"The Way of Courage: Rigoberta Menchu" Sermon from Sunday, October 18, 2020
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Message: "The Way of Courage: Rigoberta Menchu”
Scripture: 2 Timothy 1:3-14
The second or third week of October is traditionally the time that the Nobel Peace Prize is announced. The winner for 2020, in a time of global need of peace and inspiration, is the World Food Programme “for its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.” May this award inspire us and remind us of the words of Jesus who said, when responding to the question who is my neighbor, “I was hungry and you gave me food…whenever you do this to the least of these, you do it unto me.”
The announcing of the Nobel Peace Prize always takes me back to 1992 to my first year in seminary. I met my wife Elizabeth then, and one of the first things I learned about her was that she had done a first master’s degree in political science, focused on women in the church in Guatemala before coming to seminary. Her heart was with the people of Guatemala, especially the indigenous women. I hoped that at least a piece of her heart would be with me, too.
I remember how elated she was the day the prize was announced in 1992, and an indigenous woman from Guatemala, Rigobertha Menchú Tum, had won in recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples. Elizabeth told me that at a conference the year before where Menchú was speaking, she had had the honor and joy of dancing with Menchú at one of the receptions.
The story of indigenous persons in Guatemala is a proud yet painful one. Their land taken and their religion subverted when colonized by Spain in the 1500s, they were pushed to the lowest rung of society. The Spanish brought with them a racial-ethnic hierarchy that positioned whiteness and European background at the top and darkness and indigenous background at the bottom. The colorism and bias fueled by greed that was instilled in the Guatemalan population created huge wealth disparities in the country. Indigenous persons were pushed off the best and most useful land, their land, and into the remote highlands where they faced significant poverty.
In 1944, a coalition of students, labor unions and activists across the country ousted the dictator ruling Guatemala and for ten years, Guatemala enjoyed a new democracy and the beginning of reforms which gave particular attention to returning land to indigenous persons. This Guatemalan spring, as it was known, ended in 1954 with a coup orchestrated by the United States. Following the coup, hundreds of indigenous leaders were killed and indigenous communities terrorized. The resulting armed resistance led to war in Guatemala.
It was into this context that Rigobertha Menchú of Quiche Mayan descent was born in 1959. In 1982, she told her story to a Venezuelan anthropologist, who published the widely read book, Me Llamo Rigobertha Menchú, y asi me nacio la conciencia, or I, Rigoberta Menchú as it is known in English. In it, Menchú tells of her early years of advocating for the rights of indigenous farmers with her father and mother, who were in the resistance. Her father was a catechist for the Catholic church, which in United Methodist terms is kind of like a lay preacher. All of this was happening simultaneously with the hugely significant event of Vatican II. Among many reforms, Vatican II allowed the bible to be read in the local language and encouraged discussion of the bible.
After the coup, local priests responded both to the oppression they were witnessing, and to the new openness to bible study. But each village or rural grouping of persons did not have a priest. This is where the catechist came in, to guide the spiritual life. Following in her father’s footsteps, Rigobertha became a catechist.
She said, “[Studying the bible] also helped to change the image we had, as Catholics and Christians: that God is up there and that God has a great kingdom for we the poor, yet never thinking of our own reality as reality that we were actually living…we began looking for texts which represented each one of us. We tried to relate them to our Indian culture…This gave us a vision, a stronger idea of how we Christians must defend ourselves… We began studying more deeply and well, we came to a conclusion. That being a Christian means thinking of our [siblings] around us, and that every one of our Indian race has the right to eat. This reflects what God himself said, that on the earth we have a right to what we need. The Bible was our principal text for study as Christians and it showed us what the role of a Christian is. We said enough to so much suffering and pain. We organized small cooperatives and Christian communities.”
In the book of her testimony, Menchú tells that when she had just turned 20, her mother and brother were kidnapped by the army, tortured and killed. Her father was a part of a group of guerillas who occupied the Spanish embassy, dying when the embassy was set on fire by government forces. Her powerful call for the rights and dignity of indigenous persons, and her courage in telling the truth about the atrocities that had happened to her and others paved the way for attention to indigenous rights globally and ultimately for a verdict that genocide against the Mayan people had indeed occurred. In the course of Guatemala’s dirty war, hundreds of thousands were disappeared, an estimated 200,000 Mayan Indigenous persons were killed, including half of Menchú’s family.
And then, six years after publication of the book, a US anthropologist challenged the factual nature of Menchú’s testimony, saying that it was her older brother not her younger brother who had died, that the land dispute of her family was with their in-laws and not the Ladino elites. Menchú responded that her testimony was not just her testimony but also the testimony of the Guatemalan people.
