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a life lived in solidarity

Last week we had a solidarity visitor from Guatemala here with us in Whitehorse.

Last week we had a solidarity visitor from Guatemala here with us in Whitehorse. Leocadio Juracan, the co-ordinator of a predominately Mayan organization called Comite Campesino del Altiplan, or Peasants Committee of the Highlands (CCDA), told us of their struggles for basic human rights.

His organization emerged during the most brutal time of military repression from 1979 to 1985 in that Central American country’s 36-year-long civil war.

Their resistance organizing laid the foundation for the CCDA’s expansion from primarily a Mayan-rights focus to an integrated development model. They began simply, with two small fincas or coffee plantations in 1998 to engage communities in alternative economic development.

They were able to get started because of the assistance of a Roman Catholic priest, Padre Gregorio from the village of San Lucas Toliman on the shores of Lake Atitlan in the Mayan highland of Guatemala. From this modest start the efforts of the CCDA have rapidly spread to more than 600 communities in 11 departments throughout the country.

I hadn’t thought of Padre Gregorio, or as he is better known by his family and friends in his home diocese of New Ulm, Minnesota, Father Greg Schaeffer, in a number of years. As I recall I first met him at a meeting in San Jose, Costa Rica in early 1971 of the Partners for the Alliance, a non-governmental support organization for the U.S. Alliance for Progress initiative begun by President John F. Kennedy.

A few weeks later, at Father Greg’s invitation, I hitched a ride on the back of a pickup down the mountain from the town of Solola to the small community of San Lucas Toliman.

Welcomed by a priest who had eight years earlier been sent to this community by his home bishop, it became quickly very obvious that he would dedicate his life to the people there and in the 22 neighbouring communities he served. Padre Gregorio walked me around the town, which was typically centred around a plaza in the Spanish colonial fashion with the old church predominant there. It witnessed to the Franciscan friars founding of the town in the late 16th century.

When he first arrived, it had become painfully apparent that the majority of the people in San Lucas Toliman were kept bound in a form of debt peonage by the area’s cafetaleros or coffee growers. Padre Gregorio set out to give the people some room to manoeuvre under this oppressive economic system.

He tried to create a local food base with a community garden, a large chicken coop, a hog barn and backyard rabbit hutches to offer the people just enough security so that they could withhold their labour for a few days or even weeks during the critical coffee harvest time. This strategy he hoped would force the coffee growers to raise the wages they paid them to pick the beans.

Ultimately, though, to break the cycle of poverty the people needed land they could call their own. Padre Gregorio set out to raise the funds needed. One of the things that he did along with three Mayan campesinos was to get sponsors willing to support them kilometre by kilometre on a more than 4,000-kilometre walk from Minnesota to Guatemala. This helped kick start the efforts that today sees over 2,300 families on their own land growing coffee and other cash crops. The community has built over the last 40 years almost 2,000 homes, 21 schools in addition to a home for abandoned children, medical clinics and initiated a host of other socio-economic projects.

Reflecting on his life among the Kakchiquel Mayan people of San Lucas Toliman, Padre Gregorio recalled in a National Reporter article last year that “I really kind of feel like I owe ‘em because they made this wonderful, wonderful life of service that I’ve been struggling with. They’ve put up with all of my mistakes and put up with all of my errors and all of the humanity that we all live, you know. I’ve tried to learn from them and be of any kind of service I could.”

Padre Gregorio died at 78 years of age just days before Leocadio visited us. What leads a person to leave family and friends to go and live among strangers, shouldering heavy burdens in practical solidarity with them? How can we see like he did that by giving of ourselves, we are literally opened up to receive far more in very unexpected ways?

The Kakchiquel Maya he lived among are burying him this week in San Lucas Toliman. They will be saying their final ‘Maltiox Tat’ or Thank you, Father.

Erratum: A kind reader pointed out an error in the Namaste notes last week. The Christian notion of the Trinity is that “God is absolutely one in nature and essence, and relatively three in Persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) who are really distinct from each other.” This excerpt is from The Catholic Encyclopedia.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact