Mary Beth Writes

We North Americans have much to learn about poverty in the developing world and about what we can do to support our fellow humans who live in struggling-to-dire circumstances.


In 2002 I went to Guatemala with my then 17-year old daughter. We traveled there because one of the best friends of my life, Kathleen Morkert, had become the Exec Director of MayaWorks and she told me I ought to do this. (If you knew Kathleen, you’d probably do what she told you to do also. Hi, Kathleen!)

After I returned from that life-changing adventure I wrote about it in my newspaper column. I offered that if anyone was interested, I would speak to their event if they would host a MayaWorks consignment sale (which I usually helped them organize). Within a year I had spoken to a dozen church groups and service organizations and more than $50,000 of product had seen sold. I became friends with women who did some of this volunteer work with me; we are still friends.

Because of the success of this endeavor MayaWorks asked me to be on their board. I did that for eight years, which included three more trips to Guatemala. I arranged twice to stay long weekends with a Maya family who lived in the Guatemalan highlands.

I learned so incredibly much about what life is like for modern families who live in profound poverty in places that to us seem remote.

I am still interested to speak about my experiences in Guatemala. The organization has changed its primary business model, they are now an online Fair Trade shopping site and their headquarters is no longer shared between Chicago and Chimaltenango; the whole organization is now based in Guatemala.

Guatemala has a population of over 16 million people, about 40% are Mayan. It is the 4th poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. (The CIA measures this by Gross Domestic Product produced per capita. In the US the GDP is over $50,000 per person. GU is $5000 per person. Haiti is $1000 per person.)         

There has been political unrest in Guatemala since the mid- 1950's when the CIA arranged a coup of the popular, democratically elected president. By the mid-1970's there was severe repression against Mayan people who were struggling to keep control over their traditional lands. From the mid-1970's to the mid-1990's the Guatemalan military killed or disappeared 200,000 Mayan people. They wiped, completely from the earth, 440 small Mayan villages.

That is when one million people left the countryside and moved to the city. They were fleeing for their lives. They lived, and still live today in shantytowns built into the ravines that surround Guatemala City. These are houses built from cardboard, scrap lumber, sheets of metal, plastic tarp. There are no services, no electricity, no running water, and no toilets.

As is true all over the world, desperately poor people from the country are ripe for exploitation. Guatemala City is one of those places where there are the factories that make our super-abundance of North American clothes and goods. When you buy things at Kohl's, Walmart, Target, or wherever – check the label. If it says "made in Guatemala," chances are good it was made by someone who lives in those ravines.

There have been attempts to unionize these factories, but the attempts are quashed. They can fire a hundred workers - the next day there will be hundreds of new desperate people.

So this is the background of Fair Trade in Guatemala and around the globe.

I can talk to solutions which helps.

  • Getting fair pay into the pockets of women who then spend that money on opportunities for their children.
  • Microcredit loans that help people with no assets start buy things that will make their lives more secure. Things like tools and looms, cows and chickens.
  • Support for education. Helping kids get supplies, have a safe way to get to and from school, menstrual products for young women, tutoring to help kids who are learning in classes of 30-60 kids.

I am no longer officially involved with MayaWorks, so I cannot represent the organization per se. But in conjunction with my passion for frugality and minimal consumerism, I can speak to how we can support others as we build saner lives for ourselves.

And I would love to describe again some of my adventures in Guatemala! The day I hiked to a Mayan stele in the mountains next to the village where I stayed. What it’s like to play Memory for 4 hours straight with 5 giggling little kids who spoke as little Spanish as I do. The taste of tamales made from the corn in the corn crib next to the house, after a morning helping to pick corn up in the milpa.



HOW TO MAKE CORN TORTILLAS - This is how you make tortillas in Central America.

                 First grow a milpa of corn. A "milpa" is the plot of land, about the size of a basketball court that your family owns. Most of the planting, growing, tending, and harvesting of the corn will be done by hoe and machete

                 When the corn is ripe, pick and husk it all by hand, then dump it in your corn crib. This stash, for the most part, is what stands between your family and hunger until next year's harvest.

                 Every afternoon fill a seed sack with a half-bushel of the dried corn. Whack this bag with a club until the corn falls off the cobs. Pick through everything, separate out the corn, save the cobs for your cooking fire.             

                 Carry a dish tub of corn, probably on your head, to the person in your community who owns a "molina" - a steel grinding machine. Pay her a nickel to grind your corn into meal.