In Latin America, the tradition of testimonio, which blends autobiographical testimony with the testimony of a community, is well established. It is counter-cultural to US expectations based on an idea of testimony as verifiable fact and record, such as the testimony now being given by Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. Testimonio follows the same tradition that lesbian African American poet and writer Audre Lorde offered to us in her seminal book about her life, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, which she called a “biomythography.” Lorde’s telling of her own story combines the details of her biography, the movements in history, placed in the currents of the communities of Afro-Carribean and lesbian women to which she belonged.
Indeed at the beginning of the book she says, “My name is Rigoberta Menchú. I am twenty three years old. This is my testimony. I didn't learn it from a book and I didn't learn it alone. I'd like to stress that it's not only my life, it's also the testimony of my people.... The important thing is that what has happened to me has happened to many other people too: My story is the story of all poor Guatemalans. My personal experience is the reality of a whole people.”
To tell one’s story and connect it to the movements of history takes courage. For women, the poor, those who are marginalized, there is much pressure not to tell one’s story. Accounts of pain and suffering as a result of poverty and unequal power challenges the wealthy and elites. But to tell one’s story in the context of a community, as a part of a community, is to place one’s self as a subject with agency. To claim presence in history in this way is the most courageous act of all. To say, this is not just my single story, but my story is a thread in the fabric of life, and my existence has meaning, is to honor God’s vision for each of us.
Our scripture for today comes from second Timothy in which Paul is writing to the younger Timothy, urging him to claim his God-given agency, his part in the story of history. Hear these words again, “For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.”
Interestingly, Paul prefaces his words to Timothy by reminding him of his grandmother Lois, and his mother Eunice. It’s as if Paul is saying, your grandmother and mother were women, with much less status than you, a man, and in a movement much newer and less established than the movement you now move in. If they can do speak and act with courage, so can you!
Like Mary McLeod Bethune who we talked about last week, Rigobertha Menchú has not been canonized. She is a not officially a saint. Some might say that due to the controversy surrounding the testimony of her life she does not deserve to be revered. But what is the purpose of a saint? To revere a person or to show us that ordinary humans, though not perfect, can do extraordinary things? The truth is of course, that no one is perfect. But does the fact that no one is perfect mean that we should not have saints or heroes?
In the base Christian communities in Guatemala as the people experienced the gospel for the first time in their own language, they understood that God is a God of history. From the time of the flood that Noah and his family endured to the exodus from Egypt to the birth of a baby in a manger, God is working God’s purpose out in history, calling all persons to walk in God’s way. Does this mean that it is part of God’s purpose for these kinds of atrocities and sufferings to happen? Of course it does not. It means that God intervenes in history, influencing us toward wholeness and justice and the peace of heaven on earth. Indeed, this is the meaning of the incarnation.
It is in the flow of history that each person, in our uniqueness, finds the blessing of our giftedness that God needs to work out God’s purpose. For Menchú it was the way of courage. May we, too, imperfect as we are, have the courage to give testimony that we are part of the story of liberation and transformation of the God of history. And may that story inspire others as the saints inspire us. Amen.
I, Rigobertha Menchú, 131-132
Order of Worship - Sunday, October 18, 2020
The Community Gathers Prelude - Rev. Jerry Asheim Welcome & Announcements - Rev. Kristin Stoneking Opening Hymn: “God of Great and God of Small” W&S 3033 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Jonah Arreola-Burl Invocation - Orion Lacey
To Hear the Word Scripture Reading: 2 Timothy 1:3-14 - Sophia Downs Children’s Time - Susan Jardin Anthem: “Love throws a Line” Erin Adachi-Kriege & Judy Kriege Message: The Way of Courage: Rigoberta Menchu” - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
To Respond and Renew Commitment Hymn of Response: “Cuando El Pobre” UMH 434 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Annette Cayot Prayers of the People - Orion Lacey Special Video: “Black Lives Matter” by Bebe Winans The Prayer Jesus Taught (The Lord's Prayer) - Laureen Lynch-Ryan, the Coordinator of Deaf Ministries for the Archdiocese of Washington, Loyola Press Offering Our Tithes and Gifts - Michael Martin Stewardship Message - Todd Schafer Offertory Music: “We Walk His Way” W&S 3073 - Jonah & Michele Arreola-Burl
To Disperse in Love and Compassion Prayer of Dedication - Michael Martin Closing Hymn: “Camina, Pueblo de Dios” UMH 305 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Annette Cayot Benediction - Rev. Kristin Stoneking Postlude - Rev. Jerry Asheim
Special thanks to:
Preacher: Kristin Stoneking Contributors: Rev. Jerry Asheim, Erin Adachi-Kriege, Jonah Arreola-Burl, Michele Arreola-Burl, Annette Cayot, Sophia Downs, Susan Jardin, Judy Kriege, Orion Lacey, Michael Martin, Todd Schafer
Video producer: Tai Jokela Podcast producer: Ethan Lindsey Livestream producer: Merrie Bunt
Special thanks to Bebe Winans and Hidden Beach Recordings for permission to use “Black Lives Matter” as part of our worship.