Repost – Guatemala Day 2

For those of you who subscribe to my blog, the full text of yesterday’s post might not have come through in the email. I apologize for the technical difficulties. Please click here (or use the direct link below if the link doesn’t come through) to access the original post or read the contents pasted into this email. Thank you for following along on my journey!

https://rabbieve.com/2019/01/14/guatemala-day-2-persistence-and-resistance/

———-

After a decent night’s sleep, day two began with a lovely walk around the area of the hotel in Guatemala City. I am surprised and a little bit saddened by how Americanized the city is. Carl’s Jr., McDonalds, and Papa John’s are everywhere. The only chain I haven’t seen is Starbucks, and for that I am grateful. I also realized how paralyzing the language barrier is for me.

Guatemala-pics.png

Following my walk I enjoyed a DELICIOUS breakfast. The fruit is incredibly fresh. We then did some learning on what it means to have ethical community engagement and discussed what it is to look at versus look with. We need to engage in ethical community by CHIME: understanding Context, Health and wellbeing, Informed choices, Mutual benefit, and Ethics, as a process. Unfortunately this was the last part of the day that left me cheerful and hopeful.

Before lunch we met with an organization we’ll call the “Human Rights Defenders.” A quick side note on security: because of the political unrest and because the people we’re meeting with are often working against the corruption and impunity in government, we have been asked not to name them or their organizations while we are in the country. This organization works to provide safe passage for those who come under attack for protesting or working to end corruption. They protect civil society from attempts by the government to stifle fair land ownership, wages, etc.

We discussed how we can use our “whiteness” and American citizenship to defend the defenders. The men and women of this organization put their lives in danger every day fighting for justice and the underprivileged and poor. They engage in “accompaniment” which they define as face to face interaction with the persecuted and their families, encouragement and moral support, standing with others in court and informing them of the process, and sustaining the families of those who flee. The leaders of this organization started it in 2000 as a response to the rise in crime and violence four years after the Peace Accord was signed.

I walked away from that meeting with despair for the number of poor who simply want access to basic needs, but at the same time impressed with the work they do. This is moral courage. My question from this meeting: What does it mean to have “civil society”? I’d love you to help me answer this!

Lunch was followed by a bus ride to the Museum of Memory, the place that commemorates and teaches about the history of Guatemala from the Mayan people through today. On the way there we drove past the protests happening against the corruption of the government and the government attempts to shut down CICIG, the commission against impunity here.

We then heard from the human rights law firm in Guatemala and some of the people they work to support. This meeting left me in tears. The firm helps community leaders demand collective rights, when they are almost always criminalized for it. The land in Guatemala is important to the people, those who are indigenous and those who happened to land here. None of the speakers asked for a job or a home. They asked for the rights to work their land, to have a place to call their own, rather than be stripped of their rights and land by big corporations or the government. The head counsel for the firm shared that he has to dress in upscale suits because his skin color is so dark, he is seen as lower, other, and less than by officials and lighter skinned Guatemalans. White supremacy is not just an American issue. The common feelings in this session were fear, helplessness, despair, and suffering. It was devastating to sit in that room. They ended by asking us to fight on their behalf when we go to Congress in March.

So where does this leave me? Well, with a lot of questions. The genocide in Guatemala shares much in common with the Holocaust in Europe and the pillaging of the land in America. In the Museum of Memory they had a book entitled “Never Again,” vowing to teach people about the Guatemalan genocide and the “armed conflict” so that it won’t happen again. I stood there wondering if “Never Again” was possible. The similarities from genocide to genocide are striking. How do we break that pattern? How can we respect others and recognize as equal those who are “other” to us? Why do we fear difference?

How can we change a culture of corruption if the only thing the children see in their society is corruption? Can we raise a generation of children to be different, stronger, more just and fair than the “leaders” they see today?

We asked the leaders of the law firm how they sustained their mental health, knowing the deep despair and injustice they see daily. They responded, “Persistence and resistance.” Amen to that!

I was grateful after that session for the few minutes to regroup in my room before dinner, which, like all the meals so far, was delicious. Now it’s time to sleep and pack for tomorrow’s journey. This trip is at times humbling, heartbreaking, and inspiring.

Guatemala, Day 2: Persistence and Resistance

After a decent night’s sleep, day two began with a lovely walk around the area of the hotel in Guatemala City. I am surprised and a little bit saddened by how Americanized the city is. Carl’s Jr., McDonalds, and Papa John’s are everywhere. The only chain I haven’t seen is Starbucks, and for that I am grateful. I also realized how paralyzing the language barrier is for me.

Guatemala-pics.png

Following my walk I enjoyed a DELICIOUS breakfast. The fruit is incredibly fresh. We then did some learning on what it means to have ethical community engagement and discussed what it is to look at versus look with. We need to engage in ethical community by CHIME: understanding Context, Health and wellbeing, Informed choices, Mutual benefit, and Ethics, as a process. Unfortunately this was the last part of the day that left me cheerful and hopeful.

