Before the last presidential election, life was normal in Guatemala. People went about their routines dealing with the hardships and the blessings that come with living in Central America. There was little thought about the government and the election. It was assumed the president would change to the next guy with links to crime and the military past and life would go on.
Then something happened. A United Nations-backed investigation team that had been quietly prosecuting drug gangs and the government officials on their payroll, dropped a bombshell. The group (known as CICIG) announced charges against the private secretary of the vice president and twenty others in an import tax scam that defrauded the country of millions. The following week, they announced another scheme in the department of health that resulted in the deaths of Guatemalan citizens.
The dual announcements made people mad. Years of indifference to political corruption and private grumbling about criminal elements were about to come to a head. Someone suggested on social media that his friends meet in the Parque de la Constitucion (Constitution Park), across the street from the National Palace, to have a little demonstration with signs calling for a new government. A few other people heard of it and asked if they could participate and invite their friends.
30,000 people showed up! After that first gathering, tens-of-thousands continued to meet every week to make their voices heard. The people wanted to see change for many, many years. But until they started gathering together each week, they did not feel anything they said or did would make a difference. People came from all over the country with different priorities and experiences, rain or shine, to share their feelings and the hope they had for a better Guatemala.
Today, the now-former president and vice-president sit in jails, joined by dozens of other government officials and their friends. The country is animated by the belief that anything is possible; that positive change will continue. Everything seems better, whether it is or not.
There’s a lesson there.
Pope Francis came under some fire for saying that a personal relationship with Jesus is insufficient and possibly dangerous. Of course, he was taken out of context. His point was that people should come back to the churches and rejoin the faith community. I have to say that I agree with him.
For much of my life, I did not believe I had to go to church to have a right relationship with God. It wasn’t like I was anti-church or thought people who went were wasting their time. In fact, I still consider my biggest parental-failure to be never getting my daughters into the church-going habit. But I didn’t need it.
God and I had a good relationship. He knew how I felt about Him. We had regular conversations where ever I went. I thanked Him and gave Him credit for all the good things in my life. I asked for help when I needed it. Every Sunday, I would head to “my church”- a New Jersey boardwalk- to have coffee and a conversation with Jesus along the ocean. I was fine.
Except I wasn’t really fine; and I didn’t realize how much I wasn’t until I went back to church.
Some say I got lucky to find a really good church. That community took me in and treated me like I was one of them right from the start. I learned I wasn’t as unique an individual as I thought even while I was being celebrated for the unique things I had to offer. The church gave me an opportunity to share the experiences and hopes of everyone, just like the Guatemalan people did in their park. And the results were the same; changes came fast and hard. My life was altered forever.
And the best part was that being an active part of the church community made my personal relationship with God grow even stronger. He and I had a lot more to talk about during our strolls along the beach. Eventually, it brought us to the point where God could tell me some of what He had in store for me.
So now I am in Guatemala. I really miss our beach walks, but I still talk to God constantly. My church community here is much smaller and consists of mostly family and friends who share my love of missions work. Life is good. I can’t imagine where I’d be today without the friendship, support and faith of my church families in New Jersey and Guatemala.
This is my message for those who believe they are “alright” with God, but don’t share their love and faith with a community. Do it. Find a good church and watch how much better your life can be.
“For where two or (more) come together in My Name, there am I with them.” Matthew 18:20 (NIV)