done with love and a thankful heart, it is profitable.
Salomón and Mery always seem to live completely in each particular moment. Often, I feel as though I must have a long-term plan. They make plans, of course, but so much of their life seems to be spur-of-the-moment. They make the most of each moment while they are actually living it. They do not spend their time planning to live as much as actually living. They dont need to worry about the future, because they are always giving the present moment as a gift to God.
In contrast, one of my favorite quotes from the French philosopher Blaise Pascal describes the way I, too, often live:
We never keep to the present. We . . . anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of times that are not and blindly flee the only one that is . . . [We] think of how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control for a time we can never be sure of reaching. . . Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so. (Pascal, Pensées, Number 172)
I do not want to live this way. I see so clearly that living more completely
in the present brings greater joy to our days and allows us to experience them
more fully. More important, I think Christ called us to such an outlook: Do
not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has
enough trouble of its own. Although Jesus had a deep sense of eternity
and eternal values, He was always totally involved in the reality of each moment.
His energy-mental, physical, and spiritual-was spent primarily on the present.
Even on the cross, while His thoughts could have been in countless less painful
places, He was able to give His full attention to a thief hanging at His side.
Im excited to be learning about how to live in the present. It feels strange but very fulfilling to be with people who are doing so. Each moment is full and rich. Truly, they are living life to the full!
Whispers of the Past
The day had come for our departure to Uspantan in the Guatemalan highlands.
Mikes passport was still floating around in some bureaucrats office,
but there was little more any of us could do for the time being. We could only
hope and pray things would straighten out by the time we had to leave the country.
Down the road, lines of apartments, shops, and warehouses quickly gave way to steep, pine-covered hills. Cornfields surrounded the homey, unkempt villages that popped up here and there. The blaring of traffic was replaced by the rush of wind and lowing of cows. We breathed deeply of the air. It tasted sweet. We stopped in the town of Quiché for lunch. Following the meal, Salomón announced a visit to some nearby Mayan ruins.
Jedd leaned over to Mike, Didnt Salomón say this was supposed to be an eight-hour drive today?
Yeah, but he doesnt seem to be in any hurry.
Its such a different mentality. Just about anytime Ive got a drive like this, my only thought is to get where Im going.
I like living this way.
Me, too. Salomón and Mery pretty much model the words from Jim Elliot Ive always liked: Wherever you are, be all there. I wrote that one in my Bible, but I cant say that I live it that often. My mind is usually a mile ahead of where I am.
The ruins at Quiché did not look like much, sitting atop a lonely hill amid the trees and weeds. There had been some archaeological work on the site, but little effort to restore anything. Rocky mounds, once a room, a passageway, or protective wall lay in broken piles, slowly being eaten by wind, rain, and lichen. It filled us with wonder to learn that in the fifteenth century, this place had been among the greatest cities in North America. Its strong walls had contained twenty-three palaces and numerous temples. Several neighboring hilltops had had separate defensive citadels of their own. This fortress served as the capital of the Quiché people, mightiest of the Mayan tribes. By the middle of the fifteenth century, the Quiché had carved out an impressive empire in what are now the Guatemalan highlands. They dominated vast amounts of lands and subjugated a million people under their fearsome rule.
Just as the mighty Quiché vanquished their neighbors, however, so they were brought to their knees by the Spanish conquistadors. In 1523, a force said to consist of only 320 Spaniards and 200 Mexican warriors overcame a Quiché army of 30,000 in the lower highlands. The Quiché, not yet willing to accept defeat, invited the Spanish to this place, hoping to trap and destroy them. Instead, the Spanish took the fortress and destroyed it completely. It remains today as it was left by the Spanish, its temples and towers never rebuilt.
We were intrigued to learn how dominant, even imperialistic, the Quiché had been. People today often seem to assume that conquest and domination in the New World began with the Spanish. History textbooks often imply that the conquistadors stumbled upon-and then ravaged-utopia. No doubt, they did perpetrate great evils, but even the worst of them were simply playing by the rules of the same game the Mayans had been playing for centuries: survival of the fittest. Vicious rivalries, bloody conquests, and absolute domination were part and parcel of the Mayan civilization from its earliest recorded history.
A faint breeze whispered through the pines above us. Mingled with it, we could almost hear echoes of Mayan pomp, religious ceremony, sporting events, lavish celebration, and fiery combat. The grass-covered stones answered back, All things, great and small, shall come to such an end.
In a place like this, it is so easy to see the vanity of the things we often value so highly. No doubt, the Mayans who lived here were proud of their mighty city, of their conquests and the victories they had won. Each of them struggled for position and wealth and honor in their own ways, just as we do today in boardrooms, athletic contests, and even Christian organizations. Their conquerors, the Spanish, did the same. But looking at all they valued so highly now, reduced to grass-covered rubble, you almost have to laugh at how meaningless so many of their worries and pursuits were. I pray that I will not spend my energies on things that will someday be as worthless as these piles of stone. May I spend my life on the things that are lasting-most important loving others and growing in relationship with Christ.
Salomón led us down a trail that descended through thick brush, dropped
sharply, and then disappeared into the hillside. We were walking toward a black
hole that gaped like an empty eye socket.
Before we leave, I have one more thing to show you, Salomón said, indicating for us to follow.
At the caves mouth, the remains of an abandoned fire smoldered. A faint breeze picked up some ashes and tossed them into the air, along with chicken feathers that lay clumped here and there. Many colors of wax, some old, some new, issued from little alcoves in the cave like frozen rivers. They have been doing sacrifices here recently, Salomón explained. These tunnels are regarded as sacred places by the Mayans. Prac-tice of Mayan religion was banned by the Spanish, but the brujos, the priests, have never stopped performing their rites here.