Before lunch we met with an organization we’ll call the “Human Rights Defenders.” A quick side note on security: because of the political unrest and because the people we’re meeting with are often working against the corruption and impunity in government, we have been asked not to name them or their organizations while we are in the country. This organization works to provide safe passage for those who come under attack for protesting or working to end corruption. They protect civil society from attempts by the government to stifle fair land ownership, wages, etc.

We discussed how we can use our “whiteness” and American citizenship to defend the defenders. The men and women of this organization put their lives in danger every day fighting for justice and the underprivileged and poor. They engage in “accompaniment” which they define as face to face interaction with the persecuted and their families, encouragement and moral support, standing with others in court and informing them of the process, and sustaining the families of those who flee. The leaders of this organization started it in 2000 as a response to the rise in crime and violence four years after the Peace Accord was signed.

I walked away from that meeting with despair for the number of poor who simply want access to basic needs, but at the same time impressed with the work they do. This is moral courage. My question from this meeting: What does it mean to have “civil society”? I’d love you to help me answer this!

Lunch was followed by a bus ride to the Museum of Memory, the place that commemorates and teaches about the history of Guatemala from the Mayan people through today. On the way there we drove past the protests happening against the corruption of the government and the government attempts to shut down CICIG, the commission against impunity here.

We then heard from the human rights law firm in Guatemala and some of the people they work to support. This meeting left me in tears. The firm helps community leaders demand collective rights, when they are almost always criminalized for it. The land in Guatemala is important to the people, those who are indigenous and those who happened to land here. None of the speakers asked for a job or a home. They asked for the rights to work their land, to have a place to call their own, rather than be stripped of their rights and land by big corporations or the government. The head counsel for the firm shared that he has to dress in upscale suits because his skin color is so dark, he is seen as lower, other, and less than by officials and lighter skinned Guatemalans. White supremacy is not just an American issue. The common feelings in this session were fear, helplessness, despair, and suffering. It was devastating to sit in that room. They ended by asking us to fight on their behalf when we go to Congress in March.

So where does this leave me? Well, with a lot of questions. The genocide in Guatemala shares much in common with the Holocaust in Europe and the pillaging of the land in America. In the Museum of Memory they had a book entitled “Never Again,” vowing to teach people about the Guatemalan genocide and the “armed conflict” so that it won’t happen again. I stood there wondering if “Never Again” was possible. The similarities from genocide to genocide are striking. How do we break that pattern? How can we respect others and recognize as equal those who are “other” to us? Why do we fear difference?

How can we change a culture of corruption if the only thing the children see in their society is corruption? Can we raise a generation of children to be different, stronger, more just and fair than the “leaders” they see today?

We asked the leaders of the law firm how they sustained their mental health, knowing the deep despair and injustice they see daily. They responded, “Persistence and resistance.” Amen to that!

I was grateful after that session for the few minutes to regroup in my room before dinner, which, like all the meals so far, was delicious. Now it’s time to sleep and pack for tomorrow’s journey. This trip is at times humbling, heartbreaking, and inspiring.

Guatemala – Opening Drash

antigua-guatemala-2652478_1280.jpg

I was honored to give the opening drash (words of Torah) at our first gathering on the trip:

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have anxiety getting ready for this trip. It’s a new experience, as it is for most of us, I’m leaving my children for the longest I’ve ever left them, and it didn’t help that when I registered with the state department, the screen popped up with “DANGER, UNSAFE DESTINATION.” So what did I do with this anxiety? In typical rabbi fashion, cliche as it is, I spent a fair bit of time doing what I always do to understand a situation. I turned to my favorite guide to life, the Torah.

The first text that popped into my head was “Lech lecha martzecha m’moladetcha, m’bayt avicha.” Abraham had a nagging in his heart, a sense that there was more he could do for the world if he got out there. So, with a similar nagging from Joe and Ruth, I’ve decided to leave my home, my family, the comfort of what I know, and go on this journey into the world.

Abraham’s model is one that I find continually relevant in my life. When we get too comfortable in our own space, with our own security, we have a responsibility to step out and see how we can help others to find more comfort in their lives.

However, Abraham leaving his father’s home isn’t the end of our journey as a people. We come to our parshah this week, Beshalach, and here we are again on a journey. Our nation is in the wilderness. Egypt, their previous host country, was hostile towards them, oppressive, unsafe, and corrupt. There was nowhere to go but up, and so with much trepidation, they rushed out, arriving at another obstacle, the sea. When they were able to cross the sea and journey toward freedom, they sang. Ozi v’zimrat yah. God is my strength and might; God is become my deliverance.

So much of this journey reminds me of the people of Guatemala. The land owners, the women, children, indigenous people. The underprivileged, the minorities, the poor. They are oppressed and fighting daily to find their strength. The midwives we’ll meet are the Shifra and Puah of their community, working to save lives, fighting for a just society. UDEFEGUA represents Moses who saw injustice in the workers and fought for a better, fairer world. And the workers on coffee plantations and banana fields (and I’m guessing I’m not the only one who feels a sharp pang when I see my son eat a banana after reading Bitter Fruit), those workers deserve a voice for justice stronger than the Israelites in Egypt.

