Chiapas, Mexico, 2001
The Virgin crested the hill, and a man emerged from his doorway and gave a shout. Others rushed from their huts. Perched on a dais borne on the shoulders of four men dressed in leather sandals and white tunics, she descended the narrow dirt trail toward the Mexican village. Behind her a long procession unfurled over and down the hill. Musicians marched in front, playing wooden harps and guitars and child-sized violins that looked like they had been carved with a hatchet, which they had. A lone trumpeter announced the Virgin’s arrival, his notes bearing no particular relation to the melody.
The village of Nuevo Yibeljoj (Yee-bell-ho) was a half-hour’s walk from the nearest highway, perched on the side of a steep ravine in an airy, rugged land of mountain mists and waterfalls. The villagers were all members of Las Abejas, a nonviolent Christian society of Maya that had become targets of government persecution. Almost all of them had been displaced from their homes three years earlier by paramilitary forces sponsored by the Mexican government. The Abejas had shouldered the few belongings they could carry and walked several hours to the village of X’oyep (Sho-yep), where nearly a thousand of them had built shanties, exiles in their own homeland. Then, just a few months before I’d arrived in Chiapas, they had decided it was time to return. Despite the continuing paramilitary threats, the residents of Yibeljoj had come back to their village and found their houses destroyed, their land taken by others. So they’d built a new village down the hill in a ravine, a “new” Yibeljoj. The Virgin was being carried toward the little wooden chapel constructed since their return. Her arrival signaled the start of Holy Week, commemorating the events leading up to Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection.
Seeing my villager friend José sitting on a hillside above the chapel, I hiked up to join him, and we watched the slow procession in silence. I was nearing the end of my tour in Chiapas as a reservist in the Christian Alliance for Nonviolence (CAN), and I had no idea what I would do next: Continue my career as an international peace activist? Return to the States and apply for a PhD in theology? Lately I’d been dreaming of starting a fair-trade coffee business. The idea had come to me after I’d heard José describe the difficulty the Abejas had in getting a fair price for their main cash crop. In recent years the market price of coffee had fallen below the cost of production, making their crop worthless. But what if someone bought their beans for a fair price, I thought, regardless of what the market paid? And what if that someone was me?
The Virgin drew near. A hush descended, and the villagers parted to let her pass through. Her graven face appeared long and dolorous: the gaze of one who has seen much suffering.
They said the statue of Mary had taken a bullet at Acteal. “La Virgen de la Masacre,” they called her: On December 22, 1997, more than a hundred paramilitaries descended upon the Abejas village of Acteal. Fearing such an attack, the villagers had been praying for peace for three days. The chapel where they were huddled was the first building fired on by the paramilitaries. Unarmed and nonviolent, the Abejas fled into the surrounding woods. For the next six hours the killers hunted them down: men, women, children. The Virgin Mary had watched her own son be put to death. That day in Acteal forty-five more of her children were slaughtered.
As a Protestant, I had always wondered why Catholics venerated Mary — adoring her, lighting candles to her, even praying to her, which seemed borderline idolatrous. In the Evangelical Free Church of my youth we hadn’t even had Holy Week: why dwell on the cross when Christ had already risen? But I was learning in Chiapas how Holy Week acknowledges that suffering and humiliation can’t be bypassed on the road to glory. Pain must be confronted and endured. And Mary, too, embodies that story. She bore a child destined for calamity, as had many of the Abejas. She was human, like them, but had the most intimate contact with God, having carried his son in her body. Of course they would adore her. The Virgin’s sad, maternal gaze as she rode by seemed an assurance that God doesn’t abandon his people; he suffers with them. The Mother of God was among us, and Holy Week had begun.
José told me of his plans to work in his field of cafetales — coffee trees — later that week. The field was near the homes of several known paramilitaries. Would I accompany him? We decided to go in three days, on Maundy Thursday, the day of Jesus’s Last Supper with his disciples. José would come to collect me at 6 AM.
“Hora de Fox?” I asked. I knew the answer, but I still liked to hear his reply.
José smiled. “No. Hora de Dios.”
The Abejas had named daylight saving time after Mexico’s president, Vicente Fox. Hora de Fox was a human invention that changed according to the whims of a capitalist economy, but the villagers operated on God’s time: a small act of resistance.
