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Prophets and Pilgrims:

Peacemaking in Chiapas

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July 28, 2012 | Karen Turner

Prophets and Pilgrims:

Karen Turner, a BPFNA board member who accompanied the delegation from Chiapas to El Salvador.

Editor’s note: In the last issue of Baptist Peacemaker, Karen Turner shared the back story to this article in “Peacemaking in Chiapas: Sowing Mustard Seeds.” In that article, she described a few threads of the complex colonial, political and religious history of Chiapas that led to the massacre at the village of Acteal in December 1997. She wrote, “The massacre at Acteal has become symbolic of the ongoing struggle in Chiapas, illustrating the divisions and conflicts between indigenous groups, between the indigenous population and the government, the impunity of the military and paramilitary and the layers of political and economic oppression and corruption.” (See Vol 32 No 2, page 6.)

Last November, BPFNA was a companion to 15 young indigenous prophets from Chiapas on a remarkable pilgrimage to El Salvador, to La Tierra de los Martires, the Land of the Martyrs. On this pilgrimage, these prophets were intently listening for the Word of the Lord, and when they heard it, they accepted, in fear and trembling, the responsibility of interpreting that Word to God’s people. Isn’t that what prophets do?

Members of the group enjoying lunch in San Salvador.

Who are these young prophets? They are all indigenous Christians from the highlands of Chiapas in southern Mexico, most under 30 years old, all up-and-coming leaders in several denominations in the Mexican church. Impressive servants of God, all of them! But let me tell you more about the prophetic part….

The make up of the group was, in itself, prophetic. You may recall, from the article about Chiapas in the last issue of Baptist Peacemaker, that the indigenous population of Chiapas has both deep religious roots and deep denominational divisions that have hardened over time—between evangelical denominations, between Catholic and evangelical groups, between traditional Roman Catholics and Catholics influenced by liberation theology.

These religious divisions are exacerbated and exploited by political systems that keep indigenous people poor and marginalized. So the first sign that this little band of pilgrims was prophetic was that it was ecumenical, and, in the Chiapas context, profoundly so. There were evangelical prophets from the Seminario Intercultural Mayense (SIM), the Mayan Intercultural Seminary, and prophets from the younger leadership of the nonviolent, largely Catholic activist group Las Abejas.

Prophets from SIM

SIM is a branch of the Seminario Bautista de Mexico, Baptist Seminary of Mexico, in Mexico City, and was founded eight years ago by Doris and Ricardo Mayol, American Baptist missionaries from Puerto Rico. It is a remarkable place, offering basic biblical and theological studies to indigenous pastors and leaders of small evangelical churches in the largely rural highlands of Chiapas. Those who have not completed middle or secondary school can do so while completing their seminary studies.

Since the students are drawn from several protestant denominations, and various cultural and language groups, the themes of peacemaking, gender equality and interculturality are included in all classes at the seminary.

Several years of productive groundwork by Ricardo Mayol resulted in an impressive network of solid relationships involving, not only the many evangelical churches with which the seminary works, but also leaders in other religious traditions, as well as human rights and peacemaking groups.

In 2011, SIM was ready to offer a year-long intensive course in peace studies to their students. The course included training in Conflict Transformation as well as biblical and theological reflection on the gospel mandate of peacemaking and justice-seeking.

The next section of this course was offered in cooperation with the advisors to the youth of Las Abejas, who were among the many groups with whom the Mayols developed relationships. In my previous article, I told the story of Las Abejas, and the circumstances that led up to the massacre at a church in Acteal, where 45 members of Las Abejas were massacred by a mainly protestant paramilitary group. The violence was planned and supported by government and military influences, which have never been brought to justice.

The SIM students were introduced to the unvarnished story of what happened at Acteal and why, and then they went to Acteal to hear accounts of the massacre first-hand. The SIM students and the youth of Las Abejas were brought together to explore the dynamics of this conflict, and to begin to dialogue across what had been a deep divide.

This was a profoundly challenging experience the SIM students, as they began this journey of deconstructing their long-held ways of understanding both the Gospel and their own history.

Prophets from Las Abejas

The Las Abejas members of the group (Catholic indigenous rights advocates, who are dedicated to nonviolence). From right: Alejandro Ruiz Perez, Ignacio Perez Perez, Juan Vazquez Luna, Jose Vazquez Perez.

The other prophets on this pilgrimage to El Salvador were four young men who are emerging leaders in Las Abejas. Las Abejas continues to mourn its traumatic losses and holds a monthly remembrance for those who died in December 1997. They continue to press for justice related to the massacre, and to advocate for the rights of indigenous people all over Chiapas.

Their leadership continues to do liberation theology-inspired social analysis and to mentor their youth in this kind of social observation, in nonviolence and in remembering the past. So the Las Abejas pilgrims had a significant head start over the SIM students in social analysis, commitment to nonviolence and theological understanding of the biblical call to justice.

Las Abejas is dispersed over many communities in Chiapas, and continues to experience considerable marginalization and hostility in some of those communities, particularly from evangelical groups and traditional Catholics. In some local Catholic parishes, where Las Abejas members are the majority, some other members have left and joined evangelical churches.

In this context, peaceful overtures from a group of mainly evangelical seminary students from SIM, for dialogue and understanding of their deepest communal wound, was truly prophetic.

Pilgrimage

Our pilgrimage to El Salvador was the visionary culmination of this year-long course in peace studies and beginning dialogue between SIM students and Las Abejas. The goal was to take the participants from both groups out of each of their usual contexts and bring them to a new place where they could learn together.