                 Back home, mix the cornmeal into water into which a little "cal" has been added. Cal is ground-up limestone from the mountain; you buy it in the market because it helps cornmeal cook softer and faster. It also (this is so cool) adds trace amounts of calcium to your diet which is one reason Maya people rarely suffer osteoporosis even though they seldom eat dairy products.  

                 Bring the mixture to a boil and then simmer in a big pot over an outdoor cooking fire. You do this outside because you can't get a pot that big to a boil on your inside wood-fueled cook top.

                 Stir the pot from time to time to keep everything from scorching. About an hour later, pull the pot off the fire. Cover it with a cloth, put it somewhere animals can't get into it. Let it cool overnight.

                 In the morning you must make tortillas before your husband and/or sons leave for work. Many men work an hour or two away, so leave they leave the house by 6:00 to 7:00. You need to have enough tortillas made by then so your men can fill their bellies, plus have another dozen or so tortillas for each to take with to eat during the day.

                 Stir the dough with your hands a bit. Take a golf ball-sized lump of it, pat the lump flat, round off the edges, slap the tortilla on the hot flat surface of the stove top. When it's cooked just enough, flip it over. Be careful to not burn your fingers.

                 Keep doing this until you have made between 5 and 25 tortillas for every member of your family. The bigger the nutritional needs of each family member and the fewer other foods you have to give them that day -- this determines how many tortillas you make.

                 There are 12 people in the extended family with whom I stayed in Guatemala. The mother of this family, plus her daughter-in-law work together to make more than 100 tortillas a day. This takes about two hours each morning in and around all their other chores.    

                 The tortillas are delicious and filling. They will be served with black beans if available (also grown on the milpa), perhaps a salsa made of tomatoes and/or greens and/or chilies.

    One of the things that struck me as I watched, helped (oh yeah, you can imagine how big a help I was...), and ate corn tortillas was this. Is there any calorie gain in this process? Doña Vicenta probably spent as many calories making tortillas as she gained from eating them. Her husband and sons did the same, working in their milpas when they weren't working elsewhere.

                 Here's the original human economy, isn't it? Work hard enough to produce the food you will need to work hard enough to produce the food.



Love, Communicate, Show Up, & Love.

Our congregation is United Unitarian Universalist in Waukesha, WI. I only preach a couple times a year; it is the one of the hardest things it is my privilege to do. 

Sunday I preached to my congregation. The topic evolved as I was working on it during the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, and as we learned more about the life and gentleness of George Floyd.

Here is my sermon in two forms. 

This is the service on YouTube: 

Sanctuary: Safety or Invitation? 10/7/2018

Sanctuary is Our Claim that Hope Can Become Truth  

 Sanctuary is more than a concept. Sanctuary is our claim that the realm of God and goodness is here, now, in this time and place. Sanctuary isn’t the room where we wait for things to get better. Sanctuary is the space where we claim peace and justice, hope and love right now, among us.

In sanctuary - hope becomes truth.


A Path of Integrity - Sermon

 I recently preached on the topic of Integrity. I had this sermon completed before Christmas because I wanted to not stress about it. Good for me. 

The day after Christmas I realized it wasn't "right."  I wasn't sure what was wrong, but as I do when I'm looking for more than I have, I delved into quotes by people I think know what I'm trying to figure out.  James Baldwin amazed me.  

Then I watched the movies I reference in the sermon. 

Then I wrote the sermon that is here. 

Sermon - Servants of the Quest

The park ranger described the paths one could choose to hike across the island. I picked the that one he said was the easiest.  When he was done talking, I walked to get a drink at a building that was a distance away, behind some trees. When I came back out, I couldn’t quite see what was a path and what was the field, so I walked back to where some people seemed to be hanging out. However, they were photographers and they weren’t going anywhere.

And that is how I got myself separated from all other humans who were going to be hiking across Bonaventure Island that day.

Where & What is Beauty?

This was this last Sunday’s service in the United Unitarian Universalist congregation in my town.  This was entirely written by five of us - the “United We Writers.” I told friends that I would post this on my website. The service was wonderfully received.

"No Felons Here"

I preached this sermon at United Unitarian Universalist /23/2019.

The photo is of the sanctuary of Grace United Methodist in Chicago. It's the church in which Len and I met and then married. We happened to be driving by earlier this year on a Sunday morning. They were voting that day on what to do with their building. I took this single picture with my phone, capturing the affection we all feel for our friends and fellow-journeyers in our congregations. 


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