Monday, December 19, 2016


Korn. As in, the band. You may have heard of them. 

If not, let me tell you how you'd want to dress in order to fit in at one of their concerts: All-black outfit. Spiked metal necklace, arms lined with tattoos. Hair spiked cadaver-stiff into a mohawk, silver nose ring...and an ear of corn in hand.  You might be wondering why such a hard rocking band would name themselves after a vegetable.  Quite frankly, I couldn't tell you why. My friend Mateo wouldn't be able to either. But he's still a big fan. He practices his bass guitar daily hoping one day he'll sound just like them.

Painting with light: Mateo participates in my photography course...and of course brought his bass. 

Unforgettably Unique

You wouldn't guess Mateo loves nu-metal bands by looking at him.  He combs his hair to the side and wears sweaters. Ok, the occasional rock band shirt makes it into the wardrobe too.  When we first met two years ago, I thought him not much different than his peers...until I saw him with his headphones in.  While the rest of his classmates stepped to Latin rhythms, he drummed on the desk/legs/other people while his head banged to the beat.  It wasn't long before I got a front row seat to the Mateo show when when he invited me to see Pink Floyd's movie "The Wall."

I'd never before been more entertained by my neighbor than by the movie. In the quiet theater, he rocker signed and air-guitared to his favorite songs while our fellow patrons stared at him.  As we left, he declared the film the best there ever was, and that the nerdy girl next to us wearing a Pink Floyd shirt was the most beautiful person he'd ever seen.

Wearing his Pink Floyd shirt.  He's also Guatemala's biggest Pink Floyd fan. 

An Open Book

Every Monday, Mateo comes into my office to learn about audio production.  On filming days, he's in charge of the boom microphone and the audio recorder. At lunchtime we talk about music, faith, and life. He's comfortable sharing about his life  with anybody.  On one occasion, I heard him share his story to a group of volunteers:

"Mateo is actually my last name.  When I was born, my mom named me after Potter's House's founder, Edgar Guitz.  Nothing against Edgar, but I like Mateo better as a name. 
My father died an alcoholic when I was young. For most of my life since then, my sponsor has been sort of a father figure for me.  I'll spend time with him and he'll listen to me play the bass and I love it but deep down I wish it could be my father who was there listening.  
My sponsor paid for me to go to a prestigious school in Guatemala. I learned many things there, including that people would expect less of me because I was darker than the other mostly Spanish descent students.  Sometimes they bullied me, so I decided I'd beat them in the classroom.  After school, I'd work on my assignments at Potter's House.  I grew up attending a top notch school and living under a rusted tin roof."
But though Mateo spoke freely about most of the obstacles from his past, his forthrightness could not have prepared me for a particular interaction we had together.

Seeing Star Wars together (twice).  We'll be seeing Rogue One together this week.


Laughter escaped to the hallway outside.  In my office, Mateo and I sat with mouths locked in smile formation. An old hard drive sat on the desk connected to my computer, which beamed to our eyes hours of old footage, including some of Mateo.  We watched a little Mateo fling food and make faces at the camera with his friends.  But on one particular video, Mateo told me to click pause.  Nonchalantly he pointed out three young kids.  

"These three were murdered."  The air left the room.

"Their mother was a drug dealer and one day some Sicarios came to kill her.  Sicarios don't leave witnesses, so they killed her children too and a neighbor who was visiting.  A fourth child survived by hiding in the bathroom."

He hit the play button but quickly paused again to point out another boy.  "That's Yaqui's brother.  He died when a gang mistook him for someone else."  

Play. Pause.  

"That's Pedro's brother.  Also killed by a gang." My heart sank.  Yaqui and Pedro are both students in my photography course.

"Does anything like this happen in the US?" Mateo asked.

"Yes," I said.  "But it's much more pervasive in Guatemala." He nodded, unsurprised.  My mouth hung slightly open for a few anxious seconds before continuing...

"Where I grew up, the most common gun deaths are from suicide."  Mateo's eyes widened with surprise.  He couldn't imagine such a reality, just as I struggled to imagine his.

Young Mateo (the friends he lost are not pictured)

Numb to the Pain

After Mateo left the office, I sat in front of my computer clicking replay on the videos, processing what Mateo had told me about them.  On the screen, one of the now-deceased boys sat next to Mateo, laughing and speaking animatedly with him. They felt safe around each other. They were friends.  And yet, Mateo spoke casually of his fallen classmates.  His tone suggested he'd become used to murder, or at least tried to accustom himself to it.

Still at my computer, I typed in "murder rate worldwide" and clicked on link after link, eyes darting through their contents.

"Guatemala: number 6 worst murder rate"
"Guatemala: number 10 worst murder rate"
"Guatemala: number 2 worst murder rate"

The ranking varied, but I got the idea. In 2014, Guatemala averaged 96 homicides per week. And yet, this information yielded not even a drop of surprise.