What do they sacrifice?
Chickens, mostly, but there are rumors . . .
On the road to Uspantan - near Sacapulas
We had been back on the road for two hours when Salomón decided to take
an excursion into the colorful colonial town of Chichicastenango. Strings hung
with bright, triangular flags-usually emblazoned with the name of some American
soft drink-crisscrossed above the cobblestone streets. Near the center of town,
a vast labyrinth of vending stalls exerted its own gravity on locals and tourists
alike. There were very few of the latter, however, and the vendors were eager
to pawn their less practical goods on us: straw dolls, handmade slingshots,
and colorful purses. Above the market rose a massive colonial church, standing
in bright white contrast to the garbled colors around it. Salomón pointed
to a sunken spot before the church from which smoke issued. They offer
sacrifices here also.
We were surprised. Isnt this a Catholic church?
Yes, but much of the local pagan religion has been assimilated into its practices. It has been this way since the Catholics first proselytized here. When they were trying to convert the Indians, they presented many of their saints as similar to the Mayan gods. Each saint had his or her own sphere of power and influence, just like a god. The people could pray to the gods the same as they did before; only now they were praying to specific saints, rather than to a vague god of the river or god of the air.
We entered the church. The hum of murmured prayers seemed to come from the walls. The air was hazy, sticky, and sweet. Along with paintings of the life of Christ and several crucifixes, the sides were lined with shrines to various saints. A menagerie of colors and candles, flowers and symbols, surrounded each saint doll. In front of every display was a place for kneeling and a box for contributions to the particular saint. Several men and women bowed before the displays in supplication.
A guidebook helped us piece together some of the history of the place. The original church was built in this location on the site of a Mayan altar. As Salomón had told us, priests allowed the Mayans to mix many of their traditional religious practices with Catholicism. In the early 1700s, the local priest even invited the Indians to move their pagan altars from the hills and establish them inside the church. We could see niches of the church where men and women prayed to their ancestors and carried out rituals with candles, rose petals, and even an alcoholic beverage called chicha. They are trying to get special blessings-healthy babies, safe travel, a good marriage, fertile ground, or recovery from illness, Salomón whispered.
The most ornate display in the church was that of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. Blue eyes gazed from a mannequin face, her arms outstretched. Piles of pink feathers and plastic flowers clothed and surrounded the doll. The stand before her was full of lit candles, each representing the contribution and prayer of a pious supplicant.
Trey leaned over to Matt. What do you think of this?
I dont know. It almost seems like idol worship.
Like something out of the Old Testament.
Once back on the road, we discussed what we had seen. It left us a bit uneasy. Later in our travels, we would see other shrines built around similar, brightly dressed dolls, also surrounded with flowers and candles; but that would be in the Hare Krishna temple in Durban, the Hindu shrines in Calcutta, and the Buddhist temples in Thailand. We had not expected to encounter anything like this in a church.
At least as far back as biblical times, it seems that people often preferred to pray to a physical object, instead of simply praying to the unseen God. I dont understand all the reasons for it, but God specifically ordered the Israelites not to make any likeness of any created thing, or to bow down to or worship any such image.
As far as I could tell, what we saw in the church today seemed to be breaking that command. At least as the guidebook and Salomón explained it, prayer and rituals in front of the right images have been presented to the people as magical formulas for getting things they need.
This is so different from the picture of prayer Jesus presented. He taught that prayer is not a formula to appease God or manipulate Him to do what we want. Rather, prayer is an opportunity to communicate with our Father. God wants to be close to us and to hear from us what our thoughts and needs are. Prayer that is anything other than genuine communication with God would seem to be so much less than what He desires.
sun was setting as we descended into the riverside town of Sacapulas.
We will eat dinner in a little comedor on the far side of the river, declared Salomón.
Near the small, colonial church, an old ceiba tree spread its massive limbs over the central plaza. Although not large, the town of Sacapulas achieved some degree of importance from the valuable salt that has been produced in beds beside the river since pre-Spanish times.
Salomón and Mery played a role in Sacapulass history as well. On February 4, 1976, a major earthquake rocked the nation of Guatemala. When the dust settled, 23,000 were dead, 77,000 were seriously injured, and a million found themselves homeless. The quake had also destroyed Salomón and Merys home in Uspantan. The next day, they pieced to-gether a temporary shelter. Once their makeshift dwelling-literally nothing more than sticks and plastic-was over their heads, they turned their attention to those around them. Instead of rebuilding their own home, they began to help their neighbors rebuild their homes. As is the pattern of Salomón and Merys lives, they considered the needs of others as no less important than their own.
Our children were no longer babies, Salomón explained to us, but many of our neighbors had little ones. They needed houses much more than we did.
Mery smiled humbly. It was difficult to cook outside for all the meals, but I had help from our daughters. It was a happy time, too . . .
Not until six months later did they turn their attention to rebuilding their own home. They were not even close to finishing, however, when a church in America sent them a large sum of money to help with rebuilding projects.
Many of Salomóns friends could not believe his good fortune. Use the money to finish your own house and save the rest. This is your chance to get rich, they advised. Such practices were not entirely uncommon.
Instead, Salomón used the money to acquire a cement block-making machine and supplies. They located their rebuilding operation in Sacapulas. The evangelical church in Sacapulas and more than a hundred homes in the town stand today because of their work.
I was able to ask Salomón a question Ive always wondered about as we were driving. I know God commands us to love others. The problem is, love is not exactly a choice. We can choose to do good deeds, but that is not all there is to love. First Corinthians 13 says that we can do all kinds of good deeds and still not have love. Love, then, must at least partly involve feelings. Love is not just doing the right things for people; it must also involve a desire for the others good. The question is, How are we supposed to fulfill that command-how do we get that desire?
