A rainforest clad gorge hems in the lake like El Golfete as the Rio Dulce emerges for a second time on its brief journey east from Lake Izabal, Guatemala’s largest lake. It only has about 10 kilometres more on its run to tidal salt water in the Bay of Amatique. At that point it is not far from the Garifuna town of Livingston.
Forty years ago the Claretians, an order of Catholic priests and brothers, had been recently assigned to Izabal, the easternmost department of this beleaguered Central American republic. Little information existed that would allow them to plan an effective community development strategy for their parishes. Ten students all from St. Louis University, except one interloper from the University of Arizona, provided them with the extra hands they needed to carry out a first attempt at a survey of the rapidly growing areas they worked in.
In teams of two we set out on a daily round of visits to surrounding aldeas. These small unorganized clusters of family homes hacked out of the tropical bush by newly arriving immigrants from the overcrowded highlands or strife-torn regions of the country provided the core of nascent communities. For most living in dirt-floored, palm-thatched, single-roomed dwellings the task of basic survival was uppermost on their minds.
The Claretians made a real effort to give our student teams an overview of the region and the challenges they faced. Brother Richard White took us from Livingston up the Rio Dulce to El Estor on Lake Izabal for a couple of days as part of our orientation. I still vividly recall the last leg of our trip in large, cabined aluminum boat that ferried us all back to Livingston. Brother White told me to grab the bow rope and prepare to tie us up as we pulled aside the Livingston wharf. Just as I stepped off, he yanked the wheel and the gap between boat and wharf yawned. I fell straight into the watery gap.
I reminded him of his prank when we met again last week in Chicago, telling him to watch out if we walked by any bodies of open water like Lake Michigan. It was the first time in 30 some years that I had seen him. Reunions provide an opportunity to reawaken dormant but not forgotten bonds. One evening we gathered around a large table at a Claretian parish on the Windy City’s southside. Each of us took a few minutes to provide a brief recap of the 40 years since we lived and worked together in Guatemala.
Brother Rich had worked six more years in El Estor before following a call to the priesthood. He returned to Livingston as Father Rich in 1979 to find a program that had matured under the proclamation the Bishops of Latin America issued in Medellin a decade earlier. Base Christian communities there concretely set out to develop the concept of a “preferiential option for the poor”.
This identification with the struggles of the poor majority in Guatemala placed the Claretians at odds with the military governments that dominated the country. Fr. Rich worked with a network of catechists serving 80 aldeas between Livingston and El Estor. These local leaders such as Felipe Cal became targets of military oppression. Soldiers killed him, his wife, 10-year-old daughter and in-laws and buried their bodies with a bulldozer before anyone could react. Others Fr. Rich worked with suffered similar fates.
He was detained by the military while travelling with a Peace Corps volunteer; soldiers claimed that Fr. Rich was a gun runner. Apparently a catechist who had been tortured for 17 days provided this ‘reliable’ information. Fortunately the Peace Corps worker wasn’t detained. She quickly travelled up to the capital, Guatemala City and alerted US Embassy officials. Their officials intervened. If they hadn’t, Fr. Rich’s name might have been one of those included in the martyrology of the well over 200,000 victims of the largely state-sponsored violence reported on in Guatemala: Memory of Silence and Guatemala: Never Again, the two truth-commission-style reports on the decades long conflict there.
Fr. Rich was able to return to the Rio Dulce a decade later. His work continues in the region today, though, in the hands of Latin American and Spanish Claretians. Others around the table last week told of their journeys as well. It was clear that our experiences together in Izabal had marked us all.
Two young people, current Claretians lay volunteers, joined us for an evening. With this new generation and their commitment one truly had a sense of how life’s river moves on. As individuals we might not see the emergence of the just, sustainable world we seek but one generation’s efforts will surely flow into another’s towards that inevitable end.
Saturday, July 25 – Raoul Leger, a lay missionary from Bouctouche, N.B., was martyred in Guatemala in 1981.
Sunday, July 26 – 17nd Sunday in Ordinary Time. Suggested reading John 6:1-15.
Thursday, July 30 – Tishah B’a marks a day of fasting for Jewish people in remembrance of the destruction of the Temple in 586 b.c.e. and 70 c.e.