A letter from Karla Koll in Guatemala
July 13, 2009
Sometimes people ask me about the usefulness of teaching theology in a context like Guatemala where there are so many serious social problems. Occasionally, I find myself asking the same question. Recently, I had an opportunity to interview one of my former students.
In November of 2007, Dyna Maira Escobar was elected mayor of El Palmar, a municipality of 26,000 inhabitants in the southern part of the department of Quetzaltenango. Out of 332 municipalities in Guatemala, only six women serve as mayors. According to Dyna Maira, the cultural situation here makes women believe that only men can do many things, including taking on administrative positions. She believes that women make better administrators than men because they are more sensitive to people’s needs. It hasn’t been easy for her, given that all six members of the town council are men, but she has gained their support for her vision.
Dyna Maira worked as a nurse in the public health system for 26 years. By taking health services out to rural areas, she gained the trust of the inhabitants. She also saw their needs. Successive municipal administrations made no efforts to improve conditions. As a nurse, Dyna Maira didn’t have the resources to respond. So she decided to get involved in politics. In 2003, she ran for mayor and lost. She won the following election, running as the candidate of a coalition of political parties.
As mayor, Dyna Maira has promoted several vocational training programs for women. She knows that women helped to get her elected, and she wants to return the support. She told me that women are abused all over the country—not only in El Palmar. This no secret. Women often remain in an abusive situation because they have no means of providing for their children. The goal of the vocational training is to allow women to gain economic independence. For many years, Dyna Maira felt oppressed by the man who is still her husband. Even though she was working, she felt she was worthless. She didn’t recognize herself as created in the image of God, capable of doing many things. Her desire to help women achieve a better future comes out of her own lived experience.
The main community of El Palmar moved to its present location, known as Nuevo Palmar, after the Santiaguito Volcano erupted in 1983. In recent years, a bitter conflict over land has led to violent confrontations. One of Dyna Maira’s goals as mayor is to find a solution to this conflict. A resolution is now on the horizon. She and her staff have also been working to gather the information needed to issue deeds for all of the lots in town. After 20 years, people still don’t have deeds. Once people know that they are the owners of where they live, Dyna Maira believes they won’t be manipulated into committing violent acts against the law. She trusts that God’s love will heal the wounds of the past, allowing the community to live in peace. “One of God’s commandments is to love your enemies, something that is very hard to do. I hope one day it will be reality in El Palmar,” she reflected.
She told me that studying theology had made her more sensitive. It taught her to understand more about God and God’s will for her life. Theological training has also helped her resist the temptations to participate in corruption that surround her and all public officials. She’s very thankful for the opportunity to God’s instrument to take blessings to the communities of El Palmar.
I asked her what message she had for Christians in the United States. First, she expressed thanks for the scholarship for books she received while she was studying theology. Those books helped her learn more about God. Secondly, she’s very thankful for the friendship and support given to the many people from El Palmar who have lived in the United States. Though the remittances sent back have declined recently, this money has been very important to the livelihood of the community. She also had words for women in the United States. “Believe in yourselves! And if you have the opportunity to serve in public office or in the pastorate, encourage the women around you. Together we can help women live toward a better future.”
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission co-workers have the privilege of walking beside and encouraging faithful women and men like Dyna Maira in different countries. During World Mission Challenge ’09 (September 25–October 18), mission co-workers will be visiting hundreds of congregations to share about how they and our mission partners are participating in God’s mission around the world. Learn more at the World Mission Challenge Web site or by calling Ellen Dozier at (888) 728-7228, x5916.
The 2009 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 277