The CAN members weren’t the only activists in the village. There were also the “campamentistas” — “those who camp or visit.” They’d come to act as human shields: Soon after the left-wing Zapatista rebels had declared war on the Mexican government in 1994, the government had responded by training paramilitary groups to attack Mayan villages. The campamentistas’ strategy was that, although paramilitaries might slaughter Mayan farmers by the dozens, they would be unlikely to kill a ruddy-cheeked gringo from Minnesota or Manhattan for fear of an international outcry. And it worked. The attacks grew sparse. But as the violence decreased, the number of Western activists grew. Tourist guidebooks even recommended that travelers spend a week as “human-rights observers” in a rural village during their trip through Mayan country.
Of course, we CAN reservists felt morally superior to the campamentistas — disaster tourists who came to gawk at others’ suffering between stops at ruins and souvenir shops. For starters, we stayed for three months instead of one week. After a while, however, I had begun to wonder just how different we were. What, besides my little red cap with a CAN logo, distinguished me from the other gringos and Euros having activist adventures? Sure, I’d visited several Abejas villages and played basketball with the teens on the dirt court near the chapel. And I was learning Tzotzil, the local Mayan tongue. But mostly I just sat around and tried to look vigilant. The inescapable truth came hard: I was of little use to the Abejas.
Which is why I’d been thinking more and more about my fair-trade coffee scheme. I met with Pablo, the president of the Abejas coffee collective. When in town, I spent time at the Jesuit compound, talking with Arturo, an oblate who knew a lot about the coffee business. He helped me formulate a plan to launch a fair-trade Abejas coffee store back home. I didn’t know where I would get the money, and I didn’t know how to roast coffee, much less market it. But those were minor obstacles that could be dealt with later. The important thing was to learn as much as I could about coffee while I was here.
So when José asked me to help him in his field, I thought of it as research. Plus, I would be useful to him, offering not only my white skin as protection from paramilitaries, but the work of my hands.
When I wasn’t visiting the village, I stayed in the nearby city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, and each morning I would rise at six and climb to the rooftop of our office to pray. There was a water tank, a basin where we washed our clothes, a small writing desk that I had carried up the stairs, and not much else. I could hear the city below but couldn’t see it over the waist-high walls. Above were cloudless skies and the thin blue light of dawn. It was just a rooftop, but to me it was a cathedral in the sky, and, like any well-built cathedral, it directed my thoughts heavenward.
When my mind wandered from my prayers, I would pick up the Bible or one of a small selection of other books I’d brought: the collected poems and essays of Wendell Berry; Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is within You; and two books of Christian philosophy by Søren Kierkegaard. Maybe it was my Danish ancestry, but no one articulated my distrust of establishment Christianity better than this gloomy Dane. This passage had particular resonance:
True individuality is measured by this: how long or how far one can endure being alone without the understanding of others. The person who can endure being alone is poles apart from the social mixer. He is miles apart from the man-pleaser, the one who manages successfully with everyone — he who possesses no sharp edges. God never uses such people. The true individual, anyone who is going to be directly involved with God, will not and cannot avoid the human bite. He will be thoroughly misunderstood. God is no friend of cozy human gathering.
The last three sentences were underlined. I had felt the “human bite.” My fellow CAN reservists wanted me to be more involved in planning protests, to spend more time with visiting delegations, to take a more active role in their “cozy human gatherings.” All I wanted was to be with my Mayan friends, who were teaching me so much. I made up reasons why I needed to spend time in the villages, and why I needed to be there without my colleagues. It’s not that they were bad people. In fact, they were just like me: twenty-something, middle-class, Christian kids who rebelled against anything that might repress their freedom. But I couldn’t see this then.
Kierkegaard also warns of the dangers of academia, which I was still considering as a possible vocation. “What is needed is not professors but witnesses,” he writes. “No, if Christ did not need scholars but was satisfied with fishermen, what is needed now is more fishermen. . . . To become a full professor [of theology] is to make a living off the fact that Christ was crucified.”
I didn’t want to profit from Christ’s death. I also worried I would be too confined in the academy. I yearned to do my theologizing out in the world, on a mountain hillside or a rooftop.
Kierkegaard’s polemical barbs showed me what I should be against, but they didn’t articulate what I should be for, which is why increasingly I found myself reading Isaiah, particularly the poetry. I savored the lyrical language, the ripe images of agrarian life. Sitting on a hill above Nuevo Yibeljoj at dawn, I would watch the villagers arise with the birds and read: “Ah, land of whirring wings / beyond the rivers of Ethiopia.” Or during Mass at Acteal, I would remember Isaiah’s haunting, exuberant image of resurrection:
Oh dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a radiant dew, and the earth will give birth to those long dead.
