Guatemala, Day 4: Moral Courage

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Today began as all the others have, with a bleary-eyed, yet invigorating and enlightening walk with Ruth and other inspiring friends. I only got about five hours of sleep last night because my hotel room was quite chilly (there’s no heat) and, as it turns out, the walls are also a bit thin. That made it challenge today to get my spirits up, but just like the past few days, the scheduled experiences did not disappoint.

We went to meet with one of our organization’s grantees who works on behalf of local midwives. This organization is absolutely incredible. The women and a few men work tirelessly to promote safe and healthy birth experiences for women and children. The statistic given was that out of 2,000 births a year, only 600 happen in the hospital. That leaves midwives, who in many instances are shut out of hospitals and threatened for their lives, to provide care.

These women made us delicious tamales and snacks, served tea, and shared their experiences as providers of life. We viewed their birthing rooms and exam rooms for those mothers who choose to have their child in the clinic as opposed to their home, and we learned the Mayan rituals for providing safe birth.

They shared a beautiful invocation tradition, using the spirit of the sunrise, sunset, wind, and sky. Every child has a gift and a purpose determined on their birth, and the midwife’s job is to teach the parents about this gift.

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I was especially touched as we arrived at one midwife’s home. The “house” was really a series of cement structures connected by tin roofs, and her exam room was surrounded on the outside by dogs, cows, roosters, and chickens. We heard all about her experience in her district. She shared that they feel birth is a spiritual practice, in which you prepare your heart and pray along the way.

These women work 24/7, often traveling late at night and early in the morning to provide support. They face dog bites and sometimes abusive husbands to do the work they do. These women exhibit moral courage on a daily basis. They understand that women and their children deserve safe, healthy, and supportive birth environments and heed the call to do this work when the government tries to shut them down. They fight for the mother and baby to have a spiritual and personal beginning in their journey together.

As we left, they were filling out paperwork. One of the midwives cannot read or write. She’s been a midwife for over 30 years, and truly knows babies. One of her co-workers was filling in the paperwork for her, and she signed using her thumbprint. We all have unique fingerprints. When we touch others, literally and figuratively, in kindness and with our full spirit, it gives birth to a better future, so to speak. What imprint will you make on others?

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Guatemala, Day 3: Mountains and Beauty

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Today began like yesterday, with a brisk and enlightening walk with Ruth and two new, wonderful friends, as we took in our last moments in Guatemala City. The city was bustling with people going to work and school, riding bikes and scooters and motorcycles and cars and buses.

From there we gathered as a group for some (much needed) reflection on yesterday and some learning before we had our meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala. The meeting was diplomatic and short. We were allotted one hour with our representatives there and did the best advocacy for human rights we could manage in that time.

From there we got on the bus to transfer to Quetzaltenango. The ride was absolutely magnificent. Many of you know that I like to move and walk as much as I can. Today, I spent six hours on a bus taking in the changing landscape, the vast differences between the towns we drove through, and the beautiful and complex country around me. The bus ride was punctuated with conversations about our goals in our rabbinate and how we find “moral courage.” This conversation was difficult for me, as I’ve often shied away from conflict and advocacy work. After my time on this trip I know that I can no longer do that. I have power in my role as rabbi and as a citizen of the United States, and I must stand up against injustice. I’m not sure what this will look like when I return from this trip, but I do know that something inside me has been turned on.

From the bus window I saw volcanoes and lakes, flowers, stray dogs, roadside stands, and women tending their crops. Just as we approached our hotel we passed a statue in the center of town. This is a statue of a local man, waving goodbye. It represents good luck to those who make the journey to be immigrants to America. Yes, immigration to America is one of the top exports from Guatemala because life here can be so bad that the only way to survive is to immigrate, work to make money, and send the money back to support your family. I have so much to think about.

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One of the best parts of this trip are the new friends I’m making among my colleagues. It feels like a luxury to spent this much time engaging in meaningful and deep conversations with new friends. I’m looking forward to conversations that continue to nourish my soul and feed my heart.

Off to dinner and a good night’s sleep! This was a much needed day to catch my breath.

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.

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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

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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!

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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!