Our spirituality column for 2016 celebrates the Year of Mercy as Maryknoll missioners reflect on that gift expressed in the countries where they serve.
The quality of mercy is not strained, wrote Shakespeare. Maybe not in his day, but during the final years of Guatemala’s 30-plus-year civil war, mercy was strained daily when terrorized families fled for their lives from a merciless army.
I lived in Guatemala during the height of the violence, which supposedly ended with the signing of Peace Accords in 1996. I attended many funerals of priests and lay people assassinated by government death squads. The first priest’s funeral I attended was that of Maryknoll Father Bill Woods in 1976. He had been working in Ixcán, a vast area in northern Guatemala where landless families could purchase and settle on land with low, long-term payments at low interest. The land project was an initiative of the Catholic Church. Father Woods and some friends with small planes ferried new settlers to their land, sick people to hospitals, farm produce to market. He braved the wrath of military and government officials by insisting on the settlers’ rights to land titles. On his last flight from Guatemala City to the Ixcán, witnesses saw his plane “explode” in the air over a low pass between the mountains. The people he served with his mercy flights never forgot him. Not much later they were driven from their homes by government forces in a scorched-earth policy.
Along with other Maryknollers, I served Guatemalan refugees for three years in Quetzal Edzná, one of several refugee camps in Mexico. We were part of the Guatemalan Church, ministering to the Guatemalans in the camp.
Sitting with them in their dirt-floored stick chapel under a tar paper roof, I listened to their stories. They told tales of unbelievable atrocities but also of courageous acts of mercy.
Juana, for instance, told me about the day her family fled to Mexico when they and their neighbors learned of a massacre in a nearby village. The families began packing as much as they could carry for the trek to the Usumacinta River, Guatemala’s border with Mexico. One of Juana’s neighbors was about to give birth and stayed behind with her husband. The expectant mother was alone in the house when two soldiers showed up at the door. Relieved to learn they were just looking for food, she gave them the only food she had: bananas. Seeing how pregnant she was, one of the soldiers said, “Look, we don’t have orders to harm anybody. But you have to get out of here tomorrow morning, because behind us will come a platoon with orders to kill everybody.” Juana concluded, “Because of the good conscience of that soldier, because he did right, that family was spared.”
With the Guatemalan army close behind, the refugees had to cross the wide river, but many could not swim. Mexicans with small boats ferried people across the river. One Mexican man actually swam people across the river. Back and forth he swam, saving one life at a time. On his last lap toward the Guatemalan shore, he didn’t make it. The current carried him downstream, and he disappeared.
I am in awe of the immense courage it took to perform such acts of mercy. I wonder what happened to the soldier who warned of the impending massacre when the murderous platoon found an empty village. I wonder if the swimming savior was himself rescued downstream. I hope that those who showed mercy received mercy themselves. As Shakespeare wrote of the quality of mercy: “It is twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
Featured Image: Guatemalan refugee women held meetings in Quetzal Edzná camp. (B. Kita/Mexico)