I have no grandiose misconception that our presence in this place is Godlike, but we do have the great opportunity to extend our arms, and especially our ears, to help, to listen, to reframe, to fight, and to deliver.

As we embark on this journey, my our ears be open to those who need our help, our hearts be strong and open, and our voices be loud as we stand up, and offer support to those who need it the most.

Guatemala, Day 1

I was out the door at 2:15am this morning as my car arrived to take me to the airport. The experience was surreal. The airport was dark, check in counters were empty. I made it through security in record time (under 3 minutes from arrival at the airport to walking to my gate). It was eery. I don’t know if it was my trepidation at making this big trip and being away from my kids, or my exhaustion, but both plane rides left me feeling a little unsettled and restless.

I arrived in Guatemala at 3:25pm and by 4pm I was with my group at the hotel. The Guatemalan airport was almost as stark and empty as PDX was this morning which felt super strange. The city (what little I’ve seen) is beautiful.

Our group began with a bit of inspiration. A fellow participant shared his understanding of our Torah portion this week: As the Israelites sang to God they had anavah, humility. They noted that God is only God when we’re present to witness. So too, we must be present here to witness the lives, struggles, history and culture of this country.

We finished with logistics, had some introductory conversations about the people we’ll be meeting and then had some time to get settled before dinner. We met with an in-country consultant for the organization that sponsors my trip. He shared his fear and the fear of many in this country that the corruption of government and the current Guatemalan president will lead right back to another armed conflict. The dismantling of CICIG (government anti-corruption committee through the UN) is feared to be catastrophic. There are rallies and marches causing traffic delays. We’ll see more tomorrow.

Dinner was at a beautiful restaurant with a thatched roof and featured awesome potato taquitos and my favorite – LOTS of SPICE!

20190113_203634

20190113_192133

Tomorrow we get into the meat of our work here. And, the day begins with a 7am walk with none other than Ruth Messinger!  

Time to rest up!

Shut Down in Darkness – Parshat Bo 5779

shut-down-darkness.jpg

I usually avoid straying into overtly political territory in my weekly writings. I tend to stick to moral issues that might allude to the current political scene, but rarely do I actively condemn or condone. However, the story of the government shutdown/standoff over the proposed border wall has been in front of us every day since the end of the year, and it’s increasingly difficult to ignore.

I keep coming back to the news of the migrant caravan that started working its way north several months ago from war-torn, gang-ridden, violent countries. When news broke that our borders were shut down, and the pictures of mothers and diapered children running from tear gas flooded the internet, my heart stopped. My entire family came to America as immigrants. They moved from Europe in the early 1920s to find safety and a better future. We are the “lucky” ones who were safely in America before World War II. Others did not have the same good fortune and were turned away, only to return to their peril and sometimes death in their countries of origin. Why do we vow “never again,” yet when we’re faced with the opportunity to save lives and create a safe haven, especially when there are thorough vetting processes in place, we say no?

Realistically, as citizens there’s only so much we can do. We can write our representatives to express approval or disapproval, and we can donate to aid organizations. But then what? The feeling of helplessness is paralyzing. The shadow of depression hovers low over the things we feel powerless to change. I have so many emotions, knowing that my family was able to seek freedom and security here, while countless others won’t have that opportunity.

This feeling of darkness is not mine alone to bear. We read in the Torah this week from Parshat Bo, which speaks of a similar feeling among the Egyptian people during the time of the plagues. Parshat Bo details the Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites are a traveling people, and in Parshat Bo the Israelites are steps away from leaving Egypt. Pharaoh again refuses to allow the Israelites to leave, and each of the three refusals brings with it one of the three final plagues. The narrative continues with the procedures for leaving Egypt, including putting the lamb’s blood on the doorpost, and the instruction to recreate these events by celebrating Passover in future generations.

During the plagues, there was nothing the average Egyptian could have done to end the misery. That’s the case for all of the plagues except one: darkness. Why is it, our Torah scholars ask, that during the plague of darkness, no one thought to light a candle? Wouldn’t that have ended the darkness? The commentary answers this question by imagining an entire group of people in a deep depression, a psychological or spiritual darkness. People suffering from depression often lack the physical energy to move or the emotional energy to get out of their own heads. This is exactly how the Egyptians are described. We can only guess what the emotional state of the Egyptians might have been, but the Torah is clear in its message. When we are enveloped in the plague of darkness, we lose reason, we lose compassion, we lose ourselves.

The stalemate that resulted in the current government shutdown feels like a plague of darkness. From the federal employees whose payroll has been affected, to the complicated issue of border security versus humanitarian aid, the lack of movement is paralyzing.

I certainly don’t claim to have all the political answers for how to solve the immigration crisis, but I know that darkness is not it. I know that an immobile, uncompromising Congress is not it. I know that verbally and physically attacking people who are simply looking for a better life for their children is not it. I don’t have the solution, but I remain hopeful that at some point soon we will remember we still have the power to end the darkness by turning on a light.