COVID-19 in a Wounded World
When the rain poured into Guatemala from the Pacific at the start of the rainy season, it brought with it sultry waves of a foreshadowed reality. COVID-19’s full effects in the region remain uncertain, but it’s clear that they are and will be enormous and wide-ranging. As Cristosal’s country director for Guatemala, Osvaldo Lapuente, told me, “we are in a humanitarian crisis.” It was a shock that, paradoxically, felt oddly routine—like peering into a camera obscura that makes you feel slightly nauseous while at the same time comforted by the familiar shapes. I can’t speak for the experience of Guatemalans as a whole—but more than once I’ve heard things said that reflect a sense among them of the normality of suffering: something that, I imagine, stems from the 36-year civil war that only ended in 1996. That experience seems to continue to affect how Guatemalans navigate their lives, from where to sit on the camioneta or what street to turn at, to more profound questions like whether to call the policía, join the mara, or connect to a coyote. If this seems exaggerated, consider the stakes in a country where 59.3% of the population live below the poverty line and 23% live in extreme poverty (World Bank). That there is a crisis is not unusual, but the pandemic does compound inequalities that predate it, leaving more Guatemalans living in extreme poverty, facing escalating levels of violence, and contributing to rising authoritarianism.
This past year I’ve been honored to represent the Diocese of New York as a Young Adult Service Corps volunteer on placement as a youth and social justice advisor in Guatemala.
When I arrived in Guatemala City in August 2019, I started with an asset-based diagnostic that explored what churches were already doing, what skills resided in communities, and where people were interested in further utilizing those skills. I concluded that each church wanted to create different programs that could address the unique context in which they lived. Not long after, I met Eddy and Gabby Garcia, who would become my mentors, colleagues, and compañeros, with the essential insider knowledge to turn a dream into a reality. Eddy is a priest in the Diocese of Guatemala, and a researcher for the Procurator’s Office for Human Rights, his wife Gabby is a professional psychologist and experienced youth worker.
After months of drafting ideas, we established Centro Camino del Amor—an Episcopal center dedicated to faith-based action to defend and advance human rights. This project aims to use a holistic and rights-based approach to development in a loving, liberating, and life-giving way. Since this project’s beginnings in January, we have
- published five journals on human rights and our Christian faith
- collaborated with Cristosal to host two workshops for youth
- organized a youth workshop with professionals in human right
- distributed masks to an underfunded hospital, together with information about our work
- with the support of the Diocese of Virginia, donated funds to an outside organization working in four youth detention facilities to support crisis relief (we also hope to host virtual workshops for youth in these facilities)
- started a virtual weekly youth group and a women’s group
- actively worked with different NGOs to strengthen the church’s relationship with leaders in human rights
COVID-19 curtailed our plans to transform a building on the grounds of Iglesia San Pedro y San Pablo to use it for programming. We hope, nevertheless, to use the space for a large-scale emergency relief initiative, to host regular human rights workshops virtually, and to develop resources for community empowerment, especially vital for crisis recovery.
When we started our ministry, with my broken Spanish and my fiercely passionate partners, we didn’t feel a sense of urgency; but COVID-19 has made urgency unquestionable. The pandemic has revealed the fragility of human life, the shrinking space for civil society, and how difficult it is to find belonging or safety within uncertainty. Before moving to Guatemala, I often pondered as a development worker on the response to the age-old question: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? The question has since changed. If most of the trees fall in a forest, what do we do now? Our answer, though, hasn’t changed: follow the way of Jesus.