Elena Huegel is a “Mission Co Worker” in San Cristobal de las Casas , Chiapas, Mexico. She is assigned to work with INESIN, a local human rights and peacemaking agency, and leads workshops for the staff and community. INESIN is one of many “partner agencies” of the Global Ministries work of the theologically progressive U.S. Protestant denominations, the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the Disciples of Christ (DOC).
Like most partners of Global Ministries outside the U.S., it is ecumenical in nature and does not aim to found churches. Mission churches started decades ago with the help of missionaries of the two Global Ministries denominations are now self-governing and self-propagating. Most are growing much faster than the U.S denominations and benefit from Elena’s and other Mission Co Workers’ presence in the their programs of community economic development, agriculture, healthcare, education and protection of human rights.
Elena’s grandfather, Frederick Huegel, went to Mexico early in the twentieth century, as a missionary trained in preaching and evangelism with the intention of growing the Disciples of Christ presence in central Mexico. Elena’s parents also worked with the new churches of the Disciples of Christ in Mexico. Bilingual at an early age, Elena has been a Mission Co Worker in Chile for over twenty years and in Paraguay before returning to Mexico to work with INESIN staff.
The following interview with Elena Huegel took place last August while driving her to a speaking engagement in the U.S.
DS: So Elena what does INESIN stand for?
EH: The Institute for Intercultural Studies and Research.
DS: Tell us a bit about the history of that organization.
EH: When Rios Montt was President of Guatemala and all the refugees from the country were crossing the border into México, the Catholic Bishop (Bp Samuel Ruiz) had people all along the border helping with the refugee crisis. The UCC and Mennonites from the States had mission workers helping as well and they all got to know each other. In fact when opportunities opened for resettlement back into Guatemala the mission workers all began to accompany them back as human rights watchers. That resettlement began in January of ’94.
That’s also when Canada, the U.S. and México signed the Fair Trade agreement (NAFTA) and the Zapatistas had said that if the trade agreement was signed they were going into open warfare against the Mexican government. It was signed and the revolution explodes, the heart of it being San Cristóbal and the communities around it. So with that the inter-religious turmoil that there already had been between Catholics and Protestants was heightened. It took on a whole different turn because the government began taking advantage of the Protestants who were among the most oppressed of the population. The government encouraged creation of paramilitary groups among the Protestants. The groups were mainly children of Protestant converts from what I can tell.
DS: But you say there had been turmoil and tension between Protestants and Catholics before the Zapatistas came on the scene. What was that about?
EH: This is a simple question to a very complex situation. To read more I suggest:
There are many points of view as to why there are conflicts between the different protestant and Pentecostal groups and the different Catholic groups as well as newer religions (mainly Muslims) in Chiapas in general and the Chiapan Highlands (including San Cristóbal de las Casas) in particular. I would summarize by saying that there have been and are political and economic forces that have used religious differences to divide and conquer the Mayan communities. Nowadays, organized crime has also come onto the scene sowing further confusion and chaos within communities and, in some cases, bringing different religious groups together in the struggle against the cartels while in others causing further unrest and division. There is a very long history of violence connected to the different religious expressions, with victims and perpetrators connected directly or indirectly to different religious affiliations.
DS: So the Protestant grievances about the Catholics had been long standing and were used by the government.
EH: The government was trying to get at the Zapatistas from different directions. And as the inter religious strife got worse the Bishop (Samuel Ruiz) realized that he needed someone to help him build a bridge and talk to the Protestants. He had already done quite a few things to build bridges. There were a whole lot of Protestants driven off their lands in the Chamula area and he supported the ones who fled to San Cristóbal. As the Bishop saw better what was happening, he went to the UCC and Mennonites who had worked with Catholics on the border and together they went on to found INESIN, the Institute for Intercultural Studies and Research. It was to create a space for inter-religious and inter-cultural dialog using various forums and projects to do that.
DS: Did the UCC have people in place there to participate in INESIN’s creation with the Catholics, Bishop Ruiz in particular?
EH: The UCC overseas mission office, Global Ministries, had a couple down there at the time. The couple were preparing to go down in late ’93 but finally arrived in February ’94 and were there then for some pretty incredible things. They were Paula Biddle and George. They knew the area as they had been working with Guatemalan refugees in Chicago and had been traveling back and forth from Chicago to Chiapas since the refugees began crossing the border.
DS: And what are you doing at INESIN now?
EH: So I am helping in staff development and education in trauma healing and conflict transformation primarily with the staff of INESIN. Protestants in Chiapas have seen INESIN as a Catholic organization and there is a lot of distrust and suspicion of any Catholic program among the Protestants. It’s going to take a long time of trust building before they join with Catholics in a process of trauma and conflict healing. So I’ve had some small groups and I’ve done some Christian Education trainings for Protestant Sunday School teachers which have attracted larger groups. I do other things as a way to start building up trust and relationship. I am also the local, national and international coordinator, facilitator, and trainer of the Retoños en las Ruinas: Esperanza en el Trauma (Roots or New Shoots in the Ruins: Hope in Trauma) program with facilitators in Chiapas, different states of Mexico and 5 other countries in Latin America.
DS: In addition to your training for trauma healing and conflict transformation you’ve been trained in environmental education?
EH: My undergraduate training was in recreation and outdoor education and my first love has always been environmental education.
DS: What is the tie between trauma healing and the environmental education?
EH: I came to realize there is a soul wound in our relationship with the earth and that’s one of the great things about being here with the Mayans. There’s the opportunity to come full circle. It used to be environmental education was concentrating on how we take care of the earth. Now, coming full circle with the help of the Mayans and other indigenous groups we understand better how the earth takes care of us.
We can’t be fully healed unless we attend to this relationship with the earth and how this is an essential part of our wholeness. Many people among the Mayans have that very clear. How a healthy relationship with the earth is essential to our relationship with oneself, with others and with God. So I’ve been thinking more in the last four years here about how our reconnecting with nature brings about our healing and how for example a sense of awe is essential to our recognizing something bigger than ourselves, something where hope lies, something that moves our souls. I’m doing more work around that now. How immersing people in nature can be part of their healing process.
DS: So how is this Mayan tradition of relationship with nature transmitted these days?
EH: I would say that not all Mayans today practice or have experience of the relationship. One of the things that the Institute has been doing especially on the Catholic side is helping to reconnect to that spirituality that was connected to Mother Earth. So one of the things that is still practiced but not everyone practices is the Mayan altar. The Mayan altar is always transitory. It is made from things from nature. It is created by the community. Using different flowers but it can also have dirt and seeds and fruit. These are placed in four quadrants representing the four cardinal directions.
And that transitory altar also has candles on it. Once the candles are lit they’re not put out. And the altar lasts as long as the candles last and once the candles die down, the altar is taken apart and the fruits are eaten and everything goes back into nature again.
DS: And the altar is built at a certain time of year.
EH: No it can be at any time the community needs to gather. And we at INESIN always have groups that visit us build a Mayan altar together.