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Guatemalan Baptists minister in area devastated by mudslidescomment (0)

January 4, 2007

By Grace Thornton

When Guatemalans in the Lake Atitlan area talk about the valley of the shadow of death, it’s personal.

They can point it out to you from the windows of their flimsy one-room shelters or, if you have time, can walk through it with you and point out the places where their mothers, brothers, sons, cousins and neighbors died.

The area, wedged in the middle of several volcanos, is called Panabaj, which means "in between the rocks." Several hundred people died there Oct. 5, 2005, when torrential rains from Hurricane Stan sent a mudslide rocketing down the volcano just behind the village.

It consumed the whole area, turning the rural town into a cemetery. Only about 90 bodies have been found so far, and the livelihood of many who survived is made working to locate the rest.

Take Ana, for instance. Her husband spends his days digging out the corpses of their friends and family members, while she spends hers weaving fabrics to sell at the market. She lives and works in a one-room, 10-foot-by-10-foot shack that sits shoulder to shoulder with about 800 more just like it, a settlement locals call "the shelter."

The shelter, maybe a mile from the mudslide area, was built by the government and various international aid groups to house the approximately 800 families displaced by the mudslide. Plastic bearing the insignia "U.S. AID — A Gift from the American People" flaps against the sides of the plywood shacks as young children play in the dirt alleys between them. Older children sit nearby, working feverishly to weave bead purses and keychains that will be sold to tourists.

It’s a calm day. But, regardless of age, all are afraid.

At night when the rain beats on the shacks’ tin roofs, residents of the shelter wonder if the mud will come roaring down the volcano again and take them next.

After performing a study following the mudslide, the government deemed the nearby valley "high risk" and forbid them to live there again. But the shelter is still too close for comfort. An aid group that had begun building cinder-block houses for the displaced villagers stopped before putting roofs and doors on them when it learned Panabaj was too risky a place to pour funds into. The unfinished houses sit between the shelter and the mudslide area, a haunting reminder of just how volatile the people’s situation is.

"They have no future here," said Diego Tzina Reanda, pastor of Iglesia Evangelica Bautista El Buen Pastor (The Good Shepherd Evangelical Baptist Church) in nearby Santiago Atitlan.

Several of Reanda’s church members live in the shelter — Ana and her family are some of them. When word of the mudslide reached Reanda, he went to Panabaj to the sites where the bodies were being placed and asked the person in charge if any of his church members were there.

He answered Reanda, "We can’t recognize anyone. Can you help us identify some of the people?"

Reanda began to clean mud off of each corpse to see if any were his church members. It was the beginning of a heartbreaking but, he believes, very necessary ministry of his Baptist church to the devastated people of Panabaj.

Though Reanda would love to see the people out of the shelter and living permanently someplace safe, he and other church members have worked since the mudslide to minister to residents where they are. On one occasion, because no aid group provided doors for the shacks, Iglesia Evangelica Bautista El Buen Pastor took up money for doors and purchased them for 80 families.

"Hurricane Katrina hit the United States just before Stan hit Guatemala, and we in the U.S. missed out on this tragedy because we were wrapped up in our own hurricane," said Carlos Lemus, a Hispanic missionary to Autauga and Chilton Baptist associations who is originally from Guatemala.

Now by helping Reanda’s church, Lemus hopes to, in turn, help the people of the shelter.

"Autauga Baptist Association is trying to have a more extended relationship with the church in order to help their ministry. They have great influence in the area," he said.

Reanda, who has served as pastor of the church for 17 years, identifies deeply with the people of Panabaj and has a heart for reaching out to them. On a recent visit to the shelter area, he ran upon Felipe Estrada Letona, a church member who lost seven family members to the mudslide.

Letona and his two sons return every day to use sand and rocks from the mudslide to make gravel to sell in order to live. He walked across the desolate area with Reanda and several others, pointing out the places where families were buried by the mud. He noted one spot where 39 people were lost.

"It could happen again at any time," Reanda said. "There is no hope for them here, so we are trying to help."


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