Salomóns answer was very straightforward. He said, Our love comes from Jesus. He is the vine, we are the branches. If we are firmly rooted in relationship with Him, His life will flow into all parts of ourselves-our mind, body, heart, everything. He warned that this takes commitment. It requires regular, daily time with Christ in His Word and in prayer. The fruit of love will be the natural product.
I pray that I may seek this rootedness in Him, not just a greater religiousity, but a true intimacy with Christ. It seems nothing else will produce the love and character in me that I desire.
We had been bumping over a rough, lightless road for several hours when the glow of a town appeared at the end of a valley.
That is Uspantan, announced Salomón, a contented sound in his voice, we are almost home.
Just before reaching the first houses, we pulled to the side of the road next to a fenced pasture. As Joel climbed from the Trooper, he explained, At every homecoming, Salomón and Mery stop here to thank the Lord for a safe journey.
The darkness felt soft and velvety. A night bird whistled nearby. We joined together in a prayer of gratitude, then drove into the sleeping pueblo. On the far edge of town stood a two-story house at the end of Uspantans main street.
This is it! declared Salomón.
We unloaded while Mery made a snack. Salomón showed us around and led us upstairs to our rooms. The place was a bit ramshackle and oddly put together, the product of many additions and improvements made by less-than-expert workmen (some of them visitors from the U.S.). But although nothing fancy by American standards, the house was comfortable, spacious, and felt like home.
It sure seems quiet, Trey remarked later that night as he turned out the lights. After the gunshots, traffic, and whistles of the Guatemala City night, sleep in the mountain town was as peaceful as any we had known.
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- four -
Into the Highlands
We woke feeling utterly refreshed. One by one, we stepped out onto the porch which ran the length of the house and overlooked Uspantan. Encircling the town were verdant hills, covered with pine trees and splotched everywhere by brilliant wildflowers. Rectangular cornfields were sewn into the slopes at odd angles. A roof-scape quilt stretched out below us all the way to the colonial church on the far side of town. Each roof had a texture all its own-weather-scarred wood, Spanish tiles encrusted with lichen, and many shades of rusted metal. Here and there, a tall bunch of cornstalks from a backyard garden poked up through the roofs to eye level.
Women and their daughters went about their daily tasks, many with enormous baskets balanced precariously on their heads. All were dressed in the tribal colors of the Uspantan region: turquoise, pastel green, and gray. Since ancient times, the women of each tribal group in Guatemala have worn distinct colors and patterns, rich and vibrant. The designs are not only for aesthetics. Those familiar with the language of the ornamentation can immediately discern the wearers particular social role, superstitions, marital status, and occupation.
Men in less impressive outfits-white cotton clothing and broad-brimmed hats-crossed below us as well, always with a machete strapped to their sides. Many carried barely manageable piles of chopped wood, holding them on their backs with a cloth wrapped across their foreheads and back around the load.
The life of these people is not easy. Nearly all, especially the women, labor in a manner most Americans would find difficult to bear. All but the youngest have been ravaged by atrocities of war almost too terrible to recount. Salomón told us this morning about a boy who saw his parents killed, his dumb brother tortured, and his house burned to the ground. Yet with the memories of more than thirty years of civil war and all the other challenges they continue to face, the people plod on. It is hard to discern if the stalwart calm of their faces is actually true contentment, but it appears so, and I cannot help but sense a certain tranquillity in this lovely, slow-moving place.
After a grand, Mery-cooked breakfast, Salomón led us out into the property
behind their house. With the help of friends in America, Salomón and
Mery had been able to purchase several acres of land, and, as with all of their
assets, they were using it to meet the needs of others, planting fruit trees
and malanga plants from which hungry neighbors were welcome to help themselves.
One of the bulbous malanga roots could feed a person for several days.
Our big project while youre here is rebuilding that pond, said Salomón, pointing to what seemed to be nothing more than a large expanse of mud. On closer inspection, we saw it was lined with cement, but covered with moss and crumbled in several places.
We used to use the pond as a model for teaching Mayans how to start their own fish hatcheries so they could feed their families. After instructing them here, we would provide them with seed fish to begin their own project. It was difficult, though. No matter what we said, they always ate the seed fish before they reproduced. Ultimately, we decided our energies were better used in other ways.
Matt asked, So are you going to try to do the same thing again?
I think this time we will just have the fish available for people who really need them. Inviting someone to fish on your property is at least better than just providing a handout.
We spent the next two days removing several tons of mud, one shovelful at a time, before beginning repairs on the walls and laying pipes for flow of fresh water. Our muscles were sore, but it felt great to be working. Salomón labored alongside us from start to finish, and Mery frequently sent down refreshments.
Jedd and Trey were working side by side when they began discussing whether or not it was really efficient to work as we were. The labor was such that anyone could have done it. On a pure efficiency scale, it would have been much better to work in the U.S., and then send the money down to Salomón and Mery. With just one days salary from any one of us, they could have hired a small army for a week.
Jedd set down his bucket for a moment. You know, its a little discouraging when you think about it that way. We could be doing a lot more for people down here by working somewhere else.
Yeah, but I dont think thats how we should look at it. The relationships, our own growth through the experience, the knowledge we can share with people at home. Its all part of the package. I dont think God is all that concerned about efficiency, at least as we define it.
What about the parable Jesus told about the talents? The master affirmed his servants based on how effectively they had used what they had been given.