Isaiah is a beautiful book. Even now I love to read it in the early morning while I’m still waking up. It was an important book for the Abejas, too, and they read it often during their gatherings, where I came to see their lives as somehow part of Isaiah’s story. In the displacement camp at X’oyep, I’d attended a service where the priest had read the second half of Isaiah 65. It took me a moment to realize that he had substituted “X’oyep” for “Jerusalem”:
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth. . . . for I am about to create X’oyep as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in X’oyep and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.
Another time I heard a reading from Isaiah was when the Abejas burned their coffee crop. One day in late March they held a prayer service in Acteal, where they would protest the market forces that had made their coffee worthless. A swarm of local media came. As the cameras rolled, a man wearing tattered pants and a shirt with no buttons read Isaiah 58 in Tzotzil. I understood only a few words — such as Cajual, “God” — but I knew the passage well, and I felt the speaker’s emotion. For him this was no publicity stunt. He called on Cajual to “loose the bonds of injustice” that the international coffee market had placed on his people: to “undo the thongs of the yoke, and let the oppressed go free.” I realized, as he read, that I had been raised to read the Bible for its “spiritual” message, for how it spoke to my heart. But here Isaiah, speaking through this man, was addressing an entire people: the people of Israel and the people called “Las Abejas.” Fifty coffee farmers hadn’t come down that day to invite Jesus into their hearts or to inject a little spirituality into their lives; their Cajual was a God who moved not only in their souls but in the tangible world of unjust global markets, of daily poverty, of massacres.
After the reading was over, José lit a match. The coffee was slow to ignite, but soon a wonderful aroma filled the entire village. We stood and watched as a portion of the year’s work burned.
By now my coffee obsession had reached a fever pitch. Not only was I going into the fair-trade coffee business, I had decided; I was going to save the Abejas from penury.
I’d told none of my fellow reservists of my plan, because I feared they would want to help me, and why should I share the glory of saving five thousand people from abject poverty? No, the act of salvation would be mine alone. I imagined returning to Nuevo Yibeljoj two years hence, after several seasons’ worth of pesos had filled the Abejas’ pockets. With their newfound wealth my friends would have built houses to replace the tin-and-plastic shanties; there would be a new school, perhaps with my name over the door. I would enter the village unannounced, to avoid seeming like a Big Man who needed a royal welcome, but I would be recognized anyway, and shouts would go up. There would be a spontaneous celebration that night, and José would give a speech. I would try to stop them from making such a fuss, to explain that it was not my work that had accomplished all this, but they would refuse to hear it. Someone would hold out a newborn child. We named him Freddy, after you, they would say. Please, we want you to be the godfather. And how could I refuse?
I’d come to Chiapas to protect the Abejas from paramilitaries; I would become, I thought, with the utter clarity of the self-deluded, their financial savior instead.
Maundy Thursday arrived, and at 6 AM José knocked twice on the door of the campamentistas’ hut, where I was staying. I left behind my warm sleeping bag and followed José into the brisk dawn air.
Nuevo Yibeljoj was just waking up. Two sleepy-eyed twin boys sat in a dirt doorway, waiting for their breakfast. Away from the other Westerners, I imagined myself as the first white visitor to this remote place. The smoke of a hundred cook fires rose above the ravine to mingle with low-hanging clouds. On the way to José’s hut we walked past dozens of thrown-together shacks, all clinging tenaciously to the mountainside like baby spiders gripping their mother’s back.
By the time we arrived at José’s home, the morning fog had started to lift, and his wife, Angelina, had breakfast waiting. Her kitchen, built next to the house, was the size of my closet back home. The house itself was little more than a scrap-metal roof supported by four spindly corner posts with plastic sheeting to approximate walls. Despite its ramshackle construction it was full of familial cheer.
Breakfast that morning was delicious. We spoke little and ate with our hands. I folded the waj — the tortilla — and used it to scoop up the chenek, the slow-cooked black beans that, along with waj, were present at every meal.
“Jaj canto jutuk kokosh?” I asked in Tzotzil: Could I have a little more kokosh? It was my new favorite food: waj that had been thrown directly onto the coals, where it turned smoky and brittle. Angelina reached toward the fire, squinting against the smoke, and placed two kokosh on my plate. They were the size of dinner plates, dark brown with bits of ash still clinging to them. I broke off a piece, blew on it, then sprinkled on salt and a few pieces of diced jalapeño. It was smoky and warm and tasted like sun and soil and rain and the campfires of my boyhood.
