Couple continue to have impact on Guatemalan lives
By Debbie DuPey
The indigenous communities of Guatemala continue to inspire Sandi Thompson-Royer and her husband Brian, who settled back in Spokane in April 2019 after five years as mission co-workers in Guatemala with the National Presbyterian Church USA.
Accepting the mission position was "a God thing," said Sandi, who believes her invitation to do mission work was an invitation to walk with the people, as Micah 6:8 says, "to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."
The couple recently reflected on their time in community and fellowship with Guatemalan people.
Sandi was invited to Guatemala to help develop leadership skills in women in Presbyterian churches throughout the country. The passions and skills Sandi and Brian brought to the experience shaped how they integrated their work with people's needs.
Sandi has been going to Guatemala since 1999. Her relationship with the country deepened with time.
"In the beginning, I focused on connecting with women and sharing their challenges. I was taken by their commitment to community and family," Sandi said.
The Presbyterian Church USA has had a partnership in Guatemala for 100 years and a relationship with the church women for 20 years.
"We didn't know what facilitating leadership development with women in churches would entail. We met with women leaders from all over Guatemala," Sandi said. "Because they knew I had worked in domestic violence and sexual assault, women wanted to learn about that. So, we started doing workshops for women."
In those workshops, she taught about abusive relationships. The women could share their struggles, know they were not alone and support their sisters. Workshops destigmatized the issue and removed the burden of blame from the women.
"Women bear so much, including violence of all kinds. Their courage and enthusiasm are amazing. They would take a bus for hours just to learn something new," Sandi said.
Sandi and Brian also connected women with microloans, so they could open their own small businesses, such as stores and farm enterprises. More than 100 women were loan recipients through combined efforts of Western North Carolina Presbyterian Women and a Guatemalan nonprofit that helped women learn business operating skills.
Brian, who has a background in community development, helped women become more fiscally literate.
"Many had never had to manage funds or develop a budget," he said. "It was hard for them to work with a budget in a culture where women did not have their own money or bank accounts. Saving money wasn't the challenge. They actually had a hard time spending money."
By the end of their time, women could manage budgets, understand cash flow and prepare spread sheets.
What evolved with the women's leadership program was both subtle and profound, Sandi said. It related to how they saw themselves and how leadership could be expressed in a country and culture where women, especially indigenous women, were undervalued, oppressed and discriminated against.
"Improving their sense of worth as women leaders was another hurdle," she shared. "The women would travel bi-monthly to meet, but would stay in the cheapest places, sleeping on floors in conditions that often made them sick. It was a process to help them understand they had the right to take care of themselves and deserved comfortable accommodations."
Building on strengths of relationships, Sandi and Brian formed a bridge between people of faith in the U.S. and Guatemala, bringing groups south each year to learn and volunteer. In this way, they leveraged their own strengths with those of others.
"We love partnering," said Sandi, noting that the collaborative spirit added value to their mission and expanded their programs.
Peter Baird, whose career is in creating social justice music, collaborated with Sandi and Brian to create a music workshop on the theme, "music that inspires and liberates." Twenty people participated, mostly youth, sharing their struggles with justice and learning how to connect faith with activism. It culminated in a community performance that 90 people attended.
Sandi's favorite piece from the concert was composed by a woman attendee, "La Paz Existe (Peace Exists)." It goes, "Peace exists when there is love. Hate moves away, when there is love. The barriers fall and there are no borders, when there is love."
Much of their work was skill- and knowledge-based, designed to increase the women's revenue and autonomy. The Mam Women's Sewing School Project taught 12 women sewing skills and product development. Using her connections, Sandi brought U.S. seamstresses to Guatemala to teach women how to create and sell products for U.S. markets.
The sewing group gave themselves the name, "Saq b'e," which in the indigenous Mam language means "path of light and hope." They created utilitarian products such as napkins, placemats, shopping bags, hot pads, baby bibs and aprons. During annual visits, Sandi brought the items to the U.S. to sell when she spoke at churches about their mission work.
In Guatemala, they also supported spiritual retreats for women leaders. Sandi enhanced her relationship with women in the context of their relationship with God and Jesus' teachings. Retreats were opportunities to rest and renew at the end of the year.
"We'd stay in a nice place, do Bible study, reflection, art and music," she said.
Brian worked with men. If women weren't respected and supported in their homes, how could they reach their potential in the larger community?
He used a program called "Men in the Mirror," based on Jesus' teachings and encouraging "Christ Centered Masculinity."
The workshops met resistance, but the work continues under the Rev. Mateo González, a native Guatemalan, who hopes to build on the program so men better understand how their views of masculinity developed and reconsider duties assigned along gender lines.
Brian believes the education and reflection changes how household chores are divided and increases respect for women. Men and women can work together to create a spirit of partnership in their marriage, have healthier relationships and reduce domestic violence, he said.
In Spokane, Sandi and Brian continue partnering with the women. With her connections to the Mam sewing project, they started a small business, Resilient Threads, supporting several cooperatives of women who weave, sew and do bead work. Funds from that also help support projects in Guatemala.
"We communicate almost every day. We miss the community and feel sad that what we have here is not possible for most in Guatemala," Sandi said. "We will continue our work here, bringing fair-trade items to sell at local fair-trade events and through churches.
Along with continuing to support the Men in the Mirror program there, they want to work on immigration and welcoming refugees here.
"Because Guatemalan culture is indigenous, life is simple, measured in connections rather than things. Women keep their culture and traditions alive," Brian said. "Guatemalan women have kept their language, even though that means they experience challenges and discrimination."
"Their hospitality is genuine," said Sandi. "We were inspired in Guatemala to realize that what is important in life is family, a roof over your head and food. Rich relationships are the greatest value."
Debbie DuPey, who owns Corazon Journeys, a social-justice travel enterprise, has traveled and volunteered many times with Sandi in Guatemala, to conduct domestic violence workshops.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, December, 2019