Trey paused for a moment as he took another bucket of mud from Jedd. Of course were supposed to make the most of what we have. But when we give ourselves completely to God, He is probably going to use us in ways that dont seem exactly efficient to us. Think of Moses spending forty years tending sheep in the desert or even Jesus spending most of His life making furniture. The main issue is just to let God have His way.
Mike chimed in, God doesnt need our money or anything else we have. He has no problem providing for Himself. I think the main thing He wants is for us to release both our time and our money to His will.
Well, I agree. Jedd nodded. Although you know its not always easy for me to see things that way. I want maximum efficiency. Ill tell you, though, I really do like this work-using up our physical body, making it tired, and earning our rest.
We could not help thinking of a verse from Ecclesiastes: The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep (5:12).
we had when we were living together at Westmont, the four of us met every night
to read a chapter of the Bible and discuss it, followed by a time we called
Confession and Reconciliation. The purpose of Confession and Reconciliation
was simply to share struggles we were facing and to work through any frustrations
we might have with each other. James 5:16 states, Therefore confess your
sins to each other . . . (emphasis added). Despite this directive, in
recent years few non-Catholic Christians have made a habit of confessing their
sins to others. As the days went by, we found that the practice, like all of
Gods directions for life, offered practical, real-world benefits-particularly
in regard to increasing our sense of accountability. When we knew we would eventually
have to confess our mistakes, it caused us to evaluate our decisions more closely.
It also brought a deeper openness and honesty to our relationships with one
another. Finally, confession helped us know how best to encourage and pray for
one another in areas where we struggled. The truth is that we just cannot do
it alone. God meant for us to live out our faith in community. We need one another,
but we cannot fully receive the help of others until we are honest with them,
and ourselves, about our shortcomings.
The second part, reconciliation, was a practical application of Christs instruction Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry. It gave us an opportunity to be forthright about frustrations and concerns we had with each other. It was a safe forum for getting things off our chests.
A wise, but less-than-optimistic, friend warned us before we left that we would probably not make it through the trip without a major falling-out. He even thought it more likely than not that at least one of us would return home before the trip was over. Looking back, we can see that, if we had not been committed to nightly reconciliation and confession, he probably would have been right. Because of our commitment, however, our conflicts never became destructive in the ways they otherwise probably would have. As Proverbs says, Wounds from a friend can be trusted. When we can humble ourselves enough to indeed trust the wounds given us by those who truly love us, we will never be caught for long in stagnant backwaters. Spurred by the admonishments of our friends, we will be ever growing into the person Christ called us to be. After our time of confession and reconciliation, we would always close by praying to-gether, committing ourselves anew to God and asking His involvement in every aspect of our trip.
Day of the Dead
That night, our sleep was invaded by distant sounds: singing, fireworks, and
shouting. At 3:30, right beneath our window, a loud string of firecrackers ripped
through the night. Before its echo could die, a mariachi band struck up a tune,
pulling us most of the way to wakefulness. They were celebrating Allhallows
Eve, Latin style. The following day, November 1, was el Día de los Muertos,
the Day of the Dead, a time throughout Latin America to remember and honor loved
ones now gone.
On the morning of November first, Salomón and Mery drove us to the town of Nebaj where Jedds cousin, Jared, worked with a Christian aid organization. Jared and his wife were waiting for us in their small but cheery home not far from the center of town. They greeted us all warmly and wrapped Jedd in cousinly hugs.
Did you guys see the festivities coming up?
We nodded. In all the little villages along the way, everyone was out in their finest. The cemeteries are packed.
Yep. El Día de los Muertos. You want to visit the one here?
Nebaj actually had two cemeteries. The one for the rich was filled with gaudily colored cement crypts, painted baby blue, bright red, and aqua green, some as big as a house. The other cemetery, on the opposite side of the road, held resting places for the poor-only wooden crosses topped the mounds, sometimes painted, sometimes just one stick bound to another. Most of the town celebrated in the poor cemetery, men wearing their cotton outfits, scrubbed to gleaming white for the holiday, women gowned in long skirts and blouses woven with a kaleidoscope of geometric forms.
All around us, celebrants mixed funeral with Mardi Gras. Many prayed earnestly, lighting candles and delivering food to a grave or covering it with flowers. The air was thick with incense. Some people talked softly while kids ran hither and thither with kites, laughing, pushing, and shoving. For small fees, roving musicantes plucked guitars and scratched violins for the dearly departed. Other people drank the local alcoholic beverage, kuxha, made from the fermentation of wheat flour and sugarcane juice. They stumbled between the crosses or lay sprawled out in a stupor on unused lots.
What do you think of this? Jedd asked of his cousin.
I dont know exactly what to think. When I ask them why they do it, they just reply, Its tradition. Some just want to honor their ancestors, but a lot of the motivation comes from fear.
Salomón had similar thoughts. The Mayans have always been very careful to satisfy the dead. When a person dies, they leave a cup of water on the table for the spirit for nine days. Then, they believe the spirit leaves, but it comes back on the Day of the Dead to gather with the other spirits and to be close to the living. This is all just one of the Mayans many pagan practices.
Some are Christians, though. For them it should be different. If we read the Bible, we should know that we cannot do anything for the dead. It is false religion that encourages people to try.
Reminders of a Bloody Past
We were on our way into the hills for a picnic when Salomón suddenly
pulled the truck over to the side of the road. Come, there is something
I want to show you, he said, a hint of solemnity in his voice. We piled
out of the truck bed and followed him up a short path. His face did not hold
its usual smile. We stood silently, waiting for what he would say.
Do you see those two crosses on the edge of the canyon?
Fifteen yards from the road stood two large, rough-hewn crosses of wood.
