It´s been a month of heavy news in Guatemala. Some but not all of it has reached the international news.
About a month ago a boat pulled up in Puerto San Jose, the nearest port to Guatemala City. The boat was owned by Women on Waves, a Dutch NGO, who offer crisis pregnancy advice and abortions in international waters. A Guatemalan charity had invited and coordinated the visit.
Abortion is illegal in Guatemala, but estimates suggest that thousands of abortions are performed illegally here every year. The army were ordered to prevent the boat from berthing in Guatemala. In the city and at the port, protests were held by both those supporting the visit, and those opposing it.
Cue much posturing about the sanctity of life, and our moral duty to protect the unborn child - and of course the church in Guatemala were part of that discourse. After a few days, the boat moved on, having not recieved permission to stay in any Guatemalan port.
During the same week, there was another protest march (again including some church groups) calling on the government to reinstate the death penalty.
2 weeks ago, on the day that much of the world commerorates the International Women´s Day, a fire started in Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción, a government-run children´s home. 19 teenage girls died at the scene of the fire, and dozens more suffered severe burns. In the following days the total reached 40 killed in the fire. The initial news coverage used interesting language - there had been a 'riot', an 'escape attempt', police had been ordered to 'capture' those who had fled -- terminology that was more apt to a prison situation rather than a children´s home. And yet as news emerged, that seemed to be a more accurate description of the home. It is a children´s home designed to offer safety and protection for 400 children who had been rescued from abuse, trafficking or other 'at risk' situations. In reality, it did function in that way, but was also used to house those children and young people who had been accused of crimes (including murder) and yet were too young to be put on trial according to the law. There were 800 children and young people living there at the time of the fire.
6 months previous, there had been a number of complaints of abuse - both individual and systemic - within the homes. Some abusers - but not all - had been arrested, tried and imprisoned. The home had been ordered to close down --and yet other judges continued to order children to be placed there.
The fire was started by young people who had been locked into dormitories in protest of the abuse and the conditions that they had been held under.
The most recent news suggests that once the fire was raging, the young people had begged to be let out of the rooms - and were told to 'put up with it'. Investigations into the deaths also suggest that some of the girls had been doused in a fire-accelerant liquid.
There have been protests.
There has been mourning.
There has been calls for the government to be held responsible, for the staff at the home to face consequences.
And there has been a process of rehousing the remaining children in other homes or with family members.
This week, there has been a riot in one of the prisons - in protest to the conditions, and in particular the quality of food. 5 guards were held hostage. 2 of them were killed. The prison holds members of the 18 gang. In 'solidarity' the 18 gang outside of the prison has also killed 3 police officers.
Again there is mourning.
Again there are calls for the death penalty to be reinstated.
So what does life mean??
When does it start?
When (and how) should it end??
It seems to be that those are the only questions that the media and certain parts of the church care about. And yet surely, we must have something to say about what happens in between? It must be the quality of life that we´re concerned about - not just that life simply exists.
We need to have honest conversations in our churches about these issues and all the things that affect them. We need to ask ourselves some serious questions.
What are we doing to support and care for women in unwanted pregnancy?
What about alternatives to abortion like adoption (which occurs in Guatemala but is not widely known), or fostering (which is just being developed)? Why aren´t Christians (especially those protesting against abortion) queueing up to adopt or foster??
What are we doing to empower and train parents - to avoid the abundance of childrens homes in Guatemala, and the chronic institutionalisation that can occcur in some of them?
What about sex education? - which could empower young people to understand how their own bodies work, to understand their own and others right to consent, and the need to respect each other. (If the church and schools aren´t talking about this, then no wonder that it´s often in bothels and on porn websites that young people learn).
Why are we selective in who we deam deserving of the 'right to life'? Do we believe that some people no longer have that right?? Do we think that there are limits to God´s grace and power to transform???
Does the justice and prison system do anything to change for the better, those within it, or does it simply give them greater opportunity to extend and worsen the crimes they´re capable of? What is the church doing to minister in that system?
There are so many issues that need to be addressed, that I find it extremely difficult to engage with churches and christians who only want to give one (seemingly and falsely easy) answer to one isolated issue -- when they are so clearly interconnected and complex and have long term causes and long term effects.
What´s needed is respectful conversation that engages the complexity and comes up with a range of practical long term answers, that go beyond posturing and protesting. What´s needed is us actually offering ourselves as part of the answers instead of just complaining about the problems from the sidelines.
These issues are in the news now. These issues are real, even when the news cycle has moved on to something else. Let´s start to talk and offer real answers.