When I last left you in Part 2, it was midway through Friday, after a wonderful morning in the preaching work. But our day was far from over. After driving back to the house/Kingdom Hall, we enjoyed a quick lunch before our midweek meeting. This being our first meeting in Guatemala, I was excited to see how it would go. Added to that was some nervous anticipation, because Jess and I would be giving our first talk in Spanish at this meeting. Due to the updated Theocratic Ministry School instructions for 2015, we were able to give a #3 assignment together, which was a real privilege. We had practiced a few times in advance but still felt very nervous. Thankfully, the talk went well enough, and Nathan (serving as School Overseer) gave us some very encouraging commendation afterward.
The rest of the meeting was as you'd expect -- except for the obvious difference that it was held outdoors in the middle of the afternoon. It was a little strange sitting down to the Bible Study and Ministry School with daylight streaming through the terrace. And although it was quite warm in the afternoon sun, there was usually a nice breeze coming through that helped quite a bit.
Other than the setting, it was quite a typical meeting. And that's one of the amazing things about Jehovah's organization: You can go anywhere on earth and receive the same structured program of spiritual feeding. I was amazed at the abundance, variety and quality of comments throughout the Bible Study. The attendance was also surprisingly high -- I forget the exact count but I believe it was in the mid-30's -- made up in large part by progressive Bible students. It was so encouraging to see so many people not only responding to the preaching work, but making real, evident spiritual progress.
Finally, Friday evening we changed and headed for the beach. While Nathan & Jessica's house isn't quite on the beach, it's not far -- only about a 5 minute drive. In fact, you can hear the waves crashing from their terrace on a still night. So after a quick change, we piled into the back of the truck again and made our way to the beach. We arrived with plenty of time to play frisbee and body surf while watching the sun set -- and take lots of photos:
It seemed like such a long, exhausting day, but we felt so content. We had spent most of the day in encouraging spiritual activity, and had a lot of fun too. It was the kind of day you could get used to - a perfect version of what life in Guatemala could be like.
Of course, there are two sides to every coin. For all of the natural beauty and fascinating culture, there are some real challenges to life in Guatemala. We only had the smallest taste of these challenges and frustrations. But just looking around, it was evident that there were real problems. Severe poverty is widespread. Violent crime is a threat. Quality medical care is lacking. Even something as simple as trash & waste management was not cared for where we stayed, meaning the natural beauty of the area was marred by a sea of trash -- paper and plastic products littered virtually every roadway and field. Many local residents resort to burning their trash, leading to severe odors at times; others simply dump it at giant community dump sites, often alongside a public roadway. We learned how much we take even small things for granted in our own environment.
Add to these issues the other, more pervasive challenges, such as the continual heat, abundance of insects and other pests, lack of gringo-safe drinking water, and you may begin to wonder why anyone would want to live or even visit. Well, it's not all that bad. What was a brief challenge for us is a way of life for the local people, and we can learn much from their determination under difficult circumstances.
And in the end, the people themselves are the attraction. Those we we met during our week in Guatemala were simply remarkable. We were shown such kindness, generosity and hospitality, often by people who had little even for themselves. Once I spent an entire morning working in the house-to-house ministry with a brother from the Chiquimulilla congregation. I had never met him before that morning, and he spoke not a word of English, but despite my weak Spanish, we had a great time preaching together. Midway through the morning we had stopped for a brief rest near a roadside tienda, when this brother excused himself for a moment. When he returned he surprised me by handing me a can of pineapple ginger ale, refusing to accept any money in return -- a truly unpremeditated act of generosity. I hate to stereotype and assume this was a man of little means, but it is almost certain that this gift cost him more than it would have cost me. This simple gift highlighted his truly generous spirit.
This particular brother gave me yet other, non-material gifts as well. I spoke previously about getting just the right push I needed at times, and this brother gave me more of a shove during that morning in the ministry. At one point we were preaching to an elderly woman who was enduring terrible pain and poor vision. He offered her a few words of condolence then handed me an Escuche a Dios! ("Listen to God!") brochure and told me to study it with her. Just like that. Something I never would have volunteered to do on my own, at that point at least. And that was one of the single most touching experiences of my time in the ministry in Guatemala -- going to sit down next to an elderly woman who couldn't read and could barely walk, show her illustrations about the Paradise, and share simple but universally faith-strengthening promises from the Bible.
Sunday service was a real adventure overall. Not only did Jess and I get separated from each other, but we were sent with groups from the local congregation with people we didn't know who didn't speak English. But it was a great experience overall. Our meeting for service was held on the side of the road, where several cars, trucks and an ancient Kia minivan met and let out quite a huge number of people, ready to go in the ministry.
I was assigned with the group in that crazy Kia van, and that was adventure all of its own. While not much bigger than a modern compact sedan from the outside, we crammed almost 10 people in it at one point. The van was stripped bare inside -- no headliner, random covers and material missing, steering column completely exposed -- but it was actually a lot of fun riding in that little box on wheels.
We did, however, have one moment of real excitement when we hit a motorcycle on our way home from field service. Well, to be more accurate, he hit us. We were driving around a large, dangerous curve in that blue van on the way home from preaching when a motorcyclist came barreling toward us, in our lane, at the apex of the curve. He swerved, we swerved, but it was too close -- I turned my head in time to see his bike scraping down the length of the van before catching the rear bumper and flipping, sending the rider sprawling on the roadway.
We immediately stopped and ran back to help. Our driver was visibly shaken, worried that the man was seriously hurt, or worse! Amazingly, the man was up on his feet and mostly unharmed. His bike was in one piece but pretty beat up. Around that time the family living in the house near the curve ran out to see what had happened. Apparently the man had been drinking and was definitely under the influence, so he admitted fault.
The whole group talked it over and decided not to call the police, since it could be very costly to obtain a police report. So the man simply opened his wallet, handed our driver the few bills he had, and we went on our way. Welcome to Guatemala! It was no doubt not enough to cover the damage caused to the van, but then, let's be honest, the van wasn't exactly in showroom condition to begin with ;)
After service that day we returned to Nathan's house for a meal before the Sunday meeting. That same brother who I worked with had a young son named Angelito who joined us there -- only 6 years old but truly zealous for the Truth. He was reading long scriptures with admirable ability, and even practiced his ministry presentation on me -- asking my thoughts, reading a scripture, and sharing a tract. This too was a gift: That brother was a clearly a loving father who gave me an example worthy of imitation as I raise my own boys, not much younger than Angelito, and endeavor to instill in them spiritual values, as he had obviously worked hard to do.
There are so many more examples of people that made Guatemala beautiful. Young mothers who worked hard to get several young children to the Kingdom Hall despite long walks in the hot sun. An older couple who were faithful Bible studies that took a costly ferry ride and walked miles further each week to make the meetings. A young elder that was truly a "gift in men", sacrificing of himself greatly to support the small group in Casas Viejas.