I leaned my head against the wall and closed my eyes, reminded that the road to investing in Mateo was winding and complicated.  How could I, raised in opportunity, possibly understand his reality, let alone try to make things better? How could I be of comfort and encouragement when I myself was devastated by what he was saying?

What can I say? What can I do?

That Sunday at church, I sat in a chair placed in the middle of the aisle.  As the sermon ended, I flipped off my camera and the varied voices of the congregants lifted into the final song:

What can I say?

What can I do?

But offer this heart, O God

Completely to You
 I'm not always a fan of the lyrical simplicity of modern worship songs.  But in that moment--eyes closed, hands in pockets--the song made my role in Guatemala clear.  Whether to God or to Mateo, there's nothing I can say or do that will have any eternal value to Mateo if I don't offer myself to God first. So I gave myself up to God, and shortly after, he led me to his word: 

"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God." 
-2 Corinthians 1:4. 
He loves to perform his bass to anyone who will listen. 

The Invite

October came Mateo entered my office looking tired.  "What's with you?" I asked.

"I've been in the sun all day."


"I've been selling whatever I can find so I can buy a Metallica ticket."

Metallica was coming to Guatemala in November, and Mateo wanted needed funds to buy a ticket. There was something in the angst of bands like Pink Floyd, Metallica, and Korn that ignited his passion:

"We don't need no education. We don't need no thought control." -Pink Floyd

"Everybody's an Enemy
telling me lies and it's killing me."

"Mateo...what do you think of the church?" I asked.

"Sometimes I go to my mom's church but it's all old ladies.  And the pastor only wants money.  A lot of the churches here only want money."

"And the government?"

"Corrupt.  Racist."


"I love him."

My head tilted towards the ground and my eyes squinted sheepishly.  I offered myself to God and invited his comfort. 

"You know, you might find my church different. "

No response.

"I don't want to obligate you but...would you be interested in coming with me this Sunday?"

Mateo hesitated.

"I'll buy you lunch afterwards."


Moth with a skull: In his artwork, Mateo enjoys making people think outside their comfort zone. 


Mateo sat quietly next to me in church as I took my usual position in the middle of the aisle filming the sermon.  As the sermon ended, I turned to him.

"What did you think?"

He stood stiff, and his face betrayed no emotion. When Korn isn't on, he's much less expressive.

"Your church actually preaches the Bible. And they go deep."

I nodded, knowingly.  Guatemalan churches are notorious for shallow preaching.

From his mouth emerged a small smile. "I'd really like to come back next week."

And so he has--week after week.

Rage Against the Machine

While doing some googling about Korn, I quickly found out that Korn's guitarist Brian Welch had come to Christ and later on bassist Reginald Arvizu:

“But then one day I finally realized that screaming at God and begging him to take away my pain wasn’t going work. So I completely surrendered myself and stopped fighting him and I asked him what he wanted me to do. He said: Just worship me.  Praise me and worship me through the pain."   
-Brian Welch 

A few weeks later, Mateo came into my office to welcome me back after a trip I'd taken to the US. "That's yours," I said, pointing at a book on my desk.  His eyebrows lifted to the sky and his jaw to the ground. "Are you serious!!" The book--Korn bassist Reginal Arvizu's story about coming to faith--was one he wasn't able to find in Guatemala.  

He insisted on a photo with the book. 

Despite the challenge of the book being in English, Mateo has already finished it.  I knew he would, if only because time has allowed me to see a pattern in his character:

While his peers listen to Latin music, he favors foreign anti-authority rock bands. 
In a country where men are less expected to open up, he's an open book.  
In a country burdened by prosperity gospel, he warmed up to a church that instructs non-members not to give to the offering plate.
Despite not loving the Guatemalan church, he loves Jesus.

In all of his decisions, Mateo is drawn to the countercultural.  He enjoys things that can make other people uncomfortable. So I remind him that Jesus also made people uncomfortable. And though Mateo was drawn to my church because of what he stood against, every Sunday, little by little, he's beginning to form an idea of what he stands for. 


I still can't fully explain why Korn decided to call themselves Korn.  Turns out, neither does the band.  To quote one of the band members, "The music makes the name, because Korn's a dumb name." In the music which made them popular, their search was evident:

"Hold me up into the light
Fix the cracks and fix them right"

Just as Mateo listens to Korn for their music, he came to church for its message. He's got good taste: the gospel makes for one incomparable, loving, comforting, countercultural message. 

Favorite Photos Taken by my Photography Students 2016

Photos are powerful communication tools, written in a language that can be understood anywhere in the world.  The images below are not only my personal favorites from my photography students this year, but are also direct messages from them to you.  Will you see what they have to say?

