Note: This is part 2 of a 6-part series on our trip to Guatemala in January 2015. Make sure to check out Part 1: Welcome to Guatemala!
Although we arrived in Guatemala on Wednesday, our entire day was spent traveling to Nathan & Jessica's house, where we'd be staying for 5 nights. Arriving well after dark in such a strange and foreign environment caused us more than a little anxiety, but we were excited for the week ahead.
We awoke Thursday with stiff backs (thanks to The Rack) but a fresh perspective. This would be our first morning in the public ministry in the Casas Viejas area. As Jehovah's Witnesses, we endeavor to share the Bible's message with everyone we can. This remote area has been practically untouched by our Bible ministry. Though there is a congregation about an hour away in the larger town of Chiquimulilla, there is only a small group that meets regularly in Casas Viejas. Nathan & Jessica have played a huge role in getting this group off the ground, but there have been so many friends that have helped along the way. We met a number of them and are glad to count them as our friends now too.
Two new friends were Tim & Kristy Gould, who live in the Cincinnati area and were in the middle of their second extended visit to Casas Viejas. They had spent 3 months there in 2014 and were back, this time until February. Tim & Kristy were a lot of fun, and we learned a lot about each other through such entertaining activities as Friday Night Charades and the outpouring of emotional storytelling that we shall call The Clickety-Clackety Sessions.
We also met two young sisters from El Salvador who had relocated to Casas Viejas for 2 months to help with the preaching work. Finally, we got to know a number of new publishers, Bible students and friends from the neighboring congregation in Chiquimulilla. Everyone was so nice to us, and very patient with our limited Spanish skills. I'm sure we raised more than a few eyebrows with our Spanish stumblings, but nobody ever made us feel bad for our mistakes.
But back to Thursday morning: We awoke early, before 7 - as we did every day during our time in Guatemala. I spent a long time on the terrace enjoying our new surroundings in daylight (I had missed the sunrise which is nearer to 6 than 7 every morning). The first thing I noticed was all of the crowing: Roosters virtually surround the Shaw's house in Casas Viejas, and the field adjacent to the house was full of roosters, hens and chicks strutting around and diligently pecking for a morsel. This became my daily routine: Wake, curse The Rack, stumble into the morning sun streaming through the terrace, enjoy some coffee (dutifully brewed each morning by Nathan -- or was it Jessica?), and stare at the chickens until my body stopped hating me. I was amazed how these birds scoured the field every morning in the same thorough pattern, though how there could be new food in the same picked-clean spot I couldn't figure.
Despite our early awakening, it was a scurry to get ready for the meeting for field service, which was at 8:30 A.M. - a time that seemed ridiculously early for a gringo like me who is used to 9:30 A.M. service meetings. But the wisdom of this time was soon apparent: The mornings in Casas Viejas were relatively cool and comfortable (during January, at least), compared to the hellacious inferno that blazed through midday. I'm exaggerating, of course -- while the afternoons did get blisteringly hot, it was manageable. That said, I don't suffer heat well, and I'm not sure I'd be cut out for a true Guatemalan summer.
Following coffee and breakfast (usually a few eggs with cheese, toast or tortilla and fruit) was a quick cold shower and a scramble to get arranged for the service meeting. I admit that I was late to the first morning's meeting, having spent too long watching chickens and trying to wrap my head around my new environment.
Speaking of cold showers, let's talk about the water situation. The Shaw's home enjoyed running water, in a sense: A ground pump delivered fresh water to a large tank above the house, which then fed the plumbing - showers, faucets, and so on. This worked great - as long as the pump was turned on regularly. With 8 house guests and often many more visitors, that tank had a tendency to run dry, leaving us without water at the most inopportune time. That issue aside, the water situation was just fine. Yes, the showers were cold -- in the morning. Afternoon or early evening showers were quite comfortable since the water tank had spent the day warming in the sun.
As soon as we sat down for our first meeting for field service, we were immediately thrust into the Spanish environment. Since Nathan, Jessica, Tim and Kristy are all gringos like us, we had spoken mostly English up to this point. But the service meeting quickly got our brains back in Spanish mode. In fact, after leading the meeting, Tim surprised me by asking me to offer prayer. I stumbled through it, nervous but glad for the push.
That push was just one of many throughout our week in Guatemala. When learning a new language, is very easy to take it easy on yourself and get into a comfort zone, where you avoid speaking up at all costs. I was worried I would let that happen during our visit to Guatemala, but I simply didn't have the chance -- everyone kindly encouraged me and helped push me outside my comfort zone. I spent that first morning in service working with Tim in house-to-house (you might say hut-to-hut) preaching, and Tim didn't give me much room to slack -- he took the first door, and then he basically told me to take the second one on my own. I'm glad he helped me get over that initial fear, because I'd be lying if I said I hadn't wanted to hide behind while he did all the talking.
While I worked with Tim that first morning, Jess went with Kristy, and Nathan and Jessica went together to do revisitas -- return visits. Alongside a few local publishers we went out and began working house-to-house on several streets in the village, not far from the house. It started great -- within 20 minutes Tim and I enjoyed several nice conversations, either outside a person's home or in one case, with a man tending to the cows in a pasture.
