Tag Archives: Mexico

Where Is safety? Where Is Peace?

Just when I think fear is making me exaggerate the dangers of this place, something happens to change my mind.

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Walking in the embassy district.

Two weeks ago, two friends of ours, another missionary couple, were working in their offices across the city when they heard a series of explosions outside. Fireworks, they thought. It happens all the time. But when they were ready to leave, they learned that three women had been shot down in the street just outside the gates of the church building where their offices are located. Gang violence, the police said. Somehow gang violence seems to involve women a lot more in Guatemala than it usually does where we live in the United States.

I haven’t written in my blog for a while. I think I have been avoiding it, because every time I tried to think of something to write about, this came to mind. I didn’t want to write about it. I try to keep things uplifting in my posts. But maybe there is a lesson to be learned in confronting my feelings.

There is no denying that Guatemala is a dangerous place. Statistics, we have been told, show that Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are the most dangerous countries in the world for violent crime. Killings are frequent, cruel, and malicious, often blatantly sending a message to someone. Drug gangs seem to have no fear of the police. Robbery is a fact of life in many areas, and robbers don’t hesitate to hurt or kill victims who resist. And the traffic here still amazes me and raises my blood pressure every day because of its dangers. I shudder when I see father, mother, and one or two children on a motorcycle weaving through traffic. I fear driving at night, hoping not to run onto someone—literally—on a motorcycle without headlights.

It takes conscious effort not to let fear rule your actions here.

Sometimes it helps to step back and change my point of view. I am a news junkie, because news was my career, and so I check the headlines from home every day. In tonight’s headlines there are stories about two men charged with murdering another over a drug debt, another armed robbery at a credit union, a woman killed while trying to run through freeway traffic, a family seeking justice because of a loved one killed in a hit-and-run accident, four women forced into prostitution. It’s not that we are completely safe at home in the United States either. Our neighborhood has changed over the 29 years we have had a home there, and now we sometimes hear of gang crime nibbling around the edges of it.

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Apartment buildings in our neighborhood.

It helps also to be grateful for what we have here. Last spring the local municipality staged a concert in the street in front of our apartment building. The government wanted to demonstrate that there was indeed a zone in the city where it could safely be done. Sister S. and I go walking every morning in the embassy district a couple of blocks east of here. It is a gated community with guards at the entrance and in front of many of the houses. People come from all over the surrounding areas to walk, jog, or ride. (One biker comes with his companion/guard pacing him on a motorcycle.)

We have the opportunity to enjoy many wonderful things here. Last night we saw a performance of The Nutcracker in the beautiful, comfortable, and architecturally intriguing national theater. Hundreds of people came to watch a skilled ballet corps and enjoy Tchaikovsky’s music. I haven’t seen a better job anywhere else—and the tickets cost us about $2.75 apiece. It was a very enjoyable experience, one that could not be had for that price at home. We have seen so many beautiful places in Guatemala. The drive from Quetzaltenango, up in the mountains, down to Retalhuleu, on the coastal plain, reminds me of the road to Hana on Maui.

Today I was discussing my feelings about the dangers here with someone I respect who reminded me that we cannot live as prisoners; we must simply trust in the Lord and be careful. He is right.

Sister S. and I never go to work the same way twice. We try not to look wealthy or conspicuous. (That isn’t easy when we are obviously North American and a high percentage of the men are about the same height as her.) We keep alert to what is going on around us. We never follow closely in traffic, and if we have to brake suddenly, we hope the driver behind has also been paying attention so we won’t get rear-ended—again.

We’ve found prayer essential to this aspect of daily life. We pray for protection every day before going out. We know it helps—we have seen it—and we are grateful. We are grateful enough that we are also getting good at thankful prayers when we come home safely once again.

Guatemala Revisited

Guatemala City looking west, early morning

For weeks I’ve been speculating about what Guatemala would be like when I visited it again. Would it be more progressive? Would the downturn in the world’s economy over the past few years have hurt the country badly? Would so many of the members of my church still be struggling economically? Would it look and feel like the same country?

Now that I am here, I find that much of my speculation was right—and it was wrong.

I first came here almost exactly 48 years ago—November 4, 1964. I spent two years as a missionary in Central America, and 12 months of that time in Guatemala City. I have returned twice for 10-day visits, in 1985 and 2000, so I was aware of some of the changes that have taken place. But I wondered how the country had fared over the past decade-plus.

So, does it look and feel like the same country? Yes—the geography, the climate, the culture all still feel familiar. And no—there is something about the people that is different, for the better.

By early morning light, green, forested hills still surround the city, and I can still feel that this is the “land of eternal spring,” where the temperature is almost always pleasant and it’s possible to live without central heating or air conditioning.

But the vista of those hills is punctuated now by many glass, steel, and brick high-rises, and streets that once seemed broad avenues are choked with rush-hour traffic. The city has undoubtedly more than quadrupled in population since that period when I lived here. While many families did not have a telephone in the home back then, I read recently that Guatemala has more cell phones than people, meaning that many Guatemaltecos have more than one phone. When you walk through a shopping mall here, that’s easy to believe. Many teens have gtheir own phones. Guatemalans eat at McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King. Pizza Hut delivery motorcycles zip through traffic. They have Walmart; Paiz grocery stores associated with Walmart;Office Depot; and the Guatemalan equivalent of Costco. (Membership here was cheaper than in Salt Lake City.) In exclusive stores and malls, people can buy the latest fashions not only from North America, but also from Brazil and Europe.

I can feel a change in the people. More of them are well educated, the middle class seems much larger, and they have higher expectations.

This holds true for the members of my church as well. Last night we went to a meeting in a big new building in a poorer area of town. Some 200 teens and their leaders were in attendance. They represented several LDS stakes, meaning that they and their families would add up to thousands of members. I admit I shed a tear or two as I looked around me and thought about the meaning of what I was seeing. When I was a missionary in 1964-66, I worked in this area of the city. One small, struggling branch covered the whole northeastern part of town, and its meetinghouse, like almost all the others in the country, was a rented home adapted for use as a church. Sunday attendance of adults, children, visitors, and members might have reached 200 on a good day.

Perhaps the best measure of church growth in the country is seen in a video Sister Searle and I watched a couple of days ago. It was a recording of the cultural celebration that took place the night before the recent dedication of the Quetzaltenango Guatemala Temple. Hundreds of youth from the western part of Guatemala danced folk numbers, sang, and performed in a tribute to their largely Mayan heritage. The production was a well-choreographed, well-rehearsed, well-executed show that was the equal of anything that could be offered anywhere else in the Church. The young people obviously enjoyed themselves. One young woman who sang should be recording CDs commercially.

As we watched, the impression came: “You were part of this.” I thought: “No, surely not I. Others I knew, yes. But I never had the opportunity to serve in this area.” But the impression persisted: “You and all of the missionaries who served with you were part of making this possible.” If so, it is an honor to be included.

Children waiting for parents outside the Guatemala City Temple.

After the end of my mission in 1966, there was an opportunity to tour some of the famous ruins of Central America and Mexico on my way home. At Teotihuacan, near Mexico City, I stretched my legs after a long day of travel by climbing up one of the pyramids as fast as I could. I was wearing a Guatemalan typical shirt that surely marked me as a tourist, but as I reached the top, a young Mexican I had passed called out behind me: “Gana Guatemala!” (“Guatemala wins!”)

Guatemala is winning because of the growth of the Church in this country, and I am grateful to have another opportunity to help.