Summer/Fall  2000
Volume 5 Number 1
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by Joel A. Lindsey

For Ralph Hunter Keen, M.Div. Class of 1951 and Th.M. Class of 1968, parish ministry means more than it once did. It certainly means more than Sunday morning worship services and Wednesday night Bible studies. Put simply, parish ministry has come to represent survival.

Keen and his wife, Barbara, who also attended Princeton Seminary, minister in a setting quite different from that of most Seminary graduates. Since 1958, Keen has ministered to Native Americans in Dakota Presbytery and in Idaho, where he currently serves on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation. In addition, a ministry established with a sister presbytery in Guatemala permits Keen to minister on an international level.

As a member of a group assembled to visit Guatemalan Presbyterians, Keen made his first trip to the K’ekchi (pronounced keh-CHEE) people in July 1999. There he discovered people struggling not only to move forward in their Christian journey, but also to maintain a way of life in the face of daily bloodshed and widespread poverty. Their situation resonated with Keen’s own ministerial setting: "The K’ekchi are experiencing similar political and theological situations to those Native Americans endured one and a half centuries ago."

The K’ekchi Indians are indigenous people descended from the ancient Mayan Empire that thrived primarily in modern Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. Of the approximately twenty distinct tribes of Mayan descent, the K’ekchi have had one of the most tragic stories. During the late nineteenth century they were uprooted from their native lands by Ladino (westernized Spanish-speaking) and Mestizo (mixed Spanish and Indian) forces who sought to control the rich farmland. Forced to give up control of the land to fruit and coffee farmers, the K’ekchi were then kept as slave laborers. Thus began a struggle for freedom that continues today. Recently, a corrupt Guatemalan government has incorrectly identified the K’ekchi tribe with communist revolutionaries. The conflict, Keen says, has an economic source: "In order to profit from farming the land, the government has forced the K’ekchi out of their home territory." According to Keen, government forces operate violently and without regard for those who live on the land they seek to confiscate.

The early 1980s saw the most brutal era of the Guatemalan civil war. In 1982, the Guatemalan army attacked an isolated jungle community at Dos Erres, El Petén. Accusing the residents of collaborating with guerrilla forces, they ruthlessly murdered men, women, and children. The bodies were thrown into a dry well and covered with dirt. A 1995 excavation of the site revealed 162 skeletons, sixty-seven of them children. Hundreds of these graves exist throughout Guatemala.

For the K’ekchi, the violence continues. "While we were there one young man was killed for no reason, for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time," Keen remembers. "One telling sign of the violence is that the church schools, the only schools the K’ekchi families can afford, are sixty percent orphaned children. These are children whose parents were slain in the massacres."

Ralph hunter Keen with Stratton and Wheeler
Ralph Hunter Keen has witnessed the result of a violent dispute over Guatemalan farmland.

Because they are unwilling and unable to react violently, the K’ekchi have little recourse against the military. Keen explains: "The K’ekchi often keep people on watch for attacks. When a military attack is imminent, the families scatter into the jungle until the pressure subsides. Then they return home and try to pick their lives back up."

In the face of such hardship, though, the K’ekchi keep adapting, surviving. Keen suggests that faith in Christ provides a hopeful vision in a world where justice is rarely seen.

He recalls a conversation with a K’ekchi man that illustrates the value of the church in this tragic context. "One man, a typical villager, lived in a bamboo hut with a dirt floor. He was a seventy-year-old corn farmer who lived two hours from the fields he tended. He walked there and back everyday. But when we asked him what he did, what his role was in the community, he responded that he was not a farmer, but an evangelist. This old man found his identity in the church."

Such identification, Keen recognizes, forces a North American pastor to reevaluate what it means to serve a parish. "My understanding of parish ministry is altered when I recognize that people do not need credentials to be church leaders. Most of these people are illiterate, including the pastors, so teaching the Bible is difficult."

Keen’s primary effort for helping the K’ekchi is to create Bible studies in their native language. Says Keen, who returned to Guatemala in June, "I just completed a study on First Thessalonians. I write in English; it is then translated into Spanish. Finally, it is translated into K’ekchi. The pastors and those who read will share it with the entire community."

There has been no word yet on the impact of the Bible study. But Keen hopes the lessons will enliven Scripture. "We don’t want to train them out of their culture—their ways of life," he says, "but to help them deal with the pain and suffering they’ve gone through, even the economic and political pain, by reminding them that God is with them." 

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