This is a very sad place for all those in Uspantan. The crosses are here to commemorate the many senseless deaths of the civil war. He paused for a moment, as if considering the weight of his memories, then continued, At the peak of the fighting, this canyon served as a mass grave for those the government killed. The soldiers would wait in ambush for the guerrillas to come out of the hills to buy supplies in the market. Once captured, they were brought here and executed.
The thing you have to understand about guerrilla warfare is that there are no uniformed soldiers. Any peasant is a possible enemy of the state. The soldiers killed many innocent people on rumor or whim. At times, the bodies would pile up so high that there was not room for any more. Then the army would soak the corpses in gasoline and torch them to make room for more. Those were horrible times. Both the guerrillas and the soldiers did unthinkable things. Many times the victims were the poor farmers who were just trying to eke out an existence. They didnt care about the war, but the war took them anyway.
Every time I walked down this road, the stench was a reminder of the nightmare we were living with. The sky above was often black with buzzards seeking a few beakfuls of flesh. Dogs fed here as well. It was not unexpected, the day after a mass execution, to see one in town gnawing on a bloody arm or foot.
Salomón shook his head slowly. He seemed to see the scene before him as it had been. We stood by silently, trying to process the terrible things that had happened in the very spot we now stood.
Time for Truth
In town that afternoon, Salomón suggested we pick up the machete cases
we had ordered from a local leatherworker.
Did you know that the man who makes them is the uncle of Rigoberta Menchú?
The Guatemalan woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize? asked Trey.
Salomón nodded. She was born here in Uspantan.
So is she the local hero of the town? Mike asked.
Not exactly. Many of the people of Uspantan do not see her as a hero. Some, I think, are jealous of her success. A lot of people, however, see her as a hypocrite: She criticized the governments treatment of the poor, in the process becoming rich, but then doing nothing to help the people of her hometown. Her uncle, for example, hasnt seen a penny from her even though his family struggles to feed themselves. She paid a visit in a helicopter once, but that is about it. I know shes very popular internationally but, unfortunately, many Guatemalans, even the Mayans, dont have respect for her.
But arent they grateful for the fact that she brought the worlds attention to what was going on in Guatemala?
Thats a difficult issue, he said. Most of the people feel like she didnt really know what was going on. She hadnt lived in Uspantan since she was a little girl, and many of the things she wrote were secondhand, or, even worse, some would contend, fabricated. A lot of people feel that she got rich and famous off of their suffering.
Its kind of crazy that people in America view Rigoberta Menchú so differently than they do here. She did at least some good for the people, but they dont seem to appreciate her much. It is interesting to see the difference between how people view someone that helped them from afar, versus how they view someone who came alongside and served them with their own hands, like Salomón and Mery. Christs model for us is definitely the latter. As it says in Philippians, Who, being in very nature God, . . . made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant . . .
After this trip, I know I wont be content to just send checks from a distance. That is valuable, too, but there is no substitute for coming close to people and serving them with all that you are.
Ive enjoyed my time with Jared over the past few days, but its given me a lot to think about. Church this Sunday was troubling. We saw all the things Jared had warned me are so common: blaring music from blown speakers; a pastor shouting, often in condemnation of other brands of Protestantism or those in his own group who werent up to specs; women turning on and off the tear faucets in their eyes, apparently on demand.
The next day we visited a pastor in a nearby village. The man was young, about our age. His dark eyes were thoughtful and kind. Yet it seemed the only vision he had for his church was a bigger building and more musical instruments. Even when pressed, the issue of spiritual growth and discipleship did not figure in. Jared says that many of the pastors he has spent time with find it difficult to see things any other way.
It seems much of the Protestant church here is so consumed with externals. For the individual, it is the more obvious shows of piety. For the pastors, it is the way their buildings and services look and the size of their congregations. So few seem to be focused on Jesus and a relationship with Him.
I imagine this is what creates the divisions within the church here. There are eleven different Evangelical churches in the town of Nebaj alone. Christ and the New Testament writers emphasized unity so strongly. Yet unity is impossible when our focus is on anything besides Jesus alone.
Jared feels other frustrations as well. He came here hoping to improve peoples lives. Yet he often has doubts as to his purpose and effectiveness. He tells me-only half jokingly-that when hes asked to submit a Positive Impact Story for his organizations newsletter, he wonders if he should make something up or just tell them he cant think of any.
I know it isnt that bad. I can see that he is accomplishing some things. But still, there are literally dozens of aid groups here in Guatemala, many just in this town. And despite the unceasing flow of dollars and man-hours, it is hard to discern if the people are really becoming any better off. Some human suffering has been relieved, but it seems that the expectations of the populace end up rising more than conditions. The net effect is discontent. This eats at Jared because he so desperately wants to help bring these people better, happier lives.
[Jareds wife] Jody is less of a crusader in these matters. She cares about the conditions, but isnt as enmeshed in the large projects. A big part of her focus is just building relationships and becoming involved in peoples lives. But although she is less accomplishment-oriented, Jared says he thinks she may end up accomplishing more here than him.
Salomón and Mery have a similar way of doing things. Even the big projects they do are totally rooted in relationship with the people they are serving. Im beginning to see that successful ministry-even basic relief work-must always be built, first and foremost, within the context of relationship.
