Joy Tinged with Sadness on a Partnership Trip to the Guatemalan Village of Santa Maria Tzeja
By Clark Taylor, Published on March 9, 2017
Kay and I returned recently from a stimulating and deeply satisfying trip to the Guatemalan village, with which she and I established a partnership with the Congregational Church in town, now in its thirtieth anniversary year. Our trip was part of a delegation, the 59th that the church has sent each February and August. The trip was both a joyous reunion with long-standing friends for Kay and me, which was also tinged with sadness in that we had told them this would be our final trip. For fourteen years Kay led the February delegations and for twenty-four years I led the August trips, so we had provided the continuity from one trip to the next. The partnership continues. however, under the skilled and knowledgeable leadership of other people.
Delegates fly into Guatemala City on a Wednesday and spend a full day in the city meeting with groups that help to orient us to the city and the country situation at the time. On Friday we take a van to a regional city, Coban, where we meet with SMT students studying in the area’s high schools and university extensions and stay overnight. On Saturday we drive into the village and are greeted with a wonderful welcome, including songs of the children and words of welcome from leaders. After nearly a week in the village we leave early on Friday to make it back to our hotel in Guatemala City in a very long day. Saturday the group typically takes a van to beautiful Antigua, a very old city with a chance to be tourists and do some shopping. Sunday we return to the U.S.
Before turning to how this partnership might involve First Parish, we will describe the makeup of the delegations and what delegates do on the trips that feature six days in the village of SMT, located about twenty miles from the southern border with Mexico. Delegations typically involve both adults in a wide array of ages and young people who are at least fifteen years old. Numbers vary from six or seven up to fifteen people. Each group includes two interpreters to ensure that folks understand the Spanish that most residents speak. One of the privileges we enjoy on the trips is to eat in people’s homes which lets us get to know both the adults and the children of the family. Youth delegates join in sports with the youth and play with the children. Adults meet with committees of the village to get to know the activities and concerns of village leaders. Special events include a “parcela trip,” which involves walking to the farming area of one of the peasant farmers in the village, which normally takes the hikers through a section of the jungle. Another event is a trip to a beautiful waterfall with an opportunity to swim and, for the brave, a jump of twenty or so feet into the water that is spilling over the waterfall. Another opportunity is to get to know the outstanding education in the village through visits to the primary and middle schools. Since the late nineties when it was founded, the middle school has graduated more than 500 students. And we meet with the very impressive young professionals in the village who have graduated from San Carlos University, the national university–and others who are still working on their degrees. These professionals are working in a important positions at the local, regional and national level.
The village of Santa María Tzejá is home to some 2000 people, most of whom are Mayan indigenous, who typically speak both the Maya K’iche’ language and Spanish, and the women wear traditional native clothing, while 10% of the people are mestizo who speak only Spanish and wear western clothing. When Kay and I first went there in 1987 the homes were very basic with thatched roofs and dirt floors, but now they are more substantial dignified homes. When we first visited there were no roads to the village or within it. We navigated over rough paths. Now there is a gravel road to SMT and dirt streets within it.
Now to suggest how First Parish might relate to the village. One important possibility would be to become a partner church with the Congregational Church and the village. That would require decisions by the two congregations that would take some time. Another possibility has already been followed by one member of First Parish, which is to offer scholarship support to a student from the village to attend a high school (the village has no HS) or the university. Another would be to become a partner family with a family in the village to exchange two letters a year (which the partnership would have translated to Spanish) with a family have children the same ages as yours. Still another came up as a proposal in the meeting with the professionals in the village. Two of them proposed that the partnership identify individuals with skills and experience in establishing start-up businesses, who could stay 1-3 months, to help students graduating from the university, some with majors in business administration, to start small businesses to provide employment for themselves and for others in the village and region. The goal would be to make the village a center for employment and economic development in the region.
Over the last thirty years Kay and I, along with the other 150 or so delegates (some with multiple trips), have found the trip to be a profound privilege and opportunity to experience wonderfully open people and a culture that is enough different from our own to enlarge our view of the world. If you are at all curious about the village or even your own possible involvement with it in some way, Kay and I would be happy to talk with you about it.