A letter from Karla Koll in Guatemala
Dear Sisters and Brothers,
A new year has begun, at least according to one calendar. In the liturgical calendar that governs the life of the church, the new year began five weeks ago with the start of Advent. New Year’s Day falls right in the middle of the 12 days of Christmas, a time set apart from the normal rhythms of daily life, when we celebrate God’s coming among us as a helpless child. Once again this year I’ve had the opportunity to appreciate living in a context where most institutions shut down from before Christmas until after Epiphany.
These first days of the New Year here in Quetzaltenango have been cold and windy with low-hanging clouds. The fields lie fallow as they will until April brings the promise of rain. My husband, Javier, and I are enjoying having our daughter, Tamara, here at home with us. We’ve been cleaning house, organizing books and files. Tamara is spending a lot of time with her friends as they continue to process their grief over the loss of Francis. We’ve also spent some time with Francis’ parents.
December 29 marked the 15th anniversary of the signing of the peace accords that brought to an end the armed conflict here in Guatemala. Much of the promise of the peace accords to bring about a more just Guatemala remains unfulfilled. Many of the underlying structural problems that continue to generate inequity in Guatemalan society have never been addressed. The levels of violence have steadily increased over recent years. Most Guatemalans don’t feel they live in peace.
On January 14 retired General Otto Perez Molina will be installed as Guatemala’s president. Perez Molina, a graduate of the School of the Americas who represented the army in the peace negotiations, is believed to have participated in both massacres and torture during the war. He has also been implicated, though not charged, in the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi in 1998. He and his party have promised an “iron fist” against crime. Yet the drug cartels are known to have ties to former and current military officers.
My inbox is full of messages from human rights organizations expressing concern over what might happen when the new administration takes office. Groups that work with children and youth living in the streets are worried that a hard line against crime will lead to repression of those with nowhere to live who often resort to petty crime in order to eat. Groups working to end impunity are afraid the new administration won’t support efforts to bring those responsible for violent crimes to justice.
Even before the installation of the new administration, the election of a former general to the presidency has emboldened those who defend the army’s role in the armed conflict. Recent weeks have seen a parade of people related to the military going to the Public Ministry to denounce a long list of persons for violent actions carried out by the guerrilla forces during the war. Many of the accusations are ludicrous; a journalist is accused of participating in an action that happened when she was 6 years old. One wonders what the purpose of these accusations can be. Is it to fill up the courts with spurious cases and thus hamper investigations of war crimes committed by military officers? The past year has seen the first convictions of military officers for massacres of civilians during the war. Will the prosecution of military officers continue or will it be stopped? Is the intent to create pressure to remove Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz from office? Her deceased father, along with one of her cousins, is among those being accused.
In the midst of the uncertainty generated by the beginning of a new administration, CEDEPCA continues its work to bring hope to individuals and churches. The offices will open again on Thursday, January 5. There’s a lot of work to do as we finalize our operational plans for the year and gear up for the start of classes in early February. We hope and pray that we will have the resources we need to respond to the growing demand for the kind of educational and pastoral programs we offer.
CEDEPCA has asked me to continue to serve as dean for the Biblical and Theological Training program for a while longer. But I will not be carrying the entire burden for running the program. Starting this month, Rev. Neli Miranda will be sharing the dean’s office with me in preparation for eventually taking over the administration of the program. Please pray for Neli as she begins to learn her new responsibilities. I am looking forward to having not quite so much work to do.
January is a time when many folks come to visit Guatemala. It’s always a privilege for me to meet with groups and encourage visitors as they learn about this complex context. A group from Heartland Presbytery is coming to visit their partner presbytery, Maya-Quiche. A group of students from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary is coming to explore issues around short-term and long-term mission.
Tamara will be returning to Portland, Oregon, on January 21 to begin her second semester at Reed College. She’s sleeping quite late every day, so I hope she’ll return to college well rested. Reed seems like a good place for her. Javier is doing some lecturing in different university programs. He’s working on plans for our farm in Nicaragua and will probably travel to Nicaragua before the end of January.
I am still working on plans for my mission interpretation assignment. I will be in the United States from about February 10 to April 20, less time than I had originally thought. I’ll be going to Colorado first to attend a meeting of Pueblo Presbytery (my presbytery!) and to visit churches there, as well as to spend a few days with my dad and his wife. I plan on heading to Louisville around February 20, so I will be available after that date for speaking. Thank you to those who have already written to me concerning dates. I hope to be able to confirm visits very soon. If you would like a visit and haven’t gotten in touch with me yet, please write as soon as you can.
This month I would like to tell you about the Biblical and Theological Training program of CEDEPCA, the program I have been privileged to lead the last 18 months. The objective of the program as we recently reformulated it in our new strategic plan is to “encourage the formation of an ecclesial, academic and community leadership that is trained to analyze the context, to reflect biblically and theologically, and to carry out transformative actions in their churches, the places where they teach, and their communities.” The primary way we carry out this objective is through our relationship with the Latin American Biblical University (UBL) based in San Jose, Costa Rica. At the university level, the UBL provides a unique model of theological education that combines the best of an extension model with the best of a residency model. Our students are able to do most of their studies in Guatemala with short periods of study, two to eight months, in Costa Rica. Last year participation in our university-level classes grew nearly 50 percent as more people came to experience the kind of alternative theological education CEDEPCA offers. A total of 55 people took classes last year. For the first time ever we have some students who are studying full time. We also have three groups studying through the Biblical Pastoral Institute, the non-university program of the UBL. The demand for this popular level of education has grown much faster than CEDEPCA’s capacity to respond, though we hope to expand our offerings in the coming months.
CEDEPCA is committed to providing high-quality formal theological education at an affordable cost to those who are seeking to serve in their communities. We know that neither our students nor their churches can afford the full cost of the theological education CEDEPCA offers. Therefore we rely on the gifts and offerings of sisters and brothers in many places to make this program happen. Thank you so much for your support. If you would like to know of other ways you and your church can help, please write to me.
One of the e-mails that I received recently expressing concern about the incoming administration was from Jennifer Harbury, a Harvard-trained lawyer who has been active in human rights work here for over two decades. After she worked on behalf of the victims of human rights abuses here in Guatemala in the mid-1980s, she decided she wanted to learn more about the people who had taken up arms against the Guatemalan army. While conducting research for a book on guerrilla movement, she met and fell in love with Efrain Bamaca, alias Everardo, a commander in the Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA). In March 1992 Bacama was captured alive by the army and tortured for several months before he was killed. Searching for Everardo is the story of Harbury’s search to find out what happened to her husband. Though Harbury presents an admittedly romantic view of the guerrilla movement, her book is a good reminder of the brutality of the Guatemala army toward civilians and combatants, as well as the complicity of the U.S. government with the killing that went on here for so many years. Harbury argues for an end to impunity saying, “We cannot create a better future until history is set straight” (p. 326).
The New Year begins here in Guatemala with many questions about what the coming months will hold. Yet we have the assurance that God goes forward with us. So I close this letter in the way that Roberto Armas, the Episcopal priest here in town, ended his New Year’s Day sermon. I wish you a year full of Jesus, this Jesus who was born in a stable and who preached the coming of God’s Reign as good news for the poor and excluded.