On Tuesday, August 7, 2012 our delegation drove from Guatemala City to the town of Chimaltenango, where we met with Tabita Levantate, translated as Arise, Tabitha, a project of the Kaqchikel Presbyterian Church. Kaqchikel refers to an indigenous Mayan ethnic group, many of whom live in Chimaltenango. Our delegation first met with a man named Saul, who works at the Presbyterian Kaqchickel Church. Saul explained the mission of the Presbyterian Kaqchikel Church in a gentle and friendly manner. The Church was formed by widows and displaced orphans with an initial focus on “saving souls.” However, over time the church evolved into a forum for peace and reconciliation that “gathers spiritualities into events of life.”
Saul described the church’s work as “parallel to the Maya cosmo-vision” in its approach to promoting a political and economic structure based on justice for communities. His explanation reminded me of Lorena Cabnal’s theories, especially when he added that, “war and social injustices have torn apart the social fabric of the communities.” The church aims to repair this fabric by building a common space of moral and spiritual support for communities of different spiritualities. The church focuses on “dignifying each person” and has established 16 local therapeutic faith communities made up of people from Evangelical, Catholic, and Mayan faiths. The church also dignifies women by using women’s rights as basis for community and volunteer work.
Saul’s description of the Presbyterian Kaqchikel Church’s intent to dignify women was a fitting segue into our meeting with Tabita Lavantate. Our delegation traveled just a few houses down the street to the colorful building where Tabita Lavantate was located. As we sat in a circle amid the walls brightened with blue butterflies and the Biblical verse that tells the story of Tabita, the directors Carolina and Esmerelda explained how their own personal histories entwined with the organization’s mission.
Carolina explained that Tabita Lavantate began as her daughter’s idea. At age five, Carolina’s daughter expressed that she wanted her mother to help Chimaltenango’s sex workers and women struggling with substance abuse. Carolina and her daughter launched Tabita Levantate as part of the Presbyterian church, and presently 90% of the people Tabita Levantate serves are Kaqchikel. For the first two years, Carolina and one co-worker managed the organization. When Carolina’s daughter died in a sudden accident, Carolina was inspired to persist with Tabita Levantate in her memory. In the years since her daughter’s death, Tabita Levantate has expanded to its own office, where classes for sex workers as well as legal, medical, and psycho-social support services are held. Carolina has also expanded the demographic served to include children and adolescents and has reached out to other municipalities.
Next, Esmerelda shared her story. She began her career as a journalist, but while receiving treatment for cancer, she volunteered at the National Hospital’s Anti-Violence Network’s Youth Program, which sparked her passion for working with women and children suffering from abuse. Soon thereafter, Esmerelda met Carolina, and began working at Tabita Levantate. Currently, Esmerelda is studying theology and conducts individual, group, and couples therapy in a room within Tabita Levantate. After our meeting, Esmeralda showed us the therapy room, which was decorated with a cheerful tree mural.
Tabita Levantate’s services are open to people who identify as gay, lesbian, and/or transgendered. Esmerelda and Carolina introduced our delegation to a young El Salvadoran man, who is receiving services at Tabita Levantate. He had recently come out as homosexual and moved to Guatemala. I was moved by Esmerelda and Carolina’s compassion for this young man’s suffering and support for his recovery and by observing him connect with my fellow delegate, who is from El Salvador.
Carolina stated that Tabita Levantate’s overarching goal is to “serve the community with compassion.” Relating to this mission, is careful outreach to sex workers, most of whom are indigenous women from the south cost of Guatemala, as well as neighboring countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Tabita Levantate has focused on outreach to women sex workers, because male sex workers–boys and men–tend to be hidden. Carolina illuminated the dynamics informing sex work–in Guatemala, sex workers set their schedule in the bars they work, but often the bar owners try to control them through drugs and alcohol. Carolina emphasized the need for caution and strategy in reaching out to sex workers, who are “often bitter, resentful, and suffering” about their situation. Carolina described how she begins outreach through friendly conversation, and then connects sex workers to the health clinic at the Presbyterian Kaqchikel Church and to psycho-social services. Esmerelda also leads workshops that help sex workers learn skills that will enable them to “reintegrate into society with dignity.”
Tabita Levantate also aims to create change on an individual level by addressing the family nucleus. Examples are found in programs that teach fathers childcare and how to talk about sex openly; a weekly women’s group that addresses women’s sexual reproductive rights; and a workshop that teaches responsible parenting to mothers and children. Esmerelda stated the “best statistic of success is seeing participants smile and observing their sense of empowerment.”
Tabita Levantate is also very responsive to the needs of the communities with whom they work. Esmerelda and Carolina have begun teaching adult literacy classes when they discovered many participants in their cooking class were illiterate. They are also contemplating offering childcare services to the children of sex workers. In addition to responding to the communities through programming, Esmerelda and Carolina give handmade cards to recipients of their services that express a variety of well wishes ranging from sympathy for loss to encouragement to persist with therapy. Although the two women downplayed their handmade cards as tokens that “might not look like much,” the messages spoke out with such sweet sincerity meaningful to the giver and receiver alike.
Esmerelda summed up her our meeting with an explanation of how she reacts when others question why she, a women of faith, helps populations whom many look down upon. “God said my role is to help others, and there is a need for light in the darkest places. The women who come here, come in a state of depression and suffering due to trauma, and through our healing work, they can can fly and be free just like the butterflies on our walls.”
Learn more about the Presbyterian Kaqchikel Church and Tabita Levantate
1. “Tabita Levantate.” PRESBITERIO KAQCHIKEL: Iglesia Presbiteriana Nacional de Guatemala. October 7, 2912. http://presbiteriokaqchikel.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=32&Itemid=29 This link to the Presbyterian Kaqchikel Church explains the Biblical story of Tabitha, from which Tabita Levantate takes its name as well the organization’s mission and scope of work.
2. “Tabita Levantate.” Facebook Pages. October 7, 2012 https://www.facebook.com/TabitaLevantate?ref=ts&fref=ts This link is to the Facebook Page for Tabita Levantate.