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Experiences in Xelaju

Monday morning I set off on the biggest journey of my life thus far; I said goodbye to my family and friends (and my beloved dog) and began the journey to the country that will be my home for the next year. I've already been here for four days and I still haven't had time to fully process this next stage of my life--and maybe I won't ever fully process it. 

After Bethany and I were picked up from the airport in Guatemala City, we began the four hour dive to Quetzaltenango, or Xelaju (pronounced "shay-la-hu") as the people of the city call it. Xelaju was the name that the Maya people gave it, probably meaning "under the ten mountains". When the Spanish Conquistadores defeated the Mayans, they gave it the Nahuatl name of Quetzaltenango, meaning "the home of the Quetzal bird". The drive to the city brought us through all different kinds of landscapes--the rolling hills, sunshine, and crowded cities turned into sharp mountains covered with foggy pine trees (Bethany slept pretty much the whole ride). We finally got to Xelaju close to nightfall. With a population of around 225,000 people, Quetzaltenango is a pretty large city (at least for me, coming from a town of 25,000). The outskirts of the Xelaju has a lot of cinderblock buildings with rebar showing on the top but as you move towards the center of the city the buildings look more like what most people would picture for an old European town--short, colorful buildings, small cobblestone streets, and Parthenon-like statues and building facades--all thanks to President Manuel Estrada Cabrera's infatuation with European architecture and his supposed emphasis on education as a way for progress (but in reality, while the Western world was praising the president for his commitment to education, the funds were actually being spent on monuments to Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom; ironic, right?) The small streets have gourmet chocolate and cake shops, artesian bread stores, and classy coffee cafes. There are dances in the evenings, theatre performances, and soccer games. We even ran into a clown convention in one of the museums! Bethany and I met the host we will be living with for the first two months, Karla, and she fed us dinner and talked to us in Spanish. She was so welcoming and gave us helpful tips for how to navigate the city.

On Tuesday, we spent the morning getting to know the people we will be working with in the office. Micaela, the secretary, is so sweet. She spent time talking to us in Spanish and showing us pictures of her family; she's so kind and welcoming! Davinsky has been putting up with our shenanigans and showing us around the city, quizzing us on routes to the office and the school--we failed the test when we passed the office and didn't realize it for a block--and taking us on history hikes. He also went through the differences between "cold-climate" and "hot-climate" cultures to help us better understand cultural differences that we may not have realized were present. Sadoc is the program consultant for Guatemala and he spent time getting to know us and telling us more about our specific positions in World Renew.

Bethany and I will be taking Spanish classes in the mornings for the fist six weeks here and we will be volunteering with CEIPA in the afternoons to practice our Spanish. Bethany will be making a promotional video showing the work that CEIPA is doing to keep teenagers off the streets and further their education while I will be helping to make materials to help the students learn English and we will both be teaching groups of two or three teenagers at a time.

Wednesday evening Bethany and I went to our mentor's Pentecostal church; we were expecting the service to be around an hour long, but it ended up being around two hours (I was getting a bit hangry by the end). Worship was upbeat and cheerful and I keenly felt the Lord's presence in that church. People were praising the Lord and worshiping Him however they felt comfortable! What a sweet reminder of how the Lord meets us when we seek His presence! The sermon was on the various physical healings in the gospel of Matthew (we went through fourteen chapters in one sermon) but halfway through the sermon the power went out in the church. Since power outages are common here, everyone sat patiently and waited for the lights and speakers to come back on, and then the pastor continued his sermon without missing a beat. Although we laughed at the unexpectedness of the church service later, after stepping into this new adventure on Monday, having no idea what the Lord has planned for me, and feeling completely out of my element, the sermon on faith was a wonderful reminder that no matter the circumstances the Lord asks us to have faith and to trust Him because He knows exactly what's going on and exactly what we need. I've been learning to call on the Lord through prayer in all circumstances and to have joy even when new situations and experiences seem to take a toll on my emotions. 1 Thessalonians says, "rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." What a refreshing reminder!

Although we spent our first couple of days getting to know our surroundings (hello, chocolate museums and taxidermy exhibitions) and the people we will be working with, we also spent a lot of time getting to know what we would be doing with World Renew. At least in development work, World Renew works with local partners, who then work with the people in the communities, because they are the ones that best know the needs of the community. After pilot programs are implemented, the community decides whether or not they thought the programs were helpful and the ones that were most highly rated are then improved and implemented elsewhere. One of the partners, ADIP, had previously experimented with a pilot program that focused on gender justice, with one of the workshops teaching women how to take legal action against domestic abuse. When the workshops of this program were rated, however, the area that taught women about domestic abuse was rated as one of the most unhelpful ones, while hands-on skill learning such as cooking and sewing were rated most highly because they were things that could help produce an income. World Renew wants to try another pilot program with their local partners focusing on women's inclusion. I'll be doing a lot of research regarding women's inclusion and then helping craft a program combatting the areas that were identified in the research. I'll also be helping start a youth program to help adolescents get involved in their communities and hopefully cut down on teens getting involved in violence. After the first meetings this week, I'm so excited to start working here! The Lord is already working in Guatemala and I can't wait to see how He continues His work here!