Tag Archives: United States

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.

What Would Life Be without Work?

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Your brand new tuk-tuk.

Want to be your own boss? To avoid having to give part of the money you make to wholesalers, employees, suppliers, etc.? You could become a tuk-tuk taxi driver. Scrape together about $1,100 and you could be the proud owner of a new two-seater three-wheel taxi that looks a little like a golf cart with a cab and put-puts along like this: tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk.

You’d be out on the streets early carrying fares for pennies, and you’d probably stay out late taking in as much money as possible.  As a driver, you’d have to be quick, adept at staying out of the way of cement trucks, loaded buses, SUVs, and other vehicles that could easily flatten your little taxi. You don’t have much protection. But at least you’re not pedaling, like some drivers in Asia. And hey, it’s work.

Early each morning as we go out walking, there are men sitting on the curb or leaning against walls across the street from the new high-rise building that’s going up a block away. Early in the day, those men look anxious and expectant at the same time, hoping for a day’s labor. By midmorning, those who are left look dejected: no work again today. No income, no sense of accomplishment, no sense of worth.

We all need to work, whether we like to admit it or not. Life is not satisfying without work, and without work it slips away while we are not watching. (An observation: I have never known anyone that retired in order to enjoy idleness who then lived very long.)

Morales16Ap13_609When I was younger, there was a common stereotype of the lazy Latino. Anyone who would accept that stereotype does not know the people. I have never seen anyone who works harder than the Guatemalan laborer, or the 16-hours-a-day tuk-tuk driver, or the Mayan woman selling her tortillas, made at home well before daybreak, on the street corner from seven in the morning until her supply runs out. I know men in their 80s who still jump at the chance for a day’s work because they do not enjoy the income or opportunities that are available to retirees in the U.S. Life for some is very hard.

And yet few of us could ever be truly satisfied with doing nothing. Almost all of us feel the need to make some impact, some contribution in this world. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “When you cease to make a contribution, you begin to die.”

It was rather easy for me to walk away from regular office hours and meetings when I retired. It was harder to walk away from friends, so I still try to keep in contact. But what I could not give up was the opportunity to contribute somehow, so I still try to give my time to activities that will make a difference in someone else’s life.

Is it work? Yes, of course. But what else is there? What would life be without it?

 

A Lesson in Turning the Other Cheek

Miguel's view

Miguel’s view

Lessons in being a disciple of Christ can continue throughout our lives. That’s a good thing, I’m sure, but some days it seems that the more I learn, the more I see how far I fall short.

Yesterday I learned a good lesson from my friend Miguel. (And to protect his privacy, I’m not using his real name here.)

Miguel showed me something of what it can mean to turn the other cheek.

The first time I met him, he lived in a nice home in the hills above the city—a place he had built as a refuge for his family. It was a lovely place. I enjoyed a few days of peace with them there. How fortunate they were, I felt, to have such a place.

Now he and his wife, well into their “golden” years, live in other circumstances. Their home was taken from them cruelly by someone who coveted—a former business associate Miguel had trusted. A little deception in the office, a little forgery, and my friend and his family found themselves being evicted from their nice home.

He speaks about it matter-of-factly now. There was nothing he could do.

I don’t know if he protested, or if he fought. I would have. But he seems to be at peace with it now.

I’m sure I would still be whining, “But he can’t get away with that! It’s wrong! If people can get away with cheating others like that, then what protection do the law and society offer?”

Some people would be asking “Why?” after something like this happened to them. I have learned that “Why?” is usually useless after the fact—a waste of time. The situation simply must be dealt with, and worrying about the why is unproductive.

But I am not good at letting go when injustice is involved. How can we let someone get away with cheating another innocent person? If society tolerates that, are we not also guilty? Are we not guilty of letting the thief abuse one of Heavenly Father’s children who did not deserve it?

But now we are skirting the dangerous swamp of deciding who “deserves” evil and who does not.

My friend Miguel is wiser than I. He seemingly does not spend any time occupying his mind with past hurts. The man who cheated him may need to carry that baggage into eternity, but Miguel knows that he does not.

