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A letter from Karla Koll in Guatemala

June 2012

Dear companions in mission,

Grace and peace to you in these days.

As the first week of June draws to a close, I have now been through six rounds of chemotherapy. I'm glad to say I am still feeling quite well, though I notice I have less energy than before. Starting with round five, I was switched to paclitaxel, so I'm still learning to deal with a new set of secondary effects, none of which are causing more than minor discomfort thus far. If I can stay on schedule, I'll have my next round on June 20 and my final round on July 4! Thank you again for praying with and for me through this process.

Going through cancer treatment here in Guatemala is an interesting experience. I realize, with great sadness, that most of the people with whom I talk don't know anyone who has gone through successful cancer treatment, though slowly I am hearing more and more stories of survivors here. Guatemalan friends call and ask me if I'm feeling better. I have to explain that I felt perfectly fine before surgery. The treatment I'm receiving now to rid my body of cancer is actually making me feel somewhat less than well. I explain that it will be a long time before I'm back to normal. I know it's hard for people to stay engaged through such a long treatment process. I'm very grateful for the friends who continue to call and visit.

Our daughter, Tamara, is now in Quetzaltenango with us, enjoying a break after her first year of college. She's keeping busy between driving lessons, teaching English classes, and spending time with her friends. When she is home, she does her best to keep me from working too much.

The rains stabilized here in Guatemala around May 15. Many farmers planted in mid-April when early rains fell, so the May rains came just in time to save crops around Quetzaltenango. The potatoes, cabbage and corn in the field in front of our house are growing quite fast now. As always, we join the farmers in hoping there will be enough rain but not too much.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting that the hurricane season this year will be nearly normal, that is to say, somewhat less active than in recent years. The hurricane season for the Eastern Pacific runs from May 15 through November 30. The Atlantic basin hurricane seasons starts on June 1 and goes also until November 30. Since Guatemala, like Nicaragua and Costa Rica, has both Pacific and Atlantic coasts, we get hit from both directions. Already this year there have been two named storms in each ocean. My daily routine during the rainy season includes checking the tropical update on weather.com and listening to the news reports of damage caused by flooding and landslides. The Disaster Ministry of the Evangelical Center for Pastoral Studies in Central America (CEDEPCA) is also paying close attention to where we may be called upon to offer help.

June is a busy month for CEDEPCA. The first semester for the university-level classes of the Biblical and Theological Training Program ends on June 9. The Intercultural Encounters Program is receiving three groups this month, two of which I'll be able to see when they come to Quetzaltenango. The first is from Kirkwood United Church of Christ. The second is from First Presbyterian Church of Winchester, Virginia, one of my supporting churches. The Winchester group will be accompanied by members of the Looking for Lilith Theatre Company who will be working with a group of Guatemala women, as well as some of the visiting women, on the Faith Stories Project. (You can learn more about Looking for Lilith at www.lookingforlilith.org).  The Winchester group will also be working on the expansion of the health post in Pachaj. The Denver Presbytery is also sending a group to Guatemala this month, though not through CEDEPCA. I hope to be able to see them as well. Thank you for keeping all of the activities of CEDEPCA in your prayers.

This month I have a special request that comes from my friends Joe and Selena Keesecker, who worked here in Guatemala as PC(USA) mission co-workers. They are working as volunteer visitors in two immigration detention centers in Arizona, where they are now living. The center in Eloy has 1,000 men and 500 women from 150 nations in detention. There are many Guatemalans in the group. Joe and Selena are looking for people who would be willing to write letters to those in detention. The private corporations that run the detention centers make money off of each day they have people in detention, so it is in their interest to drag processes out for as long as possible. Many detainees go months without receiving any correspondence. If you would like to write letters, either in English or Spanish, let me know and I'll put you in contact with Joe and Selena. If you would like to know more about the detention centers in Arizona, you can visit the Florence Immigration Refugee and Rights Project at www.firrp.org.

 

CEDEPCA profile
This month I would like to ask your prayers for one of the organizations with which CEDEPCA works, the Fraternidad de Presbiteriales Mayas. The organization began in the early 1980s by bringing together the women's organizations of the different Maya presbyteries within the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Guatemala (IENPG). In recent years the Fraternidad has expanded beyond the IENPG and now has a membership of 32 local associations of Maya women here in western Guatemala. The organization offers training in nutrition, care of the environment, agriculture and theology. The rotating loan fund of the Fraternidad supports productive projects by women in agriculture and artisan crafts.

The Biblical Pastoral Institute of CEDEPCA is currently offering courses to a group organized by the Fraternidad in La Estancia, Cantel. These women leaders are anxious to learn more about the Bible and to gain more skills to use in their work in their churches and their communities. Carmelina Sam, who began her theological studies with CEDEPCA many years ago, is the coordinator of the Fraternidad's Women's Pastoral Program.  Carmelina is the one insisting that women of the Fraternidad continue to receive theological education.

On May 18 Catarina Morales, the director of the Fraternidad de Presbiteriales Mayas, died of a heart attack at the age of 54. Her death has been a severe blow to the organization. Juliana Santos Say has been named the interim director for the next three months. When I spoke with Carmelina, she asked that people pray for the Fraternidad as they search for a new director to lead them into the future.

 

Reading corner
This month I'd like to recommend When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor and Yourself. The authors, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, have spent their professional lives working to improve the lives of poor people. They are clear that most efforts by U.S. Christians to respond to poverty at home and abroad actually make things worse because they are based on an inadequate understanding of poverty and its causes.

The central theological point of the book is sound, though I would probably express it differently. Poverty is fundamentally the result of broken relationships. Poverty is not God's will for anyone. All of us, whether we are materially poor or not, suffer from these broken relationships. Jesus Christ came to bring healing to all of creation and restore right relationships. We are called to continue Christ's mission.

Corbett and Fikkert stress that the initiative for improving their lives should come from the materially poor themselves, not from outsiders. They advocate for asset-based community development, a process that starts with the gifts and assets of the local community. They offer a good discussion of paternalism and how to avoid it. Those from outside should never "do for others," but rather accompany the ongoing efforts of the local groups. Short-term mission trips often cause more harm than good because the outsiders tend to define the receiving community in terms of needs and look for rapid solutions to what are long-term problems.

The book has some serious limitations. The authors never question their own underlying assumptions about how compatible an economic system based on accumulation is with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Their approach to worldviews, especially indigenous spiritualities, is simplistic and reveals, I believe, an inadequate understanding of the Incarnation. Surely we will all be poorer if indigenous spiritualities based on thankfulness disappear. Though Corbett and Fikkert recognize that there are many structural factors that trap people in poverty, they fall short of calling for Christians and churches to advocate for structural changes.

Despite these limitations, there is a wealth of practical advice in When Helping Hurts. I would hope that all those who wish to engage in short-term mission efforts, be it across town or in another part of the world, would take to heart the lessons that Corbett and Fikkert offer.

Closing thoughts
I continue to be very grateful for your company on this journey. Please do keep the messages coming. I also am available for conversations via Skype.  If you would like to send something to me, please let me know and I will put you in touch with a group that will be visiting soon.

Blessings,

Karla

 

The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 6

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