The next morning, Salomón asked us if we would like to visit with some
of his Mayan friends who lived in the nearby hills. We jumped at the opportunity,
hoping to look into the lives of the local people, not as prying tourists, but
as visiting friends. As always, we climbed into the bed of the Hernández
pickup truck and bounced our way down the rutted dirt roads of Uspantan. The
laid-back Latin culture was taking hold of us. Even Matt-who at first had been
wary of riding unsecured in a truck bed-now thoroughly enjoyed the ride. Today,
he even stood with the others, as we had often seen the locals do, arms resting
atop the roof of the cab. We struggled not to fall as Salomón dodged
brightly-clad women who seemed to glow in the foggy morning. Every now and then,
the truck would come to a stop and a few of Salomóns friends would
climb in, gratefully accepting the offered lift.
After a jolting twenty minutes, Salomón pulled off the road and hopped out, leading us up a path shrouded in mist. Foliage, lining the sides of the trail, released dewdrops that clung to our pant legs. As the path entered a small cornfield, green turned to gold. Salomón examined one of the stalks. The Mayans are totally dependent on the corn crop. If it fails, the family could starve. We have been trying to teach them to plant other crops as well, so they will not be so devastated if the corn fails. But it is hard to get them to follow through.
Between the last of the golden stalks we saw a small shanty, smoke sifting out through the cracks in its rough board walls. Although all Mayans do their cooking indoors on an open fire, none of the homes have chimneys. They simply allow the smoke to find its way out through chinks. As we entered, we found this method to be less than advisable. The home choked of wood smoke.
If there really is a danger from secondhand smoke, this is it, Mike whispered to Matt.
A crude wooden bench in the corner served as the dirt floors only accent. Cautiously we ducked beneath the low-hanging rafters, trying not to disturb the corn that hung drying from the ceiling.
Salomón called out a greeting to the woman of the house. She offered a shy smile, revealing stained, crooked teeth. Quickly, her humble eyes returned to the floor. The little children gravitated toward us, gazing inquisitively at the pale-skinned giants. In the corner near the smoldering fire, a young teenage girl rocked a baby in her arms. A slight pitter-patter resonated through the roof, suggesting that the mist had turned to rain. Water ran down through a gap in the shingles, but no one seemed to notice.
These people are my good friends, said Salomón. When I first met this woman, her husband had a severe drinking problem and was neglecting his family. After years of prayer, he finally turned to put his faith in Christ. The rest of his family soon followed. Now he does his best to care for them. Their life is hard, but we help out a little when their corn runs low.
Outside, someone sloshed up the muddy path toward the door. He entered, but quickly took a step back before a smile crept onto his face. It was Juan, the father of the family. He bowed faintly, acknowledging Salomón as if he were an angel. This seemed to be a common reaction of those we encountered during our time in Guatemala.
In Guatemala there are two distinct societies, the Ladinos and the Mayans. Technically, a Ladino is any-one with mixed European and Indian blood. Broadly, the term Ladino is used to refer to anyone who embraces a Western style of life. As in other Latin American countries, the higher the percentage of European blood, generally speaking, the higher ones level in society. In contrast, most Mayans live today in much the same fashion as they have for centuries. As uneducated subsistence farmers, they are looked down upon by Ladinos. The friction between these two groups was a major undercurrent in Guatemalas civil war.
The Salomón Hernández family has worked to heal these wounds one family at a time. They believe following Christ in this situation means serving people considered worthless by the higher classes. When serving as pastor of the local Methodist church, Salomón invited the local Mayans into the fold. But the existing congrega-tion did not want the bad-smelling Indians invading their church. When Salomón would not back down, he was told, Go with your Indians; we dont want them. The elders decreed that Salomón was pastor no more.
But he and Mery were undeterred. They left the church, seeking to live by Jesus teachings rather than the cultural norms of the church. It was plain to see their decision had a profound effect upon a great many lives, including those we were seeing today.
Juan and Salomón talked quietly in the corner of the room. We gathered from Juans gestures that he had been consulting Salomón about his roof. Apparently, it had been leaking for quite some time. Without a word, Salomón hoisted his agile sixty-year-old body onto the roof, moved a few tiles around, and voila! No more leak. It did not take a rocket scientist to do what he did, but the family would have lived with the rain indefinitely had Salomón not visited.
The incredible patience exercised by Salomón and Mery in their service amazed us. They are dedicated to helping a people who has never learned how to learn. Their fish hatchery project failed because the people ate the seed fish. The mattress they brought this family last year was sitting in the middle of the pasture a week after they had given it to them. The vitamins they brought for the children often went unused, though the kids needed them desperately.
At some of the stories we heard we could hardly help but laugh. We will never forget the story of the couple who came to Salomón for birth control. They already had eight kids and could not afford to feed any more. Salomón prescribed some birth control pills with strict directions on their use. To his dismay, the woman returned three months later beginning to show.
What happened? Salomón exclaimed Havent you been taking the pills I prescribed?
The woman affirmed that she had. After some prying, however, she acknowledged they had made one slight alteration: I didnt like taking them, so my husband has been taking them instead.
It amazes me how Salomón and Mery can continue to serve without getting angry at the people they are trying to serve. I certainly think I would have long ago.
Dostoevsky observed, The idea of loving ones neighbor is possible only as an abstraction: it may be conceivable to love ones fellow man at a distance, but it is almost never possible to love him at close quarters. This statement is truer than wed like to admit. Ive known a lot of supposed humanitarians who go out to do all kinds of good, but end up despising the people they came to serve.
It seems so clear that the only thing enabling Salomón and Mery to avoid that sort of frustration is their relationship with Christ. Despite all the exasperating situations, the Hernández family somehow continues to give love. It is a love that is not based on the qualifications of its recipients, or even on their ability to receive it well. Salomón and Mery love because Christ first loved them. They are intent on pleasing Him, not just on doing good. Most important, as they walk with Him, He gives them love for the people they are serving. And since they love the people they are serving, even though they may get frustrated at times, they are no more likely to give up on them than is a parent whose child is having a hard time learning to walk.
