UCC pastors return from Guatemala
The small outboard motor coughs and sputters, filling the warm air with blue smoke and gas fumes. As the engine slowly comes to life, the Reverends Tim and Kelly Jo Clark load their two daughters and enough groceries to last a week into the hull of a weather-worn Panga. Five minutes later, the throttle is pinned and the Clarks are soaked with spray as the boat bounces across the wind-chopped waters of Lake Atitlan in the Guatemalan highlands.
Back at home in Crested Butte, the Clarks’ congregation gathers in the pews of the Union Congregational Church. Outside the temperature hovers at –2 degrees Fahrenheit, and Crested Butte Mountain Resort has just opened the High Lift.
The boat ride ends at a remote rocky shore that quickly turns to forest. Tim and Kelly Jo unload their daughters, Rachel, age 8, and Vivian, age 2, then gather their supplies and walk into the undergrowth. Twenty minutes of hiking later they make it to the small house they have rented for the ten-week sabbatical that is a requirement of their office.
Nestled into the forest, the structure is powered by a car battery that runs out of juice each evening. Water is hauled in, often on Tim’s back, and must be sterilized.
Insects, including scorpions, battle for space on the floor and in the small beds where the family sleeps.
“We could have picked anywhere in the world,” said Kelly Jo from the upstairs office she shares with Tim at the Crested Butte UCC. “We were drawn to Guatemala because of the geography and the culture and how different it appeared to be from Crested Butte.”
The Clarks will give a talk and present a slideshow about their time in Guatemala at the UCC this Sunday, June 23 at 9:30 a.m. All are welcome to attend.
Sabbatical is a requirement within the United Church of Christ, of which the UCC is part. Every five years pastors are expected to take a three-month leave at full salary to be used as a time of study, reflection and renewal. The United Church of Christ considers this break from active ministering as part of “Hearing God’s Call.”
Kelly Jo and Tim both became eligible for sabbatical leave at the same time, and were awarded a grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc. for a Congregation and Clergy Renewal Program that funded their travel, relocation and studies for a three-month period between February and April. The grant also provided resources for the UCC to host 10 visiting clergy members during the Clarks’ absence.
“It was planned in a way that the sabbatical would also be a time for the church to go through a renewal and experience different approaches both to worship and to the running of the church,” said Tim. “We were curious how the process would work, and it turned out the congregation embraced and enjoyed being in charge of daily operations.”
The same wasn’t quite true for Tim and Kelly Jo who, as their multi-hour, multi-stage trip to buy groceries indicates, faced daily challenges associated with subsistence living and cultural differences.
“The people individually were very welcoming and friendly, but because there’s not a lot of infrastructure for social activities, families tend to operate as families without a greater community,” said Tim. “People didn’t seem at all curious about our lives but they did want to show us everything about theirs.”
“Family is very central to the culture,” added Kelly Jo. “In part out of necessity, much more was based on the family structure. Families were almost always working together to meet basic needs, including gathering and preparing food, gathering firewood and taking care of other family members. It was continuous.”
That’s markedly different from life in Crested Butte.
“Here we have leisure time, which is often spent apart,” said Kelly Jo. “We go out on bike rides, or skiing and it’s often an individual activity. The kids go sometimes, but there’s the option to take what extra time we have and spend it alone pursuing things we want to do, versus things we have to do to survive.”
There’s nothing wrong with having hobbies, explained Tim, an avid fly fisherman, hockey player and climber. However, the experience of observing how close the families were provides insight into how many North Americans live.
“It cautioned us to view affluence and the associated recreational benefits as a potential liability for the strength of the family unit,” said Kelly Jo. “Culture begins to look very different when it’s family focused and without the diversion and seduction of recreation.”
Around Lake Atitlan there are 26 unique indigenous villages, most of which are rooted in the Mayan culture. In each village a different language is spoken, making communication between villages difficult, and cultural isolation a sensitive subject.
“We wanted to see how a place with indigenous culture was coping with the pressures of tourism and outside influences,” said Tim. “What we found was that villages that were able to host visitors on their own terms, rather than accommodating what they thought tourists wanted, thrived much more heartily than those that sought to appeal to everyone.”
“We thought that idea might also translate back to the Crested Butte community and our congregation,” added Kelly Jo.
One of the goals of the Clarks’ time in Guatemala was to identify a group, or groups, with which to develop a long-term relationship. They hoped by doing this they could tie their Crested Butte congregation to the villages they visited.
“We were looking for opportunities that could result in taking folks back down to Guatemala on service work trips,” said Kelly Jo.
Kelly Jo and Tim identified two non-profits during their stay. The first, Casa Milagro, focuses on providing educational opportunities and nutritional support for children and widows. The second, Solomon’s Porch, is an emerging church with a primary goal of building homes for families in the most need.
“We were there to see them finish one of the homes, and to watch a family of 10 people move from a shack that was not bigger than 10 by 10 feet into an actual house with beds for everyone, a bathroom and an actual stove,” said Tim. “It is our hope that we can go back down and help in future construction.”
The Clarks left Guatemala to return home on April 24, just as rainy season was beginning and the bugs were coming out in force. Reentry has been surprisingly easy, but both Tim and Kelly Jo are determined to hang on to and share what they learned.
“I gained a greater sense of serenity and calm having spent time with people who have very little and don’t really anguish over wanting more,” said Tim. “I’m less stressed and calmer. Problems don’t seem as urgent or as intimidating. Most things now I look at and it’s, ‘We can take care of that, no problem.’”