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Driving Forward

Pablo, the day he got into culinary school. 
[taken from a facebook post from Feb 4th]
This is Pablo, my taxi driver. He’s 30. Growing up, he didn’t get much of a chance at an education. Today, he’s smiling because he just got into culinary school.
A year and a half ago when he started driving me he told me he wanted to learn English. So each afternoon on the way home we learned English. About six months ago, he said what he really dreamed of was being a chef. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked. He said he figured with his education level he’d never get in to culinary school. But then he said, “learning English has helped me feel more confident."
So he started cooking recipes. He began saving his money. We learned cooking vocabulary on the way home. We prayed. Finally, he took a cooking test at a culinary school.
Today, I got into the taxi to see Pablo grinning from ear to ear. “Did you get in??” I asked. “No” he said. I was destroyed. Then he started laughing and I knew. After a punch to the arm we erupted in shouts of victory. The culinary school had called him today to let him know he’d gotten in.
Earlier today, I was discouraged about a variety of challenges facing me. But Pablo’s news reminded me how much richer life is when we face our challenges together. So I shared with him the difficulties I was dealing with. As always, his interest and prayer have helped me end a discouraging day with encouragement.
Reflecting on my friendship with Pablo a beautiful thought has come into relief: Life is better when we invest in others and let them invest in us. Praise the Lord for good friends.

Update 1: One to two times a week, Pablo comes to my apartment to do his culinary school homework. He's never owned a computer, so we spend time learning to navigate the internet and discuss concepts such as scanning articles and searching for keywords.  At times it takes Pablo 5-10 minutes to read a page of content (an eternity for those of us who depend on computers for work) but he doesn't mind.  As he reads, he'll on occasion say "Wow," fascinated with what he's learning. 

Pablo studying from my apartment. 

Update 2: Pablo was recently able to purchase a laptop computer which will arrive to him soon.  After some time for training, he'll be using it to do his homework! 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Photos from the First Year

She and her husband work a farm in the Guatemalan country. When I arrived a stranger in her home she approached with arms open wide, and a smile in her eyes. She wrapped her arms around me, squeezed, and warmly said "God bless you." Then she greeted my friends in the same manner. It was a simple, but profound gesture. I hope I can learn to greet others like that.
Lake Atitlan
With coworker Angel.  We were both Irish for the day.
With Potter's House coworker Estevan. 
Woman from Xela, who had recently lost her son in a firefighting accident.
Potter's House student Brezly, who frequently stops by the office to steal a chocolate. 
Children always need to see how the shot turned out. :)
Youths from Manuel Colom Argueta, where I filmed my last campaign. 
Inside the Guatemala City garbage dump.
Inside the Guatemala City garbage dump.
Vehicle collection inside the Guatemala City garbage dump.
Guatemala City dump.
Guatemala City police.
Kite festival in Sacatepequez. 
Jonathan in the dump.
Mayan boy playing on the ruins.

Mayan boy from Peten, with a grasshopper.
Crowd and judges at the Potter's House talent show.

Playing soccer at Manuel Colom Argueta, where I filmed my last campaign.
Guatemala City
Hanging out with Potter's House staff.
At the top of volcano Pacaya. 
This sums up our relationship.
Catholic processions.
Jonathan at Pacaya Volcano.
Jonathan at work.
Jonathan with his sponsors.
Kite festival in Sacatepequez.
As she stood at the edge of the Chimaltenango garbage dump, a strong gust blew her yagual, which she was using to carry a metal bucket on her head, down into the depths of the dump. But when we spoke, her voice vibrated with contentment. She no longer had to carry the bucket back home.
With her mother.
Chimaltenango garbage dump.
Group from Manuel Colom Argueta, where I filmed my last video. 

"Take my photo, take my photo, take my photo!" 
“How long have you lived here?” I asked. “My whole life.” He responded softly. We stared at the vibrant rolling mountains and enjoyed the silence, feeling no pressure to speak. He let me take his photo as peacefully as he seemed to let anything happen. After I did, he took a seat and listened as the birds sang amidst the calm.
Naked, filthy children are prevalent not because of a lack of clothes but because a lack of care by parents. 
At a home for the elderly.

While filming an interview, I felt a light tap on my leg. Looking down, I saw Nohemí (Naomi), the 4-year-old daughter of the interviewee, with a camera in her hands and a look that said, “I have work to do.” So I set her on my lap and she, despite her disabled wrist, stretched her little finger to the shutter release. She added camera noises for effect.
“How did you learn Spanish?” my friend asked her. “They opened a school nearby last year,” she said. Her grandmother, who spoke a Mayan dialect, stood stoically next to her. When we later walked by the school I felt chills upon regarding its walls, painted with butterflies and kites. For the first time, children in that area would receive an education.
Mayan girl with her grandmother
Mayan boy from Xela, with his mother.
Trying on a traditional Mayan outfit.  I look like a bearded woman in a skirt. 
Eating with my church family after the service.