Finding Jesus on the Streets of Guatemala

March 20, 2024 | Life Lines

When I was in Guatemala on retreat earlier this month, I was humbled and heartened by the visible presence of Lent not just in churches but on storefronts and private homes. Purple banners fluttered from awnings, reminding us with every step that we were on the road to Calvary. In churches throughout the city of Antigua and in tiny villages that dot Lake Atitlan, large-scale Stations of the Cross were readied for street processions. Churches draped in purple took our breath away.

In one church, a man bent low over a “carpet” of colored sawdust, designing beautiful images on the ground for a Lenten celebration.The design would be trampled and swept away soon after it was done, a reminder of the fleetingness of this life but the need to seek beauty anyway. Baskets of fruit and dozens of candles surrounded the artist and the altar beyond. As I walked back down the aisle, an entire Mayan family approached the altar on their knees, momentarily stopping me in my tourist tracks. My daughter and I just stood in awe.

It took a visit to this stunning developing country to call me back to what this Lenten journey is supposed to mean for me, for us. In a place where people live in corrugated tin shacks and where street vendors sell their wares with babies strapped to their chests and blankets stacked on their heads, faith and joy and generosity are rampant. Before I went to Guatemala, I had some reservations. The U.S. State Department website says: “Reconsider travel due to crime.” But not once did I feel unsafe, just the opposite. I never met a rude or cranky Guatemalan, even in the airport after hours of delay, even among the beggars on the street. Instead, I was met with a pureness of heart that exemplified the Gospel.

“Blessed are the pure in spirit,” Jesus said. So often I’ve wondered what that looks like in real life. Now I know. Among a people who have been through forced conversion, a stripping of their Mayan culture, enslavement, civil war and far more than we can imagine, I found only love.

On our last day, Olivia and I rushed back to Antigua to soak up a few more hours before heading to Guatemala City for our flight. I ducked into a shop that had on its outside walls two large purple banners with three crosses marked on each. In my broken Spanish, I asked if there were purple Lenten flags for sale, hoping to bring one home. The worker just looked at me quizzically and instead pointed to a Guatemalan flag. The memory would need to be enough, and it is.

As we head into Holy Week, I hold in my heart the Guate­malan people who touched my life in ways I never expected when I booked this trip. From Paola, the Mayan artisan who tried to teach me to weave (no small feat); to Ruth, the vendor in Parque Central who won me over on two separate occasions and to whom I gladly overpaid for two table runners; to Alex, our indigenous guide who told me with great pride about Blessed Stanley Rother (known as Padre Apla’s to the Mayans) and pointed to the base of two volcanoes where he lived and died and remains a “grandfather” to the people he helped free from oppression. “He is Jesus to them,” Alex said.

Maybe that’s why Guatemala affected me so deeply. Jesus is alive there, not just in Blessed Stanley Rother’s memory, but in the words and actions of every person who crossed my path — literally. Sometimes here at home, it can be hard to see Jesus in the people around us, or to be Jesus to the people who make our lives difficult. But the beautiful Guatemalan people, many of whom would have every reason to be cranky or impatient, showed me what true faith looks like, and it doesn’t require a purple Lenten flag.

All photos © Mary DeTurris Poust
This column originally appeared in the March 21, 2024, issue of The Evangelist.

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