The experience in El Salvador was focused on the brutal realities of the civil war from the late 1970s to the early 1990s: what led up to it, the brutal violence that it was and the aftermath. The hope was that, in understanding what happened in El Salvador, these young people would understand their own context in Chiapas more clearly.

So, on the evening of November 14, 2011, we set out on a 22-hour bus trip from San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, to San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, a journey that would be life-changing for all of us.

The group was made up of 20 people: 11 students and Ricardo Mayol from SIM, four young leaders and two advisors, Rafael Laderreche and Lucy Rodriguez, from Las Abejas, and two “accompaniers,” Cristina Haya Ojeda, a representative from SIPAZ (International Service for Peace) and me, representing the BPFNA.

In our week in El Salvador, we visited significant sites such as the Universidad Centroamericana, the University of Central America, where we attended a memorial mass for the six Jesuit priests and their housekeepers who were massacred by US-trained military forces in November 1989.

We visited the village of Arcatao, a village near the border with Honduras, and talked to survivors of the war and the resistance, who suffered unspeakable violence and losses during the war, but who insist on remembering those who were lost and still say, with strength and conviction, “God is with us.”

Back in San Salvador, we went to the Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen, the Museum of Word and Image and the beautiful urban oasis, Cuscatlan Park, to visit the extremely powerful Monumento a la Memoria y la Verdad, Monument to Memory and Truth, a black granite wall where the names of over 25,000 of those killed and disappeared are permanently recorded.

We visited the tomb of Monsignor Oscar Romero, in the cathedral in San Salvador, and pondered this remarkable saint’s life and ministry. He was an unrelenting spokesman for peace and justice for the people and resistance to the brutal regime, and was martyred in 1980, gunned down while officiating at a mass.

Miguel Tomas Castro, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in San Salvador. Pastor Tomas worked tirelessly for human rights during the civil war in his country and afterward.

We also spent an afternoon with the legendary Miguel Tomas Castro, still pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church. It was inspiring to hear about this almost solitary evangelical voice speaking out during the civil war against the regime, and offering assistance and care to its victims.

As the two groups together heard these stories and visited these holy places, they could see clearly that, not only does God hear the cries of suffering and oppressed people, but all who believe in this God must also listen and respond and work for peace. But they also could see clearly that there can be no peace without justice.

The protestant youth came to understand more fully that the gospel is far more than personal salvation and going to heaven, as they had been taught. Both groups were deeply moved by the realization that the cost of this path can be high.

As we have seen, the indigenous people of Chiapas have many hostile divisions along religious and political lines, which keep them from uniting to advocate for their own liberation from poverty and marginalization. To see these young prophets laughing and singing together, sleeping and eating together, riding in the back of a truck together, standing at the sites of massacres and wondering together how these things can happen, was a profound experience.

There was an intense opportunity on our last night in San Salvador to reflect as a group on our experiences, and a “What next?” discussion when we returned to San Cristobal. I’m going to try, in deep humility, to summarize what I heard in these very beautiful and powerful conversations.

Our hearts and minds have been opened to suffering and injustice in the world and they can never be closed again. We see clear similarities between the realities in El Salvador and those in Chiapas, and understand that what happened in El Salvador could just as easily happen here. So, we need to pay attention and work together to prevent that.

Those of us who study at SIM, from evangelical churches, need to examine and ask questions about our own histories, and analyze our reality together, because we have not yet learned the whole truth. We are profoundly sad because we have so much to share with our churches, and yet we are terrified they will not believe us, that our words will not be accepted. We need to trust in God, that God will give us strength and wisdom, because we are very aware of our limitations and that we can’t do this on our own.

Those of us who belong to Las Abejas acknowledge that sometimes we get tired and discouraged in the seemingly endless struggle for justice. We were deeply moved and inspired by the faithful persistence of the women of Arcatao, who are determined not to allow the memory and struggle to fade. We are strengthened and encouraged by these new evangelical brothers and sisters asking what they can do to stand with us.

How can we together seek justice and build a world of peace? How can we build a different church, where details of theology and styles of worship don’t matter as much as loving and respecting one another and working together to build the Kingdom of God? Together we have to live the truth, tell the truth, defend the truth. But we’re not in this alone. We now see a much larger network. As we fast and pray together, we will all support one another—SIM, Las Abejas, SIPAZ and BPFNA, along with our new friends in El Salvador.

And so, as true prophets do, the pilgrims returned home, rejoicing at what had been revealed to them, but humbled and apprehensive at the path ahead. They encountered the Gospel and had truly heard the word of the Lord. I wonder if that same Lord’s word to an ancient prophet might still speak to these pilgrim prophets, “I am sending you to them….whether they hear, or refuse to hear, they shall know that there have been prophets among them.” (Jeremiah 2: 4-5)

—Karen Turner, a  BPFNA board member, spent 6 weeks in Chiapas in October and November 2011, at the Seminario Intercultural Mayense, representing BPFNA in  the unfolding peace initiatives there, as well as teaching some basic English. A retired social worker, she officially lives in  Toronto, ON, where she belongs to the Jeremiah Community, an intentional  Christian community in the downtown area.

Staff Note: This work of peacemaking continues. The group decided to live out their new resolve for a few months and then meet together again to consider what had been accomplished and what the next steps might be. Because of health issues, Doris and Ricardo Mayol are leaving Chiapas this summer, but the commitment of BPFNA to this initiative continues. Please pray for peace in Chiapas.



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