housing we began to step on people’s toes. Some of the farmers didn’t appreciate having pictures taken of the dilapidated housing they were using for their farmworkers. With these photographs we put together slide shows on self-help housing and different alternative housing programs. Then we helped them initiate some of these programs.
But we got into real trouble when we took on the question of wages and working conditions, and that was too much for the farmers. They felt we had become their enemy. So they started saying I was a communist and a socialist. Then they went to the pastor — I was an associate pastor at the time — and asked him to get rid of me. When he wouldn’t do that, they started a boycott of the parish and the Sunday collection dropped. It was right in the middle of building a new church. I had put in several requests to work in Latin America, and up until that time it hadn’t been considered the opportune moment, but then it became the opportune moment [laugh]. First I was sent to Mexico and then to Guatemala, so that is how I got there.
When I arrived in Guatemala in 1968, it was right after the conference of Latin American bishops at Medellin, Columbia. The bishops took the fundamentals of the Second Vatican Council of 1965 and applied them to the situation in Latin America. They came up with a series of pastoral guidelines for Latin America, which they called the presence of the church in the transformation of Latin America. Within those guidelines you had, one, a very strong statement on social transformation as being part of evangelization; and two, a mechanism for the revitalizing of the church, which they called at that time basic Christian communities. These are now called basic ecclesial communities.
In a basic Christian community, you start with the reality of the life of the people wherever you happen to be. On the south coast of Guatemala with the sugarcane, cotton, and coffee plantations, it would be one thing. In the mountains which the Indians call home, where there is more community and awareness of their cultural heritage, it would be something else. In the city where you have the problems of city life, it would be something else again.
The last nine years I spent in the rural area. It was there, working with the Indians, that I had the most positive experience I have ever had. I saw communities of people grow, learning to assume responsibility and analyze reality in the light of the faith and then take action to creatively deal with their lives rather than being passive and submissive, as had been expected of Indians for centuries by the Ladinos, or Spanish-speaking people, who were the controlling group.
Within these communities there was a tremendous upgrading of the people’s educational level. They developed their own schools with their own volunteer teachers. They had their own economic development programs, with agricultural development, land purchase programs, financing for their crops, improvement of agricultural techniques, and cooperative organization for marketing.