Picture this: 8 people representing University Church’s Guatemala Partnership, who traveled to Guatemala May 18-26, are sitting in plastic chairs at the front of a group of school children, youth, their parents, and other members of the Mayan community of Saq Ja’ inside the Instituto Basico Bilingue Maya Saq Ja‘, Saq Ja’s middle school. We are in the middle of a day that has been planned for us by the community. Jacinto Matom, one of the community leaders, suddenly turns to us and says, “You are going to lead us in the next activity. We are all going to search for a hidden treasure, and you must find 3 clues that will lead us to it. I will give you the first clue, which will lead you to the next one.”
The clue reads, “Find a woman named Alberta. She will have your next clue, which will bring you closer to the hidden treasure.” We look at each other–none of us know a woman of this name–then circulate among those gathered inside, asking the names of people we do not yet know, trying to find Alberta. She turns out to be the woman stirring a pot of boiling water and beans over the fire outside the building, and she gives us our next clue.
“Go to an uninhabited building near the school and find your next clue in one of the windows.” Groups of giggling students run this way and that, some cheerfully misdirecting us and some giving us broad hints. Eventually, one of our number finds the next clue while little kids jump up and down laughing. We are clearly the entertainment here.
“Cross the bridge and listen for a human cry. Follow the cry to find your next clue.” We cross the bridge…silence for a minute or two, while we notice a group of middle school students running away from us toward a field, meeting up with another group of students who take off running further out of sight. Suddenly we hear a voice crying out.
“That must be it!” we say, and move toward the field ourselves. We’re getting into the spirit of things and really having fun now. We let ourselves through the fence and enter a cow pasture–fortunately, no bulls in sight, only cows chomping grass. At the far end of the field, we notice movement behind some big rocks as two heads peek out and duck back behind. We’re guessing our next clue is there, and the boys hand it over when we find them behind the rocks.
“Go back to the school and bring everyone there back here with you to get directions to the hidden treasure together.” When we have done that and everyone has streamed back to the pasture, a sign appears on the rocks telling us to cross the stream and follow the words to the hidden treasure.
We pass sheets of paper attached to trees: “Our friendship belongs to the source of light.” “Weakness inspires and nourishes strength.” “Eternal friendship is the order of creation.” “A free-flying person is a messenger of change.” We later find out that these are sayings taken from a Mayan calendar.
Finally, we arrive at the hidden treasure. On a 6’ x 6’ green mat of woven palm-like leaves bordered in clusters of blue hydrangea flowers is written the message, “We give thanks for the continued existence of Saq Ja’, for Virgilio, for the community in Chicago, and for the 747 from our village who died during the Guatemalan civil conflict.” As we discover the hidden treasure, the planning committee plays the song, “Un Millon de Amigos,” “A Million Friends.”
This is the hidden treasure–a continuing 14-year partnership between the community of Saq Ja’, both living and dead, and the community of University Church, including friends and family of its members. It arose in 1999 from the ashes of a brutal genocide campaign in the 1980’s which temporarily destroyed Saq Ja’. Virgilio Vicente, who was born in the Saq Ja’ community and became part of the University Church community after coming to Chicago, was the first visible link between the communities and provided the first impetus toward the partnership. Both those in Saq Ja’ and those of us here in Chicago are very grateful to him for what he has started.
The organizing committees in Saq Ja’ have given a name to this partnership: utux ajtikonel, meaning something like “the shoot that grows out of the tree stump.” There is new life growing out of a a village that was killed; there is a refusal to give in to despair; there is a spirit that animates the struggle to organize, to create new opportunities for people in this village. The middle school (7th-9th grades) is a huge symbol of what they have been able to accomplish, built by their own hands and recently re-established as a cooperative school. We have had the privilege of being able to participate in this effort through providing scholarships to students to cover some of their school fees. We have also provided scholarships for students wanting to go on to high school.