Since we are talking about God getting our full and undivided attention and about getting to the heart of the matter, I felt it appropriate to share about how God has gotten my attention in beautiful Guatemala. I am currently in the midst of a 4 part series on my Go Be Serve Guatemala Mission blog site about my volunteer in mission experience, and because this season of my life is so relevant to our Lenten Safari journey together, I am sharing Part 2 from that series below.
As God has been itinerating me about every two years for the last ten years or so, I was comfortable with making a two year commitment and within the first six months I was certain that two years was my limit. For the past two years, I have been immersed in a beautiful culture where people greet you in the street and wish you well–often saying “Que le vaya bien,” which loosely means “I hope things go well for you;” where the people have preserved their beautiful and rich culture and continue customs like wearing traditional clothing and partaking of corn tortillas with every meal; where creativity, ingenuity, and tenacity are a way of life (you really can carry just about anything on your head WITH a baby strapped to your back!); where work generally revolves around family and not the other way around; and where the reaction to my black skin is usually awe and intrigue and not the hostility and suspicion that has been normalized in America. Even so, sometimes you just want to be less conspicuous, sometimes you just want to blend in, sometimes you just want at least one place where you belong.
After all, what middle-aged Black woman in the midst of perimenopause commits to volunteer in a country where she is not fluent in the language, where she has never even been, and where she will be alone–relationally and culturally? Well, that would be me, because as much as I like to think that I pick these assignments, I know that the Spirit of God led me here to a beautiful country where I have the privilege of living on Lake Atitlan and where the Spirit has also placed me in a barren season. It was about six months into my service when a couple, who were former long-term volunteers, returned to the project to serve with a mission team, and I remember the husband asking me what I missed most. What I really wanted to say is “Black People!” but I filtered my response and just said family. Well, they are Black…so, I guess I wasn’t completely dishonest.
The reality is that I am alone here and last year the Spirit used three men to give voice to that reality. A retired pastor, who is friends with the executive director, was here with his wife about a year ago, and he asked me how I was adjusting without a Black community here. Then in November, I had two conversations with two different Guatemalan men who asked me about being alone here. Initially, I thought they were asking me about being single, but I could tell that my attempt to answer the question did not really respond to the question they were asking. It was not until later when I reflected on both conversations together that I realized they were really asking me about being alone here as a Black person. The retired pastor was thoughtfully offering me some pastoral care, and I believe the other two gentlemen were genuinely concerned as well. One is a merchant whose store I have visited several times, and the other is among the first people I got to know in Guatemala, because he works at the metal shop near the apartment where I lived when I first moved here. These three men gave voice to this barren place where I find myself in beautiful Guatemala.
The barrenness was amplified within my first year here by the racially motivated violence and trauma taking place in the United States that I had to process alone. When I arrived, I tried worshiping with an evangelical expat community, but it became clear to me from my interactions with a few folks that their theology did not embrace my full humanity, divinity, and equality. So, I had to bounce, and believe you me that I don’t go looking for this stuff, but when you are the only available Black person for it to be projected onto and you have lived with it for literally your entire life–you know it when you see it and feel it. In fact, you know it so well, because your life experiences have bestowed upon you a Ph.D. in racism and white privilege that you did not pursue. During this time, in fact within my first three months here, two major traumas to the Black community occurred in and around my hometown of Charleston, SC–the killing of #WalterScott and the #EmmanuelNine massacre, which was followed by the unlawful detainment, arrest, and killing of #SandraBland, and countless others. There was no Black community here to help shoulder or process this pain; there was just me and Melissa Harris-Perry on Saturday mornings and Melissa Harris-Perry and the illustrious Rev. Dr. Freddy Haynes on Sunday mornings. Eventually, there was no more Melissa Harris-Perry, as the politics of power silenced her voice during the contemptible circus that was the U.S. presidential campaign. Since then, my lifeline has been Rev. Dr. Freddy Haynes whose profound, prolific, and prophetic preaching have kept me sane! While I livestream the worship service, I engage in what I like to call twitter therapy, because I am compelled to tweet as many tidbits of truth as I can capture! So, I yearn for the weekends and I imagine that this is how my enslaved ancestors must have felt about Sundays, because Come Sunday, they would go to church and they would be somebody–their pains, their possibilities, their hurts, and their healing would take center stage…their lives would matter!
In the midst of this barrenness, I discovered that I did not only miss Black people, but I missed Black culture–and not only the Black culture I know, but the Black culture I was denied the opportunity to know. For instance, there is something very familiar about the gracious greetings that we give complete strangers as we pass in the streets of Guatemala, because I was brought up that way, but when I moved to D.C. at eighteen, it was a whole different ballgame where people would barely give you eye contact, and were even less inclined to speak. In Guatemala that down-home hospitality has been refreshing, and the culture is intensely inspiring, because in the face of horrendous oppression and war, the indigenous people have maintained such pride and continuity in their culture–something that was and continues to be denied Black folks, i.e. pro-Black does not equal anti-White. So, while this time of aloneness in Guatemala has made me yearn for Black people and the Black culture I know, this immersion in such a rich, persevering culture has also made me painfully aware of the Black culture I do not know.
Tara LaShawn Seabrook is a self-proclaimed “free spirit,” a public, practical, and prophetic theologian; a spiritual and social justice activist; a creative and cultural artist; and a prolific teacher, speaker, and writer. Currently, she resides in Guatemala where she is finishing up a 2-year volunteer in mission commitment with a non-governmental organization before returning to her native Charleston, SC in the spring of 2017. Her book based on her original poem, “I Am She: The Anthology” will be released later this year.