Principles of Amor
After dinner that night, we sipped tea and talked. Jedd, who had caught a glimpse
of Salomón taking Merys hand under the table, said he could not
help but smile; they seemed to cherish each other so deeply.
How is it that your marriage is so strong? Jedd asked Salomón.
Because I cannot live without her, he replied with a grin. Mery seemed to blush a bit. It is true. So much of what we do together is thanks to Mery.
Despite the clear male headship of the Hernández family, it was easy to see that Merys quiet strength and servantlike heart was, in many ways, the growing soil of their ministry.
Salomón turned to Mery. Tell the boys about our nightly commitment.
Mery nodded. Since we were first married, we have come together every night before we go to bed and held hands. We look in each others eyes and ask forgiveness for whatever we have done to wrong the other that day. Then we ask if there is anything we have done to offend the other, so that we can ask forgiveness for that, too.
How did you know to start doing that?
No one told us. It is a biblical principle: Do not let the sun go down on your anger.
It was humbling to realize that for their whole lives, Salomón and Mery had been living out the principle of nightly reconciliation and confession we were only beginning to discover. We were particularly struck by the fact that a Latino man, steeped in the machismo tradition, would humble himself enough to ask forgiveness of his wife. It was just another example of how Salomón and Mery set the patterns of their lives by Jesus instructions rather than by their culture.
We also saw that, although each had their own strengths and very distinct role, they were truly a team. They had attended seminary together, and then nursing school. Later, they studied the Quiché language to-gether. As they carried out their shared vision for ministry, Mery aided the women and children while Salomón worked with the men.
Salomón chose me because he planned to be a pastor and work within the church, Mery explained. He noticed me working with the children, leading Sunday school, and helping with many things in my church. He knew we could be a team.
But Mery wasnt so sure about me at first, Salomón interjected.
No, when Salomón asked me out, I had some doubts. I told him to pray about it for three months, and then come back. Three months to the day, he was back on my doorstep.
We all laughed.
Salomón shook his head. So she said, Okay, we can date, but first you must talk to my father. My knees were shaking, but I did it. He squeezed Merys leg. It was worth it. Id do it again a thousand times.
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- five -
A Scathing Letter and Some Sweet Sorrow
When the time came to leave the Uspantan countryside, we felt a hint of melancholy. Its quiet streets and lovely hills had wedged themselves deep in our hearts. The long drive back to the city was wet and mud-spattered, the prospect of our departure making the gloom even heavier. Here and there, though, a sunburst broke through the sullen clouds, bathing the scene in warmth and light.
Mind if I ask another question, Don Salomón? said Mike. We had been mining his and Merys wisdom most of the trip down the mountain. How do you know who to serve? I mean, there are so many needs here in Guatemala. How do you choose which ones you will meet?
Salomón glanced at Mike in the rearview mirror. Thats a difficult question, Miguel. I used to worry about it a lot. The way I see it now, though, is this: Jesus called us to love our neighbors, and that is what we must try to do. The people around us, the people God puts in our path, those are the people whose needs we are to meet.
So do you go out seeking these people?
In the past we did more, but not so much now. People know we are available to help them. They come to us. If you offer yourself to God, He will open your eyes to the needs all around you.
The Ethics of Bribery
Back at Shellys apartment, a fax waited for us from Westmont College. According to the message, we had set off a big debate at our alma mater. Before the trip began, we had agreed to send articles about our trip every few weeks to Westmonts school newspaper, the Horizon. The first to appear in the paper described Jedd and Mikes drive through Mexico, including their incident at the Mexican-American border. The following weeks edition of the newspaper carried a stinging letter to the editor:
Last week the Horizon printed a letter from The International Missions
Team. The team recounted their exciting adventures running borders and
bribing officials. They were carrying illegal goods described in the letter
as medical supplies . . . donated only recently, which, because
of time constraints, had not been preregistered with Mexican authorities.
Consequently, they were stopped at the border and told they couldnt take
$3,000 worth of medical supplies into the country. How inconvenient for Christs
So the International Missions Team found another border station and snuck through. This was entirely illegal. When they later got stopped and their smuggling was discovered, they bribed the officials. They laughed as they drove off, expressing doubts as to whether those fees would end up in the Mexican treasury. What silly, corrupt officials, accepting bribes like that. Apparently, only accepting bribes is wrong: giving bribes is acceptable, especially if done in Gods name.
Last year, [a Westmont group that does service work in Mexico] ran the border with trailer loads of food and medical supplies. This was also in defiance of Mexicos laws, but later in chapel, [our chaplain] was ecstatic as he recounted how they twisted the laws to their liking and smuggled tons of food and medicine into Mexico.
This is wrong.
Mexico has laws, and those laws are to be respected when one is in Mexico. The fact that you are a Christian, that you are a missions worker, that you are working toward what you think is Gods plan does not exempt you from anything. Christ told us to respect and follow the laws of the land, that temporal authorities were placed there by God. Render unto Caesar means paying respect as well as taxes.
There is a dangerous feeling of superiority which can breed in missions work, and it is this that tells us that it is acceptable to break laws and ignore the wishes of those to whom we are proselytizing. But it is simply not acceptable to infantilize our targets. It is arrogant, it is offensive, and it is sometimes even illegal. Perhaps if the International Missions Team realized this they would cease to be the International Criminals Team.
bloomed, with questions of smuggling, fees, bribes, and bureaucracy becoming
hot topics in Westmonts dining hall, dorms, and coffee shops. Debates
sprang up in classrooms, and an evening forum was held to allow open discussion
of the issue.
