A letter from Leslie Vogel in Guatemala
Dear companions in mission,
“If you weren’t afraid, what would you do?” asked Dr. Mercedes Navarro Puerto of her audience as she began to speak about “Faith that Conquers Fear.” The psychologist, theologian, woman religious (nun), and biblical scholar from Spain was addressing the 16th annual Women and Theology Conference here in Guatemala, themed “Woman, your faith has made you whole.”
I thought to myself: “I would get rid of most of my belongings, pack up the rest, kiss my adult offspring and elderly mother ‘hasta luego/see you later,’ and return to work in ministry in Central America.” In other words, I would do what I have done and am doing! It’s been a long journey to this place of having little to no fear, and I thank God each day for the blessing and opportunity it is to be in Guatemala working with the team at CEDEPCA, the Evangelical Center for Pastoral Studies in Central America.
Many of you have asked about what I’m doing; what does a “typical” day look like? Here goes.
As a facilitator for CEDEPCA’s Intercultural Encounters Program, I’m finding a good balance in my work between sedentary and active, solitary and people-focused tasks.
- I take two classes and attend meetings and workshops that involve challenging interchanges with interesting people.
- I work at the computer, either creating or translating documents, writing and answering emails, and making phone calls to set up itineraries for visiting groups from the U.S.
- I travel with team members outside the capital to rural communities to arrange future group visits.
In my “Theology from Women’s Perspectives” class, I am getting to know my classmates: women from many walks of life, including wives of Pentecostal pastors, single mothers, and singles with no children. Some women in the class have personally been victims of domestic violence and others are seeking, in structural ways, to address violence through their churches’ ministries. One is 25, a conservative evangelical, who recognizes the importance of empowering women and yet constantly battles derogatory accusations of being a lesbian or a feminist because of her involvement in women’s issues and because she doesn’t have a serious boyfriend. Another comes from a well-known and well-to-do family and cared for her elderly father until he died last month at 92. She was very lonely until she found a supportive and nurturing community of women through taking Women’s Ministry classes at CEDEPCA.
I am getting more and more settled in here. I now have a washing machine and a “beater” used car. First, I had to overcome my fear of driving in the heavy traffic and crazy layout of Guatemala City`s streets. I still walk to work sometimes, for exercise and to vary my routine, but I also like being able to get around on my own to do errands. I drove four other people to the Women and Theology conference last month. It was a privilege to be able to offer a ride to folks who rely 100% on public transportation – and the camaraderie with all of them was a bonus!
The husband of a Biblical-Theological student at CEDEPCA invited me to play a flute duet with him in their church. We performed the same Sunday that the student, Esmeralda, preached a thoughtful, articulate, and challenging sermon on Vashti (Esther 1:1-22) about having the courage to stand up for one’s convictions and to face the consequences of adhering to those convictions.
Guatemalans are extremely gracious and courteous, but also quite reserved. Social life usually occurs within extended family circles, not broader social circles. Thus I was surprised and touched when one of my neighbors heard me practicing my flute for that worship service and invited me over to meet his wife and daughters. Later, the family took me with them to a ballet performance by their delightful 9-year-old daughter and her ballet school. They have also invited me to attend church with them.
Last week, I was fortunate to visit a rural community that has spent the last 19 months actively resisting the establishment of an open pit gold mining operation that would decimate an already scarce water supply and wreak major ecological damage in an area dependent on agriculture for its sustenance. The Catholic mass was offered by a Franciscan priest in honor of Oct. 4, the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, considered the patron saint of caring for all of creation. The worship was full of wonderful singing by a visiting parish choir and included songs from the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan Popular Masses. I felt very much at home!
Members of the community shared some of the history of their resistance, which involves a rotating 24/7 presence blocking the entrance to the mining site so that the heavy equipment cannot be brought in. I was deeply moved by the stories of courage from people of all ages, including grandmothers who have literally lain down on the ground to place their unarmed selves between the gate and the riot police, risking their lives to prevent the mining machinery from coming through.
I’m sure you’ll be hearing more from me about this in future letters. I am only beginning to get acquainted with the mining and hydro-electric issues here and some of the communities involved. The communities are not 100% opposed to any mining, but they ask four things: 1. that stronger environmental protections be implemented, especially for potable water sources; 2. that the privileges and benefits granted to the investing companies be just and fair to the Guatemalan people as well; 3. that there be stronger controls over the use of toxic chemicals in the mining processes; 4. that the populations in the communities to be affected by a mining project be informed, consulted and allowed to have effective participation in the decision-making process (which is to say, if the community votes NO, then the national government does not have the right to grant a 25-50 year mining license to a company).
If this letter feels a bit like it´s all over the map…well, there you have what my daily life feels like most of the time. Full of wonderful people and experiences, sometimes scattered, sometimes overlapping, a high learning curve, not always 100% focused. Always full of blessings and much gratitude!
Thank you for walking with me on this remarkable spiritual journey. Please continue to accompany me with your interest, your prayers, your questions, your emails, cards and letters, your economic and moral support, and especially with your prayers for the CEDEPCA team and students and for the people of Guatemala .
¡Mil gracias, y que Dios les bendiga!
Guatemala mailing address:
Apartado Postal 2834
01901 Guatemala, Guatemala
Thanks for giving us insight into the texture of the work with CEDEPCA. Your narrative was anything but all over the map. It helped map a larger world for us. Shalom indeed. Mike and Judy Charles
Leslie: We wish you well as you continue your ministry in Guatemala. You are in our prayers. Blessings. Peace. Love. Lorie and Phil Gates