When it was time to pick a foreign language in school, I favored French. I loved the idea of French culture and learning more about European history. I was enamored with the romantic aura of the language, the language of poets and artists. When I shared this notion with my parents however, they offered different counsel. They suggested that studying Spanish could be more useful as it was more likely for me to encounter Spanish speaking people in the US than those who spoke French. I saw the practicality and wisdom, but I was not as taken with Spanish or Central American culture; in truth, I knew very little of either. Ultimately, practicality prevailed and I enrolled in Spanish.
I began Spanish 1 with reluctance, expecting to learn what was necessary to succeed academically but with little expectation of being invested. In spite of myself and as weeks turned to months, however, I found myself increasingly inspired by the people of Central America. My deepening personal faith inclined me toward interest in the history of the work of Catholic missionaries in spreading God's Word, blending a Christian worldview with the cultural practice of the Aztec, Incan, and Mayan peoples. My heart was truly seized when we began studying the life and ministry of Oscar Romero. Romero was a Catholic priest who was appointed archbishop of San Salvador in the 1970's. He worked tirelessly on behalf of the indigenous people, standing up to oppression and injustice, ultimately giving his life for them. He was assassinated while giving Mass in the chapel of the Hospital of the Divine Providence in 1980. Romero opened my eyes to the reality of systemic abuses of power and God's call to speak on behalf of those oppressed in a contemporary context. It challenged my ideas about the "perfection" of the church and encouraged me to still deeper depths of faith, especially in relation to the wider world.
Fast forwarding to seminary a decade or so later, Romero's story was still calling to me as I took a class that focused on the theological contributions of theologians from Latin America. The 1950's, 60's, and 70's saw the rise of Liberation Theology, a theology grown and developed in response to the oppression in many Central American countries during that time. Liberation Theologians saw in the gospels, "a preferential treatment of the poor," a call to lift up the poorest in their midst and to fight institutional evil to do so. The powers that be in that part of the world in that time was unrelenting. Liberation Theology lived in the hearts of many Christian martyrs in that time. As I read about the faithful witnesses and their theological framework, I was exposed to more of the darkness in the world and God's call to shine His light into it. I saw further examples of systemic evil and corrupt institutions, examples of violence that cried out for the light and love of God.
All this was in my heart as I travelled to Guatemala to visit with our missionary family, the Doppenbergs, a few weeks ago. It was the first time I got to experience the land and the people that had inspired me and so shaped my understanding of justice and ministry.
Guatemala was one of the countries in Latin America that was crucible for the development of Liberation Theology. Injustice and violence were rampant during Guatemala's civil war from 1960-1996. Guatemala's indigenous Mayan people, those who make up the rural poor, took up arms against the government's military dictatorship seeking justice. In response, the Guatemalan government committed genocide of the Mayan people. Only 20 years after peace, the effects of the violence can still be seen in many places throughout the country and contribute to its high levels of poverty.
In the more western parts of Guatemala, the Mayan people still wear their traditional dress and maintain their native customs. On the Eastern side, where the Doppenbergs do their ministry, this is not the case. In order to protect themselves from genocide, the Mayan people in the East have destroyed everything related to their indigenous heritage. They dress in American clothing and have burned their native weavings and colors.
All this brings me to Adelso and the ways God brings life from death.
Having shared about Guatemala's history, it must be said that I never felt unsafe while I was there. Guatemala is a truly beautiful country and I felt at ease to enjoy everything, to take it in, and to be present to God's work. Still, as a precaution, the Doppenbergs employ a guard, Adelso, that travels with them as they go about their ministry. Adelso has a military background and worked as a mercenary during the above mentioned civil war. He is a man of rich faith with a warm smile and a generous heart. He accompanied our group as we went about visiting people and working on the Centre of Hope.
On Wednesday of my trip, I had the opportunity to visit El Salitrillo, one of the Mayan villages where the Doppenbergs have done their ministry. We rode in the back of a pick up truck (so fun!) into the mountains on a dirt road. I was excited to get to meet the people and to see the work that has been done. As we arrived, we were immediately swarmed by a group of 15 or 20 kids excited to see "gringos!" As we got out and interacted with the kids and mothers, I was only dimly aware of Adelso's presence with us. That was until a moment when I saw tears streaming slowly down his face. This was a God moment. It was holy. As Adelso interacted with those kids and families with us he was overcome by the emotion of the twists and turns of his life. He said that he could have never imagined that he, a mercenary in the civil war pitted against the Mayan peoples, would one day stand upon the mountain tops in their villages with gringos from Canada and the United States sharing in God's love. For me, in that moment, all I had learned about the struggles of the people for justice and of God's work through missionaries and martyrs took flesh and blood, and I saw resurrection. It was a small resurrection by some measures, but it was also beyond compare. God does amazing things!
In the coming weeks and months, you will hear more God moments from my time in Guatemala, but I offer this personal story of an epiphany of God's love and hope, indeed of resurrection in this season of Epiphany.
About the Author: Pastor Nicole Kelly is Co-Pastor of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Cincinnati, OH. A vibrant and welcoming community of faith and a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.