While I munched happily on the kokosh, José decided it was time for a Tzotzil lesson. He pointed to his tortilla. “Waj,” he said. I nodded. Then he pointed to me. “Kaxlan.” White man. He picked up a piece of store-bought white bread. “Kaxlan waj.” White man’s tortilla. We laughed and washed down our meal with a last cup of sweet, weak coffee, grown in the very coffee field we were now going to weed.
After breakfast we said goodbye to Angelina and José’s three daughters, and we walked a mile or so, passing through the old hamlet of Yibeljoj, which José and his neighbors had abandoned three years prior to escape the paramilitaries. Several men came to their doors and watched us pass. José nodded to them and said, “Melioyot,” but they only stared in reply.
In Chiapas, when you greet someone, you say, “Melioyot.” (“Here you are.”) And they respond, “Le oyune” (“Here I am”), and ask, “Cu’xelan a vonton?” (“How is it with your heart?”) And you reply, “Lek oy — vo te?” (“It is good — and yours?”) These singsong refrains are expected each time you encounter someone, like shaking hands.
I asked José why the men had not replied to his greeting. “Paramilitaries,” he said. Only a ten-minute walk from his house. I knew now why he’d wanted me to accompany him.
We continued up a series of ridges that rose up Mount Yibeljoj’s flanks, and in twenty minutes we had arrived at José’s coffee field. Our task was to weed the acre or so of coffee trees using machetes. We laid the large, woody weeds against the slope, where their decomposing bodies would prevent erosion and also nurse the hungry trees. José and I worked together, moving slowly, keeping our own thoughts. Hours passed. The slope was steep, and the day was hot, but I found myself thoroughly engrossed in the rhythm of the demanding work.
I began to ask myself my now-perennial question: What am I doing in Chiapas? Up here among José’s cafetales my job was straightforward: scrape, pull, chop, sweep, gather, spread. These were concrete actions, not abstract concepts like “resistance” or “protest” or “witness” or even “peace.” I wondered if peace was less about a grand act of protesting injustice and more about performing the hundreds of routine, daily acts that added up to something bigger — like chopping weeds around your coffee trees. The Abejas loved God, and they also loved the land. Making peace through harmony with the land sounded vaguely utopian and Pollyannaish, but the Abejas were neither. They had a relationship to the land that was palpable and intimate and went far beyond a sentimental love of nature. José cared for his plot in a way that could come only from long tenure in a place, and from his knowledge that his children and their children and their children’s children would need to live there. The Abejas embodied the Hebrew understanding of peace as shalom, a right relation not only with God and people but with the adamah, the fertile soil that Genesis tells us is worthy of our care. Perhaps I could understand peace only if the fields in which I toiled were not metaphorical but as real as José’s.
We worked most of the day. When we returned to the village late in the afternoon, I was utterly spent. Before the Last Supper celebration dinner, I lay on my bunk and copied into my journal a passage from a book of essays by Wallace Stegner: “American individualism, much celebrated and cherished, has developed without its essential corrective, which is belonging.”
Belonging to a place. It sounded wonderful. Early in my Chiapas tour our team had hosted a family of Canadian farmers. This couple and their four children were driving around the Americas in an old pickup with a camper strapped on top, and they spent a week tramping around Abejas villages with us. The man was particularly interested in how the Mayan farmers made compost. When I told him I came from North Carolina, he encouraged me to visit a small permaculture farm called “Sustenance Farm.” As I listened to him describe their life in Canada — long summers spent working the fields, long winters spent reading beside the wood stove — I began to yearn for something similar. For the past decade I hadn’t lived in the same place for longer than a year. To continue with CAN would mean a life of peripatetic peace tours, bouncing from Colombia, to Chiapas, to Hebron. I wanted to settle in a place, to have a wife and children, to abandon my aimless wanderings. Where would I plant myself, though, and what would I do?
That evening the Abejas celebrated Jesus’s Last Supper with his disciples. After the foot-washing service, we sat down to a feast. As the priest blessed the food, I thought about how food had been central to Jesus’s ministry. A good bit of the Gospels is about him sitting down to a meal with someone: a tax collector, say, or a group of fishermen. The Church has long proclaimed that the Eucharist is at the heart of the faith. And what about everyday meals — weren’t they each a small eucharist of their own? Waj, chenek. Bread, wine. I felt a sudden priestly urge to lift up the food, the crops, even the soil of that mountainside ravine, and offer them all back to God: This is my body. This is the work of human hands. Corn grown and ground and soaked in lime, baked on an oil-drum lid, broken for you.
