Welcome to our family blog!

We began in September 2010 by traveling a portion of the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route that leads to the tomb of Saint James in Santiago, Galicia, in the northwestern corner of Spain. The name of our blog is inspired by the camino, and we'll have many stories (cuentos) to tell! We spent 2010-2011 on an intentional international journey, living and working in Spanish-speaking countries. Since then, we are immersed back in our lives at home but will report on occasional openings and discoveries. Please join us!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Undercurrents of Violence

Before going to Guatemala, I wondered what it would be like to offer non-violence workshops in a country where violence is continually present as an undercurrent, and state-sponsored violence is rampant. Notably in this context, we had two police officers among the participants. The national police force is vastly underpaid and carries a history of violence against the people that was a legacy of US imperialism and was strongest during the genocide of indigenous people in the 1980s. In current days police are seen as either impotent or dangerous, or both. To say there is a lack of trust is a major understatement. There are reports of police involvement in petty as well as organized crime. Stories of police stealing from citizens during traffic stops are rampant. One friend told us that when he was stopped by the police he called his lawyer and told the police, “my lawyer is on the phone and is recording what happens here”, after which the officer sent him on his way without further questions.
I feared that personal safety would be a major issue. Guatemala continues to suffer from a high level of violence, related to the drug trade and to poverty in general.  The history of the Guatemala in the 1980s continues to hang over the country, which has yet to bring the perpetrators to justice. This violence, referred to as the Civil War or the Genocide, depending on one’s point of view, resulted in 200,000 killed, and 40,000 – 50,000 disappeared. Of these, the UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) stated that the state was responsible for 93% of the human rights violations committed during the war, the guerrillas for 3%. We were told that the region where we would be spending most of our time, the eastern city of Chiquimula, was afflicted by drug-related violence.
Our experience on the ground was mostly very peaceful. People walk and drive around day and night in Chiquimula without worries, and our hosts frequently left their door open during the daytime. Many participants said they have no violence in their homes, and indeed most of them are lucky not to have had anyone killed in their families. But all of them experience the effects of living in a country weighed down by a history of violence, from abroad and from within, including its colonial history of oppression by the light-skinned Spanish and continual oppression of its Mayan peoples, who constitute 50% of the population. In 2011, Guatemala’s attorney general was assassinated. The current president, Otto PĂ©rez Molina, is a former general during the time of the genocide, and he denies that genocide took place. He was elected on a platform of law and order, and indeed there are reports that violence has declined under his administration. But reconciliation has not yet taken place, and random violence is still common. We observed some of the effects of the society-wide violence on our last day in Guatemala. On our way to the airport in Guatemala City, traffic was paralyzed as a result of the murder of two police officers elsewhere in the city.
There are efforts to clean up the police force and one of these is called “Valor y Servicio”, valor and service. This branch of the force is working to change the police force from within, and the volunteers for our workshops came from this branch. They participated in both the first and second level workshop over two weekends, with the result that the group became familiar with them. Strong societal differences between police officers and citizens broke down, and we all saw them as individuals.  I noticed this most clearly on the last day, when we offered an exercise called Human to Human. In this exercise participants form pairs and one member of each pair closes his/her eyes, while the other one looks at his/her partner in compassion. When we first began the exercise, some of the participants had a hard time keeping their gaze on their partner. However, at the end, when both partners open their eyes and continue to gaze at each other with the acceptance of universal love, the faces had softened considerably. Many participants were teary. It was a remarkable experience.
Our workshop took place in a church in a tough neighborhood, where teen parenting and unemployment was rampant. The air was acrid with the smell of burning garbage, since the inhabitants cannot afford the fee for garbage removal. The concept of non-violence in personal communication would have been very foreign to most of the church’s neighbors. Our workshop participants came from the wider community, and they were very open to looking at the connections between violence in their personal communications and making peace in the larger world.
But what does non-violence mean in the context of a society nearly paralyzed by violence on a larger societal level? Can we really ask people to try to take a stand to make for a more peaceful nation, when they cannot trust the justice system? Or should we show people tools for communicating more peacefully in their personal lives and hope that this has a larger impact? As one observer visiting another culture and nation, I would not presume to tell anyone how to use the tools we offered in the Alternatives to Violence workshops. I can only offer the tools and pray that they will be useful in some way.

