NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) — When Sophie Miller took a gap year between her sophomore and junior year in college to embark on a study-service term in Guatemala, she received food for mind and heart.
As a result of the many "nutrients" she absorbed, the 21-year-old Miller says she grew in her global perspective and understanding of what it means to follow Jesus far beyond what she had first envisioned when she left Goshen, Indiana, last September.
After graduating from Hesston (Kansas) College in spring 2019, and before entering Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia, this fall, she embarked on a Mennonite Mission Network-sponsored study and service term at CASAS. It is the Central American Study and Service program at SEMILLA, the Anabaptist seminary in Guatemala City.
The first three months of classroom Spanish and urban cultural education sparked intellectual stimulation, Miller said in a recent telephone interview. During the last four months, she transitioned from textbooks and head-learning to hearts and relationship-building. That's when she lived with an indigenous host family [Maria Cristal, and her daughter, Amelia Ramírez] and related to their community that had been affected by oppression, she said. She lived with this Tzu'tujil family in Santiago Atitlan/Panabaj. This family belongs to one of the country's 23 groups of Mayan descent.
"One of the most joyful aspects of my time was interacting with my host family," Miller said. "We had meaningful conversations over dinner about culture and politics, and I heard a lot of their family stories. It amazed me how much they welcomed me into their hearts and their home."
Her exposure to oppressed people catapulted Miller into understanding how her White, middle-class, Mennonite upbringing in Goshen, Indiana, gave her privileges not shared by others.
"I learned how much the indigenous people in Guatemala have been mistreated and how much justice is still needed," Miller said. "I am now looking more critically at similar issues in the United States."
Through her host family's stories, she learned about how Guatemala's civil war waged genocide on indigenous people. For example, in Santiago Atitlán in 1990, the Guatemalan Army opened fire on an unarmed crowd between 2,000 and 4,000 Tzu'tujil Mayas, killing 14 and wounding many others. Throughout the violence spanning the 1960s-1990s, indigenous lands were confiscated and desecrated.
"I learned that the indigenous groups view land as a gift rather than a profit-maker," Miller said. "I see this in the United States with companies building on Native lands without consideration for Native Americans. … Traditionally, Native people have been more connected to the earth and value its resources. Indigenous people and their ideologies can guide us as we seek to create a more environmentally sustainable future."
Her CASAS immersion reminded her that a North American-based outlook needs to be broadened by other perspectives, Miller said. CASAS offers Spanish classes on campus and online and makes connections to host families and internships around Guatemala. Money made through the CASAS program and the Casa Emaús campus guesthouse help pay low-income students' seminary tuition.
At the guesthouse, Miller engaged with Loren and Rachel Johns, serving there with Mission Network for a year.
Transforming oppression into empowerment
While living with the host family, she also bonded with other indigenous people during one of her internship placements at the Utz'K'aslimaal collective. At the turn of the 20th century, a coffee baron stole the piece of land on which the collective sits. The land was sold to wealthy people who privatized the land and turned it into an exclusive country club for the oligarchy.
Today, the collective members are reversing this pattern by encouraging indigenous farmers to run small farming operations, such as growing coffee. These new alliances and collaborations are promoting healing for indigenous people and their land. Miller joined that collaboration by working on the ecological campus. It's where adobe cabins and a meeting house are being developed. A nonprofit tree nursery is also working toward community development and reforestation.
Miller's desire upon returning home is to be a part of God's healing and hope, she said. Because of COVID-19, she returned home in mid-March, three months earlier than planned. This fall, she will continue biology studies at EMU, which Miller plans to use in a public health career. She is also adding studies in sociology, influenced by her experiences in Guatemala.
"I learned how far of a reach God has, and how God has created so many different and beautiful people," she said. "The stories I heard in Guatemala will always stay with me and will inform the choices I make, ranging from small purchases, like the coffee I buy, to larger decisions."
Before CASAS, Miller said she was turned off by stories of top-down, colonial ways of doing missions. Her experience with Mission Network, which seeks to partner with local people rather than dominate, gives her hope that some mission agencies are employing a more respectful approach.
"Mission Network taught me that doing missions is about a lot more than bringing people to Jesus and the Bible. It is about being the hands and feet of Jesus while walking alongside people tossed aside by society. I want to follow Jesus like that going forward into my life back home."