Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 5, 2004
Guatemala hears voices of hope
Fundamentalist sects divide Catholic unity
A Missionary's Musings
By FR. JACQUES JOHNSON
As part of a sabbatical after eight years of slugging it out in the parish mission arena, I'm enjoying a winter of warmth and sunshine much like our Canadian summers. It's not all holidays, however, as I've spent a full five weeks in language schools in Antigua near the Guatemalan capital.
This smaller city boasts of having 60 language schools catering to people of all continents wishing to learn the Spanish language. I'm presently able to survive when I need to use this new language and hope with time and more work to be fluent by summer.
I took this last week away from the books as the opportunity came to travel in northern Guatemala where the Oblates minister in two missions. One of them, Playa Grande, includes 125 villages in a jungle area. The other parish, Chicaman - which I have yet to visit - includes 60 villages but with a population as large as Playa Grande.
Pot hole heavenThe trip there and back was memorable for its roads that for the main part reminded me of northern Alberta's highways in the 1950s with the difference that the Guatemalan potholes are more frequent and deeper than what I can remember back then.
The first half of the trip went quite briskly. Then it's a bit of a nightmare as we slowed to a crawl. The four-wheel-drive Land Cruiser overcame the potholes and mounds on what can hardly be called a highway. It took 10 hours to cover 300 km.
Was it worthwhile? You better believe it was! The highways are awful but the country is beautiful. It's a good version of the Amazon. It's jungle country with trees as high as church steeples.
One evening, I heard the most horrible sound I ever heard. The jungle begins on the edge of the mission property and up in the forest canopy, probably some 65 metres high, one could see a family of six black monkeys, gorillas perhaps, with a huge male challenging any takers on with a trumpet sound that shook the forest and surely sent potential rivals running for their lives.
Later that evening, as we were at prayer, I heard another weird sound, almost like the wind coming forth then receding to a murmur, only to come back and grow into an awesome crescendo. Like the waves of the ocean it ebbed and flowed for several hours. Later I found out it was an army of countless frogs in the ponds and sloughs near the mission. I was lulled to sleep by their song.
The beauty, charm and peace of the area belie the worst violence a person can ever imagine. Back in the seventies and for nearly 20 years violence of the worst kind took place in that northern area of Guatemala as guerillas and soldiers fought a war that killed over 200,000 innocent indigenous people of the area who were caught in the crossfire.
Religious sectsTo further weaken the resolve of the people the army of Gen. Rios Montt invited American religious sects into the area and created a division in the people by destroying the unity around the Catholic community to which almost 100 per cent of the people belonged. These sects were financed by American interests who wanted to control the area by dividing the people and thus weakening them.
Almost overnight sectarian churches started to sprout in communities that until then had been virtually 100 per cent Catholic. Local pastors were brought and trained so much so that today in every village of the area there are anywhere from one to 10 fundamentalist churches in a single community.
I cannot help but mourn with the people the terrible loss of countless innocent lives as well as the violent and satanic manipulation of an innocent people whose members were tortured and killed, used and abused. The perpetrators continue to reap the advantages of controlling much of the land as well as the people and their future. One thing is sure: these monsters won't have the last word.
Missionary blessingsI was able to appreciate the awesome work done by the Catholic missionaries who brought in education, building skills, health facilities and social programs that continue to give life and hope to the people. These are now run mostly by the local people who have received training and are now in position of power, providing their people with good leadership and knowledge in the field of health, education and development. The people themselves are now doing much of the work done by the missionaries.
In the back area of the Catholic Church property there is a building of particular interest. Living there are 14 young men finishing their high school and preparing to become missionaries for their people.
Silver-haired Father Kapuska is their spiritual father and trainer. Gently he leads them in their journey of faith and growth in the service of the Church and of their people. I was touched as I heard them sing a few hymns accompanied by the guitar. The harmony that they created with pure voices moved me deeply and gave me hope. Yes, the past will be left behind: there are better days ahead.
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