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Melba's Mission Journal: The Power of Women (Sept. 30, 2004)

Melba's Mission Journal: The Power of Women (Sept. 30, 2004)

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Melba's Mission Journal: The Power of Women

Sept. 30, 2004    News media contact:  Michael Wacht*    
407-897-1140     Orlando  {0174}

NOTE:  A headshot of Whitaker is available at

An e-Review Commentary
By Melba Whitaker**

Clergy Spouse Mission Trip to Guatemala in September 2003

We had come to Guatemala to learn about community-based health care programs and other community-based programs that benefit women and children. Guatemala is an extraordinarily beautiful country that is recuperating from years of government-sponsored violence against the poor in the 1980s. This is a story of one community, Chontala, and its survival.

CHONTALA, Guatemala — Mayan women here weave their wool into brightly colored and patterned textiles for sale through the Naomi and Ruth cooperative. Florida Conference clergy spouses visited the village in 2003. Photo by Melba Whitaker, Photo #04-0099.
Chontala is a small agricultural Mayan community in the rural mountainous area outside Chichicastenango. We were to visit a home where women gathered to weave the complicated patterns into clothing and cloth that would be turned into tablecloths, blouses, book covers, stoles and other items sold to tourists through the cooperative known as Ruth and Naomi.
Chontala is the site of a particularly brutal event in the history of Guatemala. When we got to the village we first went into the local Methodist church where we heard how the soldiers had herded 40 men in the village into the church and opened fire on them, killing them all while their wives and children watched. The horror of this happening in a church where people come to worship the God of peace made this a tragic, but holy ground. 

Men all over Guatemala were being killed for two reasons: to get control of the land and so they would not form guerilla forces to fight against the government. In Guatemala land belongs to a family as long as it is cultivated. When it lies fallow, the government can take it over. Men traditionally worked the land, so it was reasoned the women would leave and the government could then take over the agricultural land; however, Chontala proved to be a community of strong women the government didn't take into consideration. After the massacre, women and their children began to farm the land themselves. This is rugged country where tractors and other modern farm equipment do not exist for the poor. These women and children struggled and succeeded in keeping the land under cultivation to provide food for their families.
As the male children grew older and began to take over the farming, the women needed to bring in cash, but felt that they had no marketable skills. On man, Pastor Diego, came to their rescue. He asked them what skills they did have. Humbly, they replied all they could do was weave. This was quite an understatement because their weavings are gorgeous. Women all over Guatemala weave intricate patterns into their clothing, each community with a different pattern, so you can tell where a woman is from by the clothes she wears. Pastor Diego worked with them to improve their skills and helped develop the cooperative Ruth and Naomi where women send their weavings to be made into items sold for profit. Now, the women of Chontala spend their hours kneeling on the floor, weaving yarn into colorful textiles.

After leaving the church, we were excited to get to meet the women who had overcome so much in order to provide for their families. First, we had to get there. We were led to a small dirt track in the middle of a cornfield on the side of a mountain dotted with avocado trees. As we walked through the cornfield, we could look down the rows and see the men with tumplines across their foreheads carrying heavy baskets of corn being harvested. After a while the cornfield gave way to a precipitous drop with a steep, rutted path for us to climb down. The recent rains made the path slippery, and we knew we were going to have to climb back up at some point. In the middle of the path were giant worms that made me wonder what kind of snakes were in the area. It was hard to believe there would be anybody living down this mountainside, but much stronger women and children kept passing us, going up and down with heavy loads on their backs, so someone must live in this isolated spot. 

Just when we were about to give up and were thirsty and wondering why we hadn't brought any water with us, we came to a house in a tiny clearing belonging to Marie Tomasa and her family. This concrete home, built by a United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) team, consisted of three or four rooms, a kitchen with a wood stove, a bedroom, a room with a table and crib, and a bathroom with children and chickens running freely. It was nestled against the mountainside among tropical flowers, but the colors that took my breath away were from the weavings hung on wires strung between posts and over every conceivable piece of furniture and on every wall.

Several women were sitting on the floor weaving. After serving us soft drinks and cookies, we were urged to purchase as many weavings as we wanted. Their livelihood depends upon people, usually tourists, buying these works of art. Since Sept. 11, 2001, and the unstable political climate within Guatemala, tourists have not been visiting. Everyone there was most impressed with this group of women from Florida and our bravery in sticking to our commitment to visit. After purchasing many weavings, we listened to their stories and how they have survived the heartbreaks of the years of war. Their stories are ones of commitment to family, endurance in the face of poverty, and hope that they could better their lives through the mission projects sponsored by the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM). 

One of the marvelous things about Methodism is that we are concerned about the whole person, body and soul. Community based programs developed with the support of GBGM encourage people to become self-sufficient and not stay dependent upon the support of richer churches, which is often inconsistent at best. UMVIM teams like the one that built Maria's home help provide a base from which people can rebuild their lives with the dignity that comes from being able to provide for their family. It is usually the women who have the energy and foresight to create something out of nothing. I am humbled by the faith of the women of Chontala.

To learn more about Guatemala visit


This commentary relates to Missions.

*Wacht is director of Florida United Methodist Communications and managing editor
of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker coordinates the Florida Conference's Children's Harvest ministry and leads conference clergy spouses in mission trips around the world as part of an initiative by spouses of United Methodist bishops to promote and support mission activities.