On Good Friday José took a few campamentistas and me for a day of carefree hiking and swimming at a nearby waterfall. Back in Nuevo Yibeljoj people were making the Stations of the Cross, and here I was jumping into crystal-clear pools and eating mangoes on a sunny rock. Christ’s agony couldn’t have been further from my mind.
Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday came and went. When Holy Week was over, the other CAN reservists and I returned to San Cristóbal. I would soon begin the next phase of my life. But what would it be?
For months I had prayed and agonized and written long, self-indulgent journal entries imploring God to give me a vocation. I had weighed the options: Professor. Peace activist. Fair-trade coffee dealer. Each day on the rooftop I’d read the Bible, waiting for a word from the Lord, until I’d begun to doubt that such a word would ever come.
On the rooftop one morning I was reading Isaiah 30. The text shifted from poetry to prose, and as I sat up to straighten my bent spine, my back against the wall, I read:
Your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”
This is the way; walk in it. So simple.
Isaiah goes on to describe what the Lord will do for one who walks in “the way”:
He will give rain for the seed with which you sow the ground, and grain, the produce of the ground, which will be rich and plenteous. . . . On every lofty mountain and every high hill there will be brooks running with water.
The way, I suddenly knew, was farming. Growing food. Sharing it with others, as Jesus had done. Here was my vocation, delivered to me in a rooftop cathedral in Chiapas.
The activist life fell away. It had never been a real contender. But what of my divinity-school degree? Wouldn’t I be forsaking my hard-earned education in pursuit of a frivolous dream? No, farming was the way. Even the coffee business no longer appeared to be a grand humanitarian act but revealed itself as a feverish dream of self-glorification. I knew farming wouldn’t pay much. I had no agricultural skills and no idea where to get any, except perhaps that Sustenance Farm the Canadian had recommended. But when my term as a CAN activist ended, I didn’t volunteer for another tour. (I still get their mailings, though. Sometimes I look at the faces in the pictures from Colombia, Iraq, and Afghanistan and find it hard to imagine that one of those faces could have been mine.) I didn’t apply to graduate school, either.
That summer, after leaving Chiapas, I planted my first garden on my parents’ land in Transylvania County, North Carolina, a temperate rain forest with brooks running from every lofty mountaintop.
The next year I would begin an internship at Sustenance Farm. Later I would go on to help start a low-income-community garden, where I would learn the holy work of growing food for others. I would think often during those years of Isaiah’s words, and they would continue to sustain me in my vocation. But for now, in Transylvania County, I was learning to farm simply by doing it. That October, as I harvested the last of the cabbage and winter squash, I stood in my garden and marveled at all the food. The produce of the ground was indeed rich and plenteous.
Several years later I returned to Nuevo Yibeljoj. I brought Elizabeth, my wife of eleven days. I wanted her to meet José and the other Abejas, who had proved to be my spiritual midwives. There was an upbeat feel to the village when I arrived, a sense of expectancy. A new schoolhouse had been built. Gone were the plastic-sided hovels; nearly everyone lived in a modest but comfortable wood-sided house. There had been a few threats but no more paramilitary violence. Life there seemed good.
That afternoon we met Nina, a young Swiss woman who seemed to command constant attention wherever she went in the village. Later Pablo, the coffee-cooperative president, told me her story: The previous year Nina had lived for several weeks as a campamentista in the village, where she’d learned of the coffee farmers’ plight. In common-sensical Swiss fashion Nina had returned to Zurich and promptly lined up fair-trade coffee buyers, who had bought the year’s entire crop, paid the Abejas a premium, and contracted to buy the next year’s entire crop as well. That night the village would hold a celebratory dinner in Nina’s honor. And, Pablo told me with a proud grin, he had named his new daughter Nina. The Swiss woman would be her godmother.
My fantasy had been usurped. My chagrin didn’t last long, though. I soon realized that Nina had not stolen my dream but released me from it, and for the rest of my stay I felt light and free.
The sin of pride is a sin of reaching too high, of trying to stand taller than you are. The word humility derives from humus, the stuff of soil. To be humble is to be grounded, to stay low to the earth, to have your hands in the dirt from which we came and to which we will return. Humus, as every farmer knows, is essential to the fertility of the soil. Humility is essential to the fertility of the soul. It is the virtue of descent. I think of Jesus crouching to the ground, scribbling some words in the dry earth.
We are all dwellers in the dust, awaiting the next breath from the mouth of God.