Our feelings were mixed. Despite the criticisms of some, we felt secure in the fact that our motivation from the beginning had simply been to get medical supplies to people who needed them. We also felt some indignation. What right had our critics to sit there in their dorm rooms pointing an accusing finger at us? After all, we were not profiting from any of this. We were just doing the best we could to help our Christian family in Latin America.
As our defensive, somewhat knee-jerk reaction wore off, however, we returned to what Mike and Jedd had wondered even in the midst of the exchange that night in Mexico: Maybe we had been wrong. We did believe we had good reasons for our actions, but there were good reasons for questioning them as well. Our critics were simply raising important issues that ought to have been raised. If we were to strike back at them, seeking only to defend ourselves, it would have been nothing more than an attempt to avoid the difficult reality that we ourselves simply did not know if what we had done was best. Trying, as best we could, to be honest and not overly defensive, we responded with a letter to the editor of our own:
Friends at Westmont,
We are challenged and encouraged by your struggle over the issue of bribes in
foreign countries. Many of the things you are discussing mirror our own thoughts
and questions. For the Christian, when to diverge from the laws of the land
is a challenging question.
Having grown up in a nation where laws are generally reasonable and just, we have little direct contact with many of the subtleties of this issue. The Christians who live in lands where laws impede, and even make impossible, acts of love and service have a much fuller understanding of the issues involved. It is difficult for us even to conceive of authorities who demand bribes to carry out their appointed functions, or bureaucratic desks where requests will never be considered unless accompanied by a gift. Even so, we can still wrestle over these questions in theory and through the Word of God.
One could say that there is a continuum between those laws that clearly must be obeyed, such as those against murder, and those that must be broken, such as one mandating the death of Jews. At some point between the black and white, however, is the realm where we must struggle to discern the will of God.
Should we, like Rahab, lie to authorities to protect noble spies? Should we, like Daniel, brazenly display disobedience before an open window when laws limit our religious freedom? Should we, like the disciples on the Sabbath, disobey the law of our society if it conflicts with the spirit of Gods law? Should we, like [a group that went south of the border last year], smuggle much-needed medical supplies into Mexico? Should we, as we actually did, have given a demanded fee to authorities who would otherwise have taken our car, even though they wrongly sought to profit from a law intended to keep people from importing unregistered medical supplies into Mexican markets, while we were bringing the supplies through to Guatemala? The answers are not easy. Crucial issues of the spirit of the law (both Christs and societys) only add to the complexity.
We do not have pat answers. We know we must seek to honor earthly powers. We also know that such authority is not the highest authority. In regards to our own past choices, we join you in wrestling over the question of what was best. While perhaps [the young man who wrote the original criticism] misunderstood what actually happened at the border, we share his desire to seek truth.
Looking forward to our planned smuggling of Bibles into Vietnam, we must consider similar questions. Until the answers can be known for certain, we encourage you all to continue seeking . . .
Matt, Mike, Jedd, and Trey
A Well-Watered Garden
Before leaving Guatemala, we were able to enjoy one last meal with the extended
familia Hernández. Once again, the long table was covered with mouth-watering
dishes. Matt looked around the table. A granddaughter sat smiling on Salomóns
lap. Shelly and her sister-in-law were deep in conversation. Another of Salomóns
daughters had begun to clear the table. Mery talked with two of her small grandsons,
while a third stole another helping of dessert. Dr. Danny laughed at something
his brother-in-law had said.
It is amazing, Matt thought. This family has such tender concern for the poor, and yet, they can enjoy life so fully as well.
Sometimes, when Im around the poor, I have a hard time not feeling guilty for all that I have. But at the same time that I feel guilty, I have a hard time being generous because I doubt that the money Im giving away will be used wisely. I think my problem is that I see the money that I have as my money, not money that has been entrusted to me by God. The Hernándezes, on the other hand, seem to really believe that the money they have is not theirs but Gods. And they live this out! Seeing their generosity astounds me. They give away so much, yet they dont seem uptight at all about the chances that sometimes they might be taken advantage of. They are more generous with others than with themselves, but even in that, they are able to take so much pleasure in the good things God has given them.
There is probably a poor man out on the street right at this moment. Maybe tomorrow Salomón will give him the shirt right off his back. But that is not his calling right now. His calling right now is to enjoy an evening with his family. It is beautiful to see how God does expect real sacrifice, but He gives real joy as well. Im beginning to understand that the two come together. You cant separate them. I hope I can embrace them both.
At the airports departure gate, in a flurry of pictures and hugs, we bid
good-bye to the family.
Trey shook his head, I dont know if Ive ever been so sad to say good-bye to anyone. I feel such a strong sense of the family of God . . . they really are our family.
Matt nodded. I know what you mean. The hardest part of this whole trip may be saying good-bye.
As the plane shot heavenward, we took a last glimpse of Guatemala before the volcanoes, jungles, chaotic streets, and soldiers were swallowed by clouds. Our flight would take us to Miami, where we would spend a one-day layover, hosted by a friend of a friend of a friend, before moving on to Russia.
The book of Isaiah promises, If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail (58:10-11).
For perhaps the first time in our lives, we had been able to observe-even live with for a time-people who truly spent themselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfied the needs of the oppressed.
God seemed to be keeping His end of the bargain as well. While Salomón and Mery focused on meetings the needs of others, God had been faithful to take care of theirs. Anyone could see that they were, most certainly, like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.
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Episodes to come:
the buck with the secret police
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Part III: Russia and Beyond
Part IV: Egypt
Part V: South Africa
Part VI: India
Part VII: Bangladesh
Part VIII: Thailand
Part IX: Vietnam
The Adventure Begins
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