AVP among Friends in Guatemala

This is the first time that the Alternatives to Violence Program (AVP) has been offered to Quaker participants in Guatemala. My experience with AVP had been mostly in prisons, but in these workshops the participants were members of the evangelical Friends community. The curriculum is set up to be non-religious, though it has spiritual elements in the same way that the 12-step program does. The core of the program is to discover how to call on “transforming power” to shift and resolve conflicts. In these workshops where most of the participants are practicing Quakers and strong Christians, I wondered whether they would follow our lead to be inclusive in their language, or whether they would refer to their Christian values which are an enormous part of their lives. As it turned out, they generally seemed comfortable using non-religious language in the program. Some of them told us that they appreciated this more inclusive language and felt that it would be useful in non-Quaker groups that could use the AVP program: universities, workplaces, and police departments.
Despite our shared Quaker background, cultural differences between us and our Guatemalan host community were apparent. One of those differences came up around corporal punishment of children. Most of the Guatemalans believe in spanking their children. So for me, the question arose: should I label spanking as violent, share my own viewpoint gently, or leave this unchallenged? My sense of integrity generally called for me to speak out my own viewpoint that physical punishment of kids is rooted in violence and is not helpful to building peaceful families. But when we visited a pastor, his wife showed us how she threatens to hit her three-year-old with a wooden spoon. She asked the older brother to “go get the paddle”, and she proudly showed us how the little guy immediately changed his behavior. I did not tell her I disagreed with this policy. Was it because I was in her home, and she was about to serve us lunch? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s not useful to call out all of our disagreements. Maybe more was gained by noting all the ways in which we agree, despite our differences.
Minga and I stayed with some wonderful Friends. It was a gift to get to know them, to share their lives, and to learn about their belief systems. Guatemalan Friends have three yearly meetings, occasioned by some disagreements in policy that led to various splits. The Santidad yearly meeting split off from the Nacional with a strong concern to return to practices of the early Friends: separate worship for men and women was among the changes they chose. The third yearly meeting, Embajadores, is very small. All three groups are evangelical Christian in orientation. Their worship services are programmed with pastors offering the service, unlike the unprogrammed tradition in which both Minga and I worship. The women generally wear skirts to meeting, and jewelry and dancing are frowned upon. In their personal lives, the Quakers we met call on their faith frequently, and many of them prefer Christian radio stations and entertainment. Music is a huge part of their services and I rejoiced to hear the beautiful harmonies of a mother and daughter pair, as well as the clear soprano voice of Karen’s nephew, who has recorded a CD to sing of his love of Jesus.
We left Guatemala with the satisfaction of having given out 55 certificates of completion, each for a 20-hour workshop. Our hosts and organizers, Celeste Gomez and Karen Gregorio, devoted incredible efforts to bringing people together and making the workshops happen. The participants each gave a full weekend to the work with positive energy and commitment, setting aside their other obligations to be there, fully present. Participants committed to continue the work, to pass the training on in other groups. We talked about the program on TV, in meetings and churches, and to individuals, all of whom showed an interest in using the program to try to bring peace to their communities.

Guns and Alternatives to Violence

To our surprise, two police officers signed up for our Alternatives to Violence workshop in Guatemala. I had never seen anyone come to one of the workshops packing a pistol, but they were on duty. Whenever there was any noise in the neighborhood, they explored it for us. Most of the time they were there as participants. They knew only one other participant, who had invited them to attend. But they opened up and shared their feelings, and soon we were all one community.
After the workshop one day, they offered to take us to a local hot springs. So off we went in the patrol car. The officers were on duty, so they wore their uniforms and black shiny boots and kept their firearms and handcuffs at the ready. On the way back to town, there was a church service which we decided to attend. They attended also, as they were Quakers. We were all invited: the swimmers with our wet hair and sandals, and the police officers with their uniforms, black shiny boots, firearms and handcuffs at the ready.  We made for quite a group. No wonder the congregation was interested in hanging around the church long after their usual departure time!