Giving thanks in a strange land

Beth Benson

The Mayan mountains are beautiful, the roads into them rugged, and the people are joyful and kind, not unlike Cook County and the Arrowhead. Still, I felt like a fish out of water, a reluctant ambassador from the north. My four traveling companions were splendid and made the path easy, but nearly 3,000 miles from home, I felt useless and completely dependent on those around me.

People from First Congregational United Church of Christ and St. John’s Roman Catholic Church have a wondrous partnership with a Catholic Mayan church community in Chiapas. For nearly 14 years this friendship has been growing and since the gospel of John records Jesus saying, “Come and see,” it seemed important that I do that and not just hear about it from others.

There was much to see and even more to learn. It is not paradise, but a place etched in centuries of suffering, yet infused with peace—peace that invites the living waters of healing to flow freely. In a report from the United Nations dated 2003, they describe optimistic possibilities for peace in this part of the world, much of the optimism attributed to the strength and grace of the Mayan people.

Their strength and grace was apparent each step of our journey. It is a simple life, not on the grid because there is no grid. Their homes are simple, the division of labor in communities efficient and effective.

Compared to us they have almost no possessions. Time and energy is spent working to put food on the table, offer learning opportunities to children, gatherings where people study theology and listen to each other. The land is not privately owned so much as shared by community.

Walking down one of the dirt roads in the countryside, I met Luciano. He was tending one of the happiest corn fields I have ever seen. The only tool was a hoe, nothing mechanized, all done by hand from planting to harvest. Each day we ate tortillas made by the person with the tortilla maker and they were delicious. Delicate and tender, companion to each meal accompanied by fresh fruit, eggs, soup, meat of various kinds, and exquisite tamales, every meal a work of art, full of flavor and hospitality.

There is much they could be bitter about, many reasons not to trust white gringos from the United States, but everywhere we went the doors were open, the feasts prepared.

It reminded me of words from the prophet, Isaiah, “Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise.” (Isaiah 60:18)

I found those walls in Sacara, a Mayan community in the mountains. They were chased out of their homes and their church was vandalized to the point of being unusable. Six hundred men, women, and children exiled because a Protestant Christian group decided they wanted the land.

Suddenly, our partnership with St. John’s took on a whole new meaning. Our Cook County Ministerium went from mundane to miraculous.

We are partnering with the people of Sacara to build a new church, it has been years in the making and still needs a roof. As we gathered inside, four new walls around us, we prayed together, thanking God for friendships that grow in places of human conflagration and conflict. The gospel of John tells us that Jesus came so that we might have life and have it abundantly. In circle after circle, community after community we listened and learned what it looks like when everyone has a voice. In simple huts without TV, running water, computers, microwaves, or telephones there was a richness that took my breath away. “What a privilege, what a joy divine, leaning on the everlasting arms…”

The arms we lean on are not restricted by time or space, language or custom. They can be found anywhere at any time. The most important word I learned in that strange place was thank you. In the Mayan dialect of the place we stayed in it sounds like “cola wall.” I cannot tell you how to spell it, what matters most is saying it, living it, and sharing it.

Each month a member of the Cook County Ministerium will offer Spiritual Reflections. This week our contributor is Reverend Beth Benson of the First Congregational Church – UCC in Grand Marais.

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