We sat in a circle of plastic chairs, enjoying a respite from the scorching Guatemalan sun in shade of a wooden building. Dogs and chickens ambled around the yard. Just outside of our circle of chairs, two boys were climbing a tree and laughing.
“How beautiful it is to live among the trees,” said one community member, looking around. Nods of assent traveled around the circle.
I was visiting San Juan Acul, a rural community of about 250 families in Northern Guatemala. World Renew has been active in this community for nearly three years, focusing on preventative health and agriculture training, and I was at a meeting of community members and World Renew staff.
The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. As we waited for the official meeting to start, a few members of the community explained some problems they were having with water contamination to the World Renew community liason. I looked around the circle and saw a mix of men and women of all ages, along with a few children sitting near their parents. Some were wearing jeans and t-shirts, others were dressed in the colorful “traje tipico” that’s common in indigenous communities here.
We all stood to open the meeting in prayer, and then they began by telling me the story of their community, beginning in 1964. I was self-conscious, unsure of myself and what exactly I was supposed to do here, on my first visit to rural Guatemala. So I didn’t ask many questions; I simply listened.
And I heard the story of a community that had faced and overcome numerous challenges in its 50-year history, since the first three families arrived by boat back in 1964, looking for a place they could own and cultivate their own land. Back then, there were no roads, no electricity, no school, no access to medical care.
In the past 50 years, the community has fought for development, for the construction of roads, for the government to provide accessible schooling for their children, because the community is in a pretty remote location.
“We’ve come working, and we’ve suffered,” explained a middle-aged man whose hair was beginning to turn to silver. He’s emerged as a leader and an informal legal representative for those fighting to obtain titles for their land.
Land titles are more than simply a piece of paper. They serve as proof that the land a family lives and farms on belongs to them and provide security from having their land seized. While around 150 families in San Juan Acul have managed to obtain titles for their property, some of the other families are still waiting to hear back or lack the money and legal resources to apply.
Some of the stories of these community members are hard to hear. They’re still fighting, fighting to unite as a community, to advocate for more education and greater access to health care and to obtain titles for their land. But they're also growing, learning sustainable farming techniques and how to meet and come up with and work towards goals as a community.
This was my first visit to a really rural area, back in October, and what really impressed me then has struck me time and time again over the past few months. And that’s just how important World Renew’s model of training to encourage transformational community development is. In that meeting in San Juan Acul and in several meetings since then, I've listened to several of the Guatemalan World Renew staff emphasize that when the communities unite, they have power to change not only their own lives, but the future of their community.
Because if one or two families diversify their family gardens, that’s great for those families: they have a more constant food and income source. But if a community organizes under leadership and identifies their goals and how to achieve them, they can appeal to the government for better schooling and a health clinic. They can begin community gardens and advocate for themselves. Together their community can do so much more than individuals can.
Sometimes change starts small, and it’s hardly ever easy. But we have to believe that it’s worth it, that together as servants of God's Kingdom we can make things different, that together we can further His Kingdom.
This is true for communities all over the world, for the places we all live and work. Because together, as the Body of Christ, we have a huge opportunity to speak and act and change things in love.