A letter from Karla Koll in Guatemala
Dear Sisters and Brothers,
Greetings from Guatemala.
So sorry I haven’t written. When I don’t have a chance to write, it’s usually because I’m far too busy. The good news is that the theological education program of CEDEPCA is doing very well. However, I’ve been working 12-14-hour days, something I can’t continue to do. So I ask for your prayers, that my workload might decrease without affecting the program. And thanks for the many notes I’ve received in recent days.
First, family news. Javier’s licenciatura thesis in political science has been approved! He returned to Quetzaltenango from Nicaragua on Friday, March 11. On Monday, March 14, the Rafael Landivar University called him to say that his defense would be on Wednesday, two days later. At least he didn’t have much time to get nervous. Not only did the commission approve his thesis, the department wants to use his thesis as a model for other students, given that his work is far superior to any other thesis yet produced by the department in Quetzaltenango. The coordinator has arranged for Javier and his advisor to address several groups of students about the process of organizing field work and writing a thesis. There are still a few bureaucratic hoops to jump through in order to have the thesis printed. His graduation will probably be in July, though it could be sooner.
Tamara, our daughter, has been accepted at Earlham College. They also offered her a merit scholarship. She’s still waiting on letters from other schools. Meanwhile, plans are moving forward for her high school graduation on May 27. My brother, Gary, will be coming for the celebration. I hope to be able to take a few days off to visit places in Mexico or Guatemala where we have never been.
Back to CEDEPCA. We have four courses going in the university program this semester. I’m teaching a course on the history and theology of salvation on Saturday mornings. Ana Paxtor, a psychologist working with CEDEPCA’s women’s program, is helping me teach a course on gender and identity on Fridays. In addition, I’m offering a workshop every two weeks on writing papers. Thus far, several students are participating but it remains to be seen if they will be able to produce work. I hope to help them overcome their fear of writing. In general, students enter our program with very weak academic skills due to the poor quality of the educational system here. What they need is the opportunity to think for themselves and to learn to express their thoughts in writing. We’re working hard to give them this opportunity.
We have 34 students in the university program this semester, 11 of whom are new. We have 13 students registered for the certificate we are offering in Christian Education at the CEDEPCA center this year. In addition, there are three groups working in the Bible institute program in different locations. It’s very gratifying to see such a response. We continue to hope and pray that resources will be available to keep this program going. Some of you have asked about the costs associated with our theological education program. I’m sending along a wish list we have developed in case you or a group in your church feel called to participate in our work through your gifts.
Events around the world are giving us plenty to talk about in our courses, especially the course on salvation. Where was God when an earthquake and tsunami killed more than 10,000 in Japan? What does it mean to talk of salvation in the face of an evolving nuclear crisis that reminds us of the destructive power human beings have developed? Closer to home, what about the climate changes provoked by global warming?
Here in Central America, climate changes are expected to bring more extreme weather as global warming continues. Guatemala experienced drought to 2009, followed by the wettest rainy season in 60 years last year. Though we are in the dry season at the moment, we have had some rain. Around Quetzaltenango, people are preparing their fields for planting. Work continues along the Panamerican Highway to clear the debris left by last year’s landslides. It’s hard to see how repairs will be finished in time for the rains in those places where parts of the highway washed down mountainsides. Corn supplies are already running low and prices are climbing. The predictions for this year, given that the La Niña phenomenon continues, call for unusually heavy rains early in the season. Will we be prepared?
This is also an election year in Guatemala. On February 22 CEDEPCA invited Fernando Solis, a political analyst who is part of the collective that publishes a journal called El Observador, to help us understand the current context. Fernando pointed to the plans of the oligarchy for large-scale projects such as open-pit mining for gold and other minerals, hydro-electric dams and African palm plantations for biofuel production. All of these share several characteristics: low requirements in terms of labor (i.e. very few jobs created), high levels of environmental destruction, displacement of rural populations and removal of land from the production of food. No matter who wins the elections, these projects will go forward. More than half of the children in Guatemala suffer from malnutrition, one of the highest rates in the world. Fernando encouraged us to work on building hope not through the electoral process, but rather by working together with communities and groups around the country who want a different future.
Theology classes will continue at CEDEPCA through the rest of March and on into April, though we will take a break for Holy Week. Our first intensive course of the year, an introduction to theology, has been rescheduled for the first week of May. The other programs of CEDEPCA are also carrying out their activities. Intercultural Encounters has received five groups so far in March. We are very grateful that groups continue to come to Guatemala to learn from people here. The Women’s Ministry Program is holding classes in Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica in addition to several places here in Guatemala. CEDEPCA’s Disaster Ministry is working on identifying needs in terms of providing spiritual care in times of disaster in order to provide training for church and community leaders. Read on for more about this program.
This month I’d like to introduce you to Neli Miranda, an Episcopal priest who has related to CEDEPCA for a long time. Neli has served as president of CEDEPCA’s board. Recently she started work half-time in CEDEPCA’s Disaster Ministry. She’s working on developing the part of this program focused on spiritual care in disasters. Neli brings to the task two licenciaturas from the Mariano Galvez University, one in theology and another in psychology. She’s also pastor of the Holy Spirit Episcopal Church in Guatemala City. She told me that she’s becoming more and more aware of what a great responsibility it is to respond to people’s spiritual needs in times of crisis. In order to prepare herself to train others, she’s reading books and articles on the topic.
On February 17, the program held its first focus group, bringing together pastors and other church leaders to hear what their experience has been serving people in disasters. So much of the theology present in the churches here insists that everything that happens is God’s will. Many feel that suffering is punishment from God. How do we go into these situations with a different vision of God, a God who is love and who suffers alongside those who are hurting? During the first couple days of March, Bob Mitchell, a Presbyterian pastor from Stockton, California, who serves a chaplain to the fire department, led a workshop on response to trauma. He spoke of the importance of a ministry of presence, of letting those affected talk and find their spiritual answers. These events build on workshops CEDEPCA has held over the last couple of years. Neli is using the reflections generated in these events as she prepares materials for a more formal training program.
In addition to working at CEDEPCA, Neli is pastor of the Holy Spirit Episcopal Church in Guatemala City, where she has served for 10 years. She and her husband, Maximo Mansilla, have one son, Maximo, who just turned four. She’s also in the second year of a master’s program in higher education. In the second semester, she’ll be teaching a class on pastoral accompaniment in our theology program. She asks for your prayers for her family, but especially for CEDEPCA’s Disaster Ministry. We have many challenges ahead as we seek to prepare people and churches to respond to future disasters.
As I was going through boxes, I came across a delightful book I want to recommend. Victor Montejo, one of the leading figures in the Mayan literary renaissance here in Guatemala, collected fables from his mother tongue, Jakaltek, that he heard as a child from his mother and other elders. The Bird Who Cleans the World and other Mayan Fables was published in 1991 by Curbstone Press, but copies are available at AbeBooks.com. Though the book is not designed as a children’s book, the stories are appropriate for sharing with children. The illustrations are taken from pottery pieces of the late classical period of Mayan civilization. The tales reveal the wisdom and humor of the people as well as a deep connection with the natural world.
We at CEDEPCA know that the gifts and prayers of many people in many places make our work possible. I am very grateful to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for the opportunity to serve here in Central America. Thanks to all of you for the support.
Mailing address (for letters and cards):
Karla Ann Koll
P.O. Box 526125
Miami, FL 33152-6125
PS: If you would like to send something to us, please let me know in advance so I can advise you on the best way to send items.