He still has the most important things in his life—a strong family, a woman of great spiritual strength beside him, his faith that God loves him. He still looks outward. Getting burned did not make him fearful of extending himself to others. He still serves.

Would I be able to do that? I’m not sure. And this worries me a bit, because that is exactly where the road of discipleship leads.

In the hills above Guatemala City.

In the hills above Guatemala City.

 

Heaven to Hell in 72 Hours

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Oakland Mall

We spent Wednesday evening at the nicest mall we’ve seen anywhere in the world. There are touches of luxury everywhere, beginning with the red or green lights above the underground parking spaces to show empty stalls.

Name a brand of expensive wristwatch or sportswear and you can probably find it here. Models in off-the- shoulder mini-dresses distribute samples of expensive perfumes or gourmet chocolate. People who are used to shopping at Saks 5th Avenue or on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills could feel at home in this place. It is a palace of conspicuous consumption.

In the movie theater, there are plush recliner seats similar to those in first class on an airliner. The popcorn is cheaper than in theaters at home—but we order from our seats, and it is delivered by a dark-suited waiter.

If your life were dedicated to acquiring things or treating yourself to pleasant experiences, it would be easy to think that heaven ought to be like this.

In contrast, on Saturday, Sister S. and I had the privilege of joining a group of evangelical Christians as they distributed clothing, blankets, children’s toys, and food to people who live in the Guatemala City landfill, a ravine below the city cemetery.

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Guatemala City landfill

Each day these people dig through heaps of garbage to eke out their subsistence by salvaging repairable or recyclable items from the trash. The largest flock of buzzards I have ever seen circles overhead like seagulls over a hoard of picnickers at the beach. The scene reminds me of one of Dante’s circles of hell—but it is all too real, all too concrete. No words or photos can capture the unrelenting stench of decay or the feel of grit in your teeth from the fine dust that swirls in the winds of this ravine.

Some 1,500 people lined up to receive gifts and a light lunch of a roll, a Guatemalan tamale wrapped in a banana leaf, and a glass of punch.

The visitors who brought the gifts were mostly Guatemalans, but they also included a visiting family from Iowa and a handful of LDS senior missionaries from all over the United States, with visiting family members in tow. Gifts were donated by both businesses and individuals; several hundred of the blankets were provided by LDS missionaries.

Guat landfill_460bThe group brought along a generator, portable sound system, and keyboard. A talented musician spent the hours in the landfill singing Christian pop music, trying to spread a bit of the word about Jesus. At the edge of the crowd, a man in tattered clothing and what might have been dreadlocks (or maybe only matted hair) danced along.

My wife and I went home to enjoy long showers—and felt a little guilty just for having the privilege.

We have to admire people so dedicated to helping the least fortunate among us. Members of the Guatemalan group sponsoring the activity, la Asociación del Cinco, have pledged to donate five percent of their income to helping the poor.

But what is the best way for us to help people so poor?

Discussions about the problem too often are polarized. On one side are those who say, “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps. Let them do the same. That way they’ll appreciate what they get.” Others may answer, “These people are so far down they’ll never get out of their hole, and society owes it to them to help. We’ve got to take from those who have in order to give to those who have not.”

What’s the right answer? I don’t know. But surely there has to be some viable middle ground.

Those who work most closely with people at this level of poverty say the answer isn’t simply to give them money. It’s spent too fast, with no lasting result.

Education may well be the answer—in the long run. There’s a public school perched on the edge of the ravine that serves the children of the area. By law children and teens are no longer allowed to work in the landfill with their parents; they should be in school. La Asociación del Cinco also has a school to help some of the children eight to 12 years old.

Human nature being what it is, there are undoubtedly some at the dump who would not take advantage of an offer of help if it required long-term commitment. But could there not be some system worked out to help those willing to train for viable jobs? Perhaps instead of paying back the aid they receive, they could pay it forward, helping finance retraining for others. It seems like an idea worth a try. I for one would support it.

In the meantime, those who are sacrificing every day to help people trapped in poverty—people condemned to live in the dump—have all my respect.

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Food for the hungry.