by Russell Carstens
In early September, Princeton Seminary students Abbie Huff, Sarah Iliff, Lisa Valenti-Jordan, Emily Krause, Sarah Watermulder, Louisa Watkins, and Emily Wilmarth embarked on a trip to Guatemala to participate in a workshop where they got to know eight women from various regions of Guatemala active in the country’s evangelical Presbyterian church. They met and interacted with these women, their families, and other individuals with the goal of cross-cultural education. They wanted to gain a wider perspective of women’s struggles in Guatemala, and to see how these struggles, and being women in service to the church, connected them with their Central American sisters, despite cultural differences.
The students first visited the southern region of Guatemala in the town of San Felipe for a three-day retreat. Princeton Seminary alumnus David Wiseman (’73) and his wife, Jeannene (’75), were the leaders of the trip, along with Ellen Dozier (’70). All three have been Presbyterian mission coworkers in Guatemala for years, and believe it’s a good place for students to visit who are thinking critically about theology.
With only three women currently ordained as ministers in Guatemala, the country is just beginning to open the doors for women in ministry. Some need permission from their husbands to even be involved in a church, while others’ husbands are unsupportive of their church activities. Because of the power of hierarchy in the Guatemalan family structure, women’s roles aren’t as valued there as they are in the U.S. The Princeton women learned about efforts to bring gender equality to the Guatemalan women who are in the process of being ordained. Their willingness to deal with the struggle is something that all the students were inspired by.
During the retreat, the students shared stories with the women (some Ladina and some indigenous Mayan) of their calls to ministry. They also spoke of their grandmothers, to reflect on what it means to be women of faith within their families. PTS senior Sarah Watermulder said, “They were willing to connect with us even though we were strangers.” As a nonverbal way to connect, they also did crafts such as weaving, a friendly activity that people of all cultures participate in, similar to young girls making friendship bracelets in the United States.
Watermulder said both groups of women talked together about the challenge of balancing the responsibilities of their home lives (which Guatemalan women handle without the assistance of their husbands) with the demands of ministry. There, women attend Seminary once a week for four to five years to get their theological education, she learned.
The students also stayed with host families in the indigenous Mam community, where some women are on their way to becoming elders or deacons. The community’s primary language is Mam, but they also speak Spanish. Most of the Seminary students on the trip have some Spanish-speaking skills, and were translators for those who didn’t. The women performed hand massages and prayed for each other’s hands, which are highly valued for the work they do.
The Princeton women also immersed themselves in the Mam families’ household routines, such as shopping for the day’s food at the market and grinding corn, the main ingredient in tortillas, which the students made on the stovetop. PTS senior Emily Krause learned that there is a deep connection to the earth in the Mam community. She said, “You can reach out of the window and touch the corn you would eat later that day. To me it symbolized the abundant life spoken of in the Gospel of John, that all you need is within your reach.”
Lisa Valenti-Jordan, PTS senior, said, “It was a bonding experience, they were very welcoming.” While attending church, Louisa Watkins and some of the other students dressed in traditional garments that the families wear.
There is a large disparity between the poor and the wealthy in Guatemala, and spending time with its people showed the students how people of all kinds can help each other. The Guatemalan women ranged from their mid-twenties to their sixties, but age was no barrier in the groups relating to one another. One of the women told the seminarians, “We’re not alone in our adversity, you have had struggles, even in the United States.”
The group also visited the U.S. Embassy, where cultural affairs officer and pastor David Young (who earned his M.Div. at Boston University) spoke with them about diplomacy and why he chose to work in a government position in Guatemala. “It showed us a way to integrate Christian values into a government without being threatening or overbearing about it. Faith can form a moral basis for our actions,” said Valenti-Jordan.
Valenti-Jordan feels she came back from the trip more “culturally literate.” She said, “With this trip, we were looking to do a different kind of mission, and we learned about how mission can be conceived differently. It’s part of the overall Christian mission to see each other as equals. Differences are present, but they don’t divide us.”