Biblical Truth Transforms Communities in Guatemala
Transcribed from an audio recording by Buck Deines, former FHI Vice President of Latin America. June 26, 2006.

 

Beginning in 1975, I worked for three years with the Peace Corps in a small community in the Guatemala highlands known as Nebaj. I was part of a livestock development project, working with a poverty-stricken indigenous group known as the Ixil people. Many days, I would hike long distances from village to village, sometimes up to 24 miles in a day. I taught animal husbandry and helped with basic agricultural training. During these trips, I would often notice that children were out in the fields or tending their livestock rather than in school. I inquired with parents about this, but was told that the children were needed for labor, and that school just wasn't that important.

I was bothered by this, realizing there would be little hope for change if the children remained uneducated. I spoke with teachers, parents and children about my concerns. I tried to impress on parents the importance of educating their children, but continually came up against the same barriers. Education was of little value. They had not been formally educated, nor had their parents. This attitude was particularly pronounced when it came to girls. The mind-set of the parents was that they were only going to get married off, so what was the point in investing in their education? The Ixil Indians are historically a very downtrodden group. They are treated as "less than fully human" by many non-indigenous people (mestizos) in Guatemala and have come to believe in their hearts that they are indeed "lower" than non-indigenous people in Guatemala.  As a result, they had very little hope for a better future. I tried my best to lobby and encourage the parents regarding the importance of education but for all my efforts, I never saw a change in their attitudes during the three years I lived among them.

In 1995 I returned to these same villages, this time working with Food for the Hungry International. FHI was involved in agriculture and health projects. As in the 70s, I noticed that many children were not enrolled in school. Little had changed in the 20 years since I had lived in the villages. Poverty was rampant, children were not in school, the villages were trash-strewn and disheveled, and the people continued to have very little hope for positive change. I came away from these visits very disappointed. There was so little evidence of change after so many years of well-intentioned development efforts. I began to question the value of the work we were doing that seemingly lacked impact.

In 2002 I returned to Nebaj, again with FHI, this time as Regional Director of FHI operations in Latin America. We had returned to conduct an impact evaluation. This time, to my great astonishment, things had radically changed. New school buildings had been built. Kids all over the place were carrying books and seemed so excited about school. Before, when I asked kids about whether they wanted to go to school, a typical response was, "what's the point? I'm only going to be a shepherd anyway." Now, the kids were excited. "We want to go to school!"

"Why?" I asked them. I was amazed by their answer.

"We want to go to school because we were created in the image and likeness of God. Jesus grew in wisdom, stature, and favor with God and with men.  We want to grow in wisdom and in knowledge too.  That's why we want to go to school. We want to be like Jesus. We want to be creative, because God is creative. We want to do great things. God has a purpose for my life. I want to be educated so I can become a teacher or a lawyer and come back here and help my people."

 These kinds of responses were coming from young children! I was amazed by what was coming out of their mouths. We spoke to their parents to try and uncover what was happening. They told how they would work extra hours and take additional jobs to earn money to put their children in the best schools they could afford. Their view of their children and the importance of education had radically changed!  They too saw their children in a new light. They now saw them as image-bearers of God with lives full of dignity and purpose. I was astounded. I went back and talked to our staff, inquiring as to what they had been doing that made such a difference. They responded that they had begun teaching the parents and children the biblical worldview, and particularly a biblical understanding of human life and purpose. What we were seeing was the fruit of those efforts that had been a key focus for the past three years.

 I then spoke with the community leaders and asked what FHI could do better to serve them in their positions of leadership in the communities. In the past, such a question would have been an open invitation for the leaders to bring out their shopping list of what they wanted:  New buildings, new roads, etc. In this case, I asked this question of leaders in village after village and universally received the same answers: "We've been hearing some interesting ideas that FHI staff are teaching in our villages. What we'd really like is for you to teach us those same ideas." When I asked one leader for an example, he replied that FHI had been teaching children and parents that the Lord is a God of order and as a result, they needed to live in an orderly way. This prompted the children to clean up their communities. They started campaigns to clean up the garbage around their own homes and to build cupboards for their homes to organize and protect food and clothes.

I saw the same results a few years later in communities in Nicaragua where our staff began teaching biblical principles, helping the people to understand that their lives were filled with purpose, dignity and destiny.  As staff shared biblical worldview messages, the vision and then the behavior of the people in the community began to change. Pastors, parents, community leaders and teachers began to see their world in a new light, envision new and brighter possibilities for their communities and envision better lives for their children.  Local schoolteachers began using the Bible extensively in school. As they did they found that attitudes and behaviors of children began to change radically.  Not only could most of the children recite long sections of Scripture from memory, it was evident that Scripture had transformed their beliefs, behaviors, dreams and goals.  Kids who otherwise would never have considered attending university now believed that doing so was not only possible, but it was God's will for their lives. Little communities where folks recently believed children had little potential were now sending their kids to college to become doctors, lawyers, teachers and nurses.  Even more incredibly, the kids that were going off to university said their motivation for higher education was not profit or success,  but rather a desire to learn more so they could return to their communities, to bless their communities and help them progress.  As several of the children we interviewed put it, "This is part of God's plan for our lives."

This incredible transformation didn't happen suddenly. It was a process that, in some cases, took several years of teaching.  But as the spokesman for one group of community leaders informed us, "While many development programs in this area have failed in the past, the key to success here has been the impact of the Word of God and the way it has changed the way we understand God, ourselves and our world." 

As we listened to leaders, teachers, pastors and children in these remote rural communities I could only marvel at their many testimonies of ways in which biblical truth has transformed both individual lives and community life.