By Susan O’Halloran
Susan takes her young adult sons to Guatemala to be inspired by the Catholic clergy, religious and lay people working for justice there. Her own idealism is challenged as she hears stories of the atrocities people are suffering because of Guatemala’s civil war. A moment of grace and wisdom from the Mother Superior restores her sense of hope and dedication.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Guatemala-1993-When-Hope-is-Rekindled
- What role do private agencies, such as churches, play in advancing the cause of social justice? How much of their work is about poverty, how much about justice, how much about evangelism or are these ideas/situations completely enmeshed?
- When the nun says the children’s “future is very bright” and “We are doing something about the causes,” to what is she referring and do you agree?
- What cultural differences made this Guatemalan journey seem initially “hopeless” to this American storyteller? How did her perceptions change?
- Maya Cultural Activism in Guatemala (ILAS Critical Reflections on Latin America Series) by Edward F. Fischer and R. McKenna Brown
- Crossing Cultures
- Education and Life Lessons
- Latino American/Latinos
- Living and Traveling Abroad
- Stereotypes and Discrimination
- Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi! My name is Sue O’Halloran and this is an excerpt from a longer story called “Moments of Grace.” In 1993 I took my two sons Terry and Preston to Central America, to Guatemala. They were young adults at the time and we were going to visit the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging (CFCA). It was a group to which I had donated for many years. Now when we arrived in Guatemala, they had already been involved in a civil war for 33 years. It was a war between the government (partially imposed by U.S. intervention) and so-called rebels who were fighting to get their democratic government back. So this is an excerpt from that longer story.
Day 3 – The first sighting of the village we were going to visit was a steel windmill all shot up. It looked like somebody had used it for target practice. Oh, the villagers, they were so great to us! They sang songs; they fed us tamales! They sent us home with huge baskets of colorful vegetables even though they had very little to eat themselves.
And on the way home, I asked Bob, the director of CFCA about that shot-up windmill. And he told me that the Christmas before, the government had come in looking for a Communist rebel, they said, shooting, and just to make sure they got the right man! And (at) that village we had just visited and a nearby village, 22 of the fathers had been killed!
Day 4 – Instead of a field trip, we went down the hill to work on the addition to the orphanage. We were joined by men from neighboring mountain villages, some who had walked 7 hours through the night to get there! The men had come to work on that orphanage, their one day off, knowing full well that one day their own children might live there.
Day 5 – We went to visit the teacher training center that CFCA helps to fund. And when you walk into the classrooms, there’s these photographs over the doorways and I thought, oh, graduating teachers, probably. And it turns out, it was true but these were pictures of graduating teachers who had already been killed. Teaching Mayan Indians to be self-sufficient whether that was to read or repair cars was just too threatening to some people in Guatemala who wanted to keep things exactly the way they were.
Day 6 – New Year’s Eve Day, December 31. Every morning when I came out of my dorm room, Leslie would be in the courtyard to greet me. Leslie was the 9 year old daughter of our van driver Martin. And that morning she ran into my arms and I hugged her and I asked that stupid, adult question! “Leslie, what do you want to be when you grow up?” thinking she would say something like an artist because she really loved to draw. But she looked up at me and with this great certainty in her voice, she said, “I want to be a teacher.”
I thought about all of those photographs I’d seen the day before! The picture of those martyred teachers and I burst into tears. I had no idea how really upset I was ‘til that moment. And I hugged her tight and I said, “No cuidado, Leslie! No sea un maestro!” Leslie, be careful! Don’t be a teacher! They kill teachers here!
How do you change things! I mean, we had been in Guatemala less than a week and I already… I was starting to lose it! I knew it! I needed some guidance, some wisdom. I went to find my new friend, the Mother Superior, the elderly woman who was the head of the sisters at the convent. And I went down the hill and, sure enough, she was in the convent kitchen cooking up a big fry pan of rice and beans for the men who had come to work on the orphanage that day. And I sat down in her kitchen and I told her all that was heavy on my heart and I just pleaded with her, “Help me understand, sister!”
And she said, “Oh, Soo-see (that’s what she called me, Soo-see), the future’s very bright for these children. The ceasefires last longer; they spend more time in school. They come to us having been beaten or half-starved or seeing their parents killed right before their eyes and they can hardly talk. And then a year or two years later, they’re singing in the choir. They’re standing in, up in front of the whole liturgy and they are reading, Soo-see! Reading!”
And I said to her, “I know, sister, I work as a teacher. I’ve seen incredible changes in my own individual students but, I mean, how do you get the causes, all the reasons things are going on here! The way the government is set up, the gap between the rich and the poor, the powerful, the powerless! I mean, what do you do about that, sister?” I said. “I came here bringing my boys. I wanted to have them be inspired by people who were working for justice but now I realize that I wanted something for myself. I’m running out of hope!”
“Oh, Soo-see,” she said, “you do not give up hope! We are doing wonderful things for these people!”
I said, “But the causes, sister!”
She said, “We are doing something about the causes!”
And I said, “What!” And as soon as I heard my voice, I felt so rude. I mean, here’s this sister, the nuns who have dedicated their whole lives to these people and I was questioning them?
But she didn’t miss a beat! She just kept stirring those beans and she said, “You know, people get mistreated long enough, they start believing that they deserve what they have. But we teach the people all they can accomplish. We teach them how to learn and the whole world opens up. We are preparing people for a democracy.”
“Then what should be do about our country, sister, I mean, since our government puts so many of these people in power. I mean, is the only option that bumper sticker “America, love it or leave it!”
She said, “Oh, Soo-see, no! You stay put and you love your country. And you make your government behave!” And then she put her spatula down, she came over to me and she rested her hands on my shoulders. She looked up at me and said, “Soo-see, we just keep doing what we’re doing! We get up early, we go to bed late! The rest is in God’s hands!”
Well, that night was the New Year’s Eve party at the church rectory. And I stood in that room and looked at all the people and children. I mean, my sons were there and Bob was there and Martin was there and Leslie was there! People from the parish, the children from the orphanage! And I stood in the middle of that room and I just felt so happy! So lucky to be there! And I don’t know, is it grace or dumb luck when the heaviness lifts from your heart and you don’t even know why? Grace or whatever the reason, I don’t know! I just stood in the middle of that room and I felt open to anything. And then the nuns put on some music and Mother Superior called to me, “Soo-see, fox, fox!” She wanted to dance the foxtrot! I gotta tell ya, up in those mountains, sometimes we had electrical surges, sometimes we didn’t so sometimes we have music and sometimes we would just slow, to this gaaarbled drone. But I took sister into my arms and we were dancing cheek to cheek and then she squeezed my hand. She said, “Ah, Soo-see, there is so much love in this house! And that, I realized, is what I wanted! For my sons, for me, for all of us to feel all the love in the house.
To love our government enough to criticize it right down to its roots and yet to still enjoy all that our country and this life has to offer. So for that night, I had no grand plan on how to change things. That night we danced – the merengue, the cumbia, the salsa and the hokey-pokey! ‘Cause sometimes those moments of grace, they’re what it’s all about!