Field service in Guatemala goes something like this: You approach a home and yell out "Buenos días!" ("Good morning") from the road to get the householder's attention. Since most homes are simple bamboo or in some cases cinder block construction without solid windows or doors, your greeting is usually heard even if they are inside the house. Once the householder sees you, they almost always acknowledge you and say "Pasen adelante!" ("Step forward," or "come in"). You will then come onto their property, and usually meet the householder in their yard or porch area outside the house. As Guatemalans are extremely friendly and hospitable, in many cases you will be met with chairs and invited to sit down, or to come inside, and possibly even given refreshments. Often before getting into the presentation you plan to use, you will spend a little time exchanging pleasantries and asking about how they are, their family, and so on.
When it comes to actually talking about the Bible, the process is pretty much the same as it is here in the States: Ask a thought-provoking question, listen to their response and then point to the Bible's viewpoint. The difference is that oftentimes, the people we spoke to were surprised to hear us asking their opinion in the first place. As we discovered, many Guatemalans are told rather than taught what to believe, and they are not encouraged to have their own opinions, especially in religious matters. This was particularly evident when talking to women, many of whom were obviously uncomfortable in answering direct questions about their thoughts or beliefs. When Tim asked a certain woman what she believed the future held, she was quiet for nearly a minute, and stammered out a few nervous excuses before finally telling us bluntly that nobody ever asked her what she thought.
But with patience, kindness and tact, it was usually possible to get householders to open up and share their thoughts, opening the door for many nice conversations. Many of the locals were members of an Evangelical church, or else were Catholic. In general, respect for God, the Bible, and spiritual things in general was high, although many people viewed us as Jehovah's Witnesses with just a little bit of suspicion or caution. The local Evangelical pastors apparently try their best to discredit our name and reputation, so many people we preached to were obviously guarded when talking to us.
Still, the response we enjoyed was incredible. In just one morning in the ministry I spoke to more people about the Bible than I had the entire time we had been in the Spanish congregation back home (about 4 months). And they were good conversations -- we talked, read scriptures, and even studied from publications on the first visit. The last house that Tim and I called at our first morning began with me talking to a young mother, and ended up with us preaching to the entire household -- the young couple, their children, and their aged grandfather, who insisted we offer a prayer before leaving. Finally, as we began to leave, the couple's father came home from work and we started all over again with him, this time considering two paragraphs from the Buenas Noticias ("Good News") brochure and reading many scriptures, after which we invited them to the meeting and made arrangements for Tim to come back for a regular Bible study.
After this encouraging morning we walked back home (Nathan's home, that is -- ours would be a bit of a hike). I was seriously worn from all the walking and the heat -- at this point it was midday and I was getting dehydrated. But I was so invigorated by the spiritual activity and the wonderful response we were getting. When I met back up with Jess she was similarly excited over her morning, having sat in on a number of Bible studies and met some wonderful local friends.
Being wiped out from the heat, I decided to enjoy a little hammock time after lunch, and studied for the midweek meeting. Later that afternoon I joined Nathan on a Bible study with Jeferson, a young boy who had been attending meetings with his mother and was halfway through the Great Teacher book. Finally, we returned home and finished Thursday with a simple dinner and some great conversation on the terrace as the sun set and the cool evening set in.
Friday would prove to be one of the best days of our trip. Our meeting for field service that morning was larger, as we were joined by the Vians, a couple from Columbus, Ohio who spend 3 months each year in Guatemala, and a newcomer named Magnus, a brother from Sweden who was traveling Central America with his wife, who was in Antigua at the time. Magnus did not speak much Spanish, but he he more than made up for it with his cheerful disposition. His story is fascinating: He is from Sweden originally, but spent a number of years living in Australia and even 6 months in Sri Lanka before finally moving to Columbus, Ohio, USA. He loves surfing and even brought a board he constructed by hand!
Amazingly, Tim had met Magnus before -- they were both volunteering for the ongoing Warwick construction project in New York and had sat next to each other during breakfast one morning! It was sheer coincidence that they were both in this tiny remote spot at the end of the road in southern Guatemala. This underscored the amazing brotherhood that we enjoy in our organization.
The ministry on Friday was a lot different than our experience on Thursday: This time, instead of walking house-to-house in the local village, we rode in trucks to a region a few miles away, and worked what you might call a "rural" territory -- a long stretch of road along farms, fields and sugar cane plantations that was peppered with little houses. Our group piled into Nathan's truck -- four in the cab and seven in the bed, and hit the road. We would stop at a house while a couple of us jumped out to preach, then move on. Eventually we split up to do more revisitas, dropping people off in pairs and eventually, somehow, miraculously meeting back up down the road. These things weren't exactly scheduled, as you might be used to back home -- there were usually not specifically arranged times for a return visit or Bible study to take place, only "sometime this morning" or "today". Amazingly, it all just works out!
Other highlights of Friday morning service included the harrowing trip across the Puente Cristo Rey bridge, where most of us in the truck had to hop out and walk across a rickety wood-slat bridge to keep the truck's weight under the main bridge's limit, Tim & Kristy's witnessing an iguana being killed and eaten for lunch, and a stop at a farm where we pet the cows and ate fresh honeycomb while preaching to the farmer.
All of this and it was only noon! Finally we drove back to the Casa del Shaw - we still had a full day ahead of us. The rest of Friday will be in the next post: Guatemala Part 3: The Meeting & The Beach