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 has witnessed the result of a violent dispute over
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
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
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