Down the long, winding gravel road we drove. The mountain side was first on our left, and with every hairpin, the mountain was reversed. Chris drove our high clearance four-by-four expertly, while conferring on his cell phone with the team of local clergy and lay volunteers waiting for us in the valley below. In the absence of guardrails on this rural back road, there was an abundance of hand planted corn that covered the mountain side in between every loop.
Not like cornstalks would prevent our slip over the abyss.
The corn looked sickly. It had been explained to us that Guatemala was experiencing a terrible drought. No Atlantic hurricanes had swept across Central America in recent years, leaving the aquifer dangerously low. The drought was having a devastating effect on crop yields and was contributing to malnutrition, especially in high-mountain, rural areas, like where we were serving.
You can see hunger in children’s eyes and sadness on mother’s faces.
We pulled up next to the waiting Toyota Helix … pronounced by the locals as a “Toyota Hi Lo”. Three in the cab and five crowded into the back were happy to greet us and ready for work. We followed our friends and drove down a lane through a bottom dwelling corn field that brought us to an isolated cinder block shack. Three young Mayan women were weaving on the front stoop.
Members of our local team and Chris greeted the women, and they appeared to be really happy to welcome us to their home. As the rest of our English speaking mission team and I were doing our best to exchange pleasantries, an elderly man with a huge scythe stepped out of the corn and into our midst.
I swallowed hard.
There was no reason to be frightened. This was the widower father, who lived with his three daughters. They didn’t own the land. They were given permission by the land owner to squat on the property and use this one room mud house in exchange for their willingness to “watch the property.” My guess is the owner didn’t want any of his meagerly crop stolen.
We learned the three sisters had forgone marriage and made an intentional decision to take care of their ailing father. Years of alcoholism had taken its toll on his skinny body. His eye sockets were sunken, his hat hid the deep crevices in his face, and his hands were callused and crusty.
His daughter’s made a living by weaving. They employed century’s old techniques to weave the most beautiful Mayan fabric on their hand made looms. One was weaving a table cloth that would easily command a hundred dollars or more back home in New York. Another was weaving a gorgeous table runner that I guess would go for fifty.
These women worked seven days a week, three hundred sixty-five days a year, just to sell their fabric to a dealer who paid them seven bucks a month. Plus, they had to use a portion of their earnings to purchase the thread for the next month’s production. This is what the household lived on each and every month. Seven bucks.
The word that comes to mind is “slavery.”
The beauty of working with a well-established mission organization on the ground, who has cultivated relationships with local churches and pastors, is that our visiting short-term mission team came into a pre-established network of Christians helping Christians. Six months of work conducting assessments, meeting neighbors, and leading outreach by local church leaders had already prepared the mission field for us to enter.
Chris, the leader of our group, is an excellent linguist who easily slips from English to Spanish without even thinking. Yet, even he was relying upon the local church leaders and pastors for their ability to speak the modern version of Mayan. It isn’t Spanish.
With patience and love, Chris was able to break the ice with our new friends. He was able to joke with the father, who then was able to tell his story of how Christ had helped him keep 20 years sober. The daughters smiled and laughed, even as they kept weaving. Chris made a call on his cell phone, and before we knew what was happening, he made arrangements for these women to work with a new broker. The new connection would pay them $20 a month and supply them with all the thread they needed.
Just like that.
Their salary nearly tripled. They could now afford enough food to not go hungry. They could start to put some muscles on their bones and begin to make a life for themselves.
Chris led us in prayer. I don’t know which language; it didn’t really matter. By the time we were done praying, everyone was rolling tears down their cheeks. Our prayers had been spoken in about a dozen different languages. I don’t think it mattered to God; our Heavenly Father understood them all.
Dad vowed he’d try to get back to church. It had been a long time since he last attended. His daughters might even be able to take a morning off to join him in the pew. Our local pastors quickly made arrangements to help get dad back to church.
God is good.
We pray at the Eucharist table the petition to be “one with Christ and one with each other.” On this very hot Guatemalan afternoon, we had indeed become one with each other, even as we became one with Christ.
To learn more about Chris and his wonderful organization, go to: http://www.bethelministriesinternational.com/