I sat on a little homemade chair by the fire after a hard day of work in Semesche, an indigenous Kek’chi community in Alta Verapaz. The house was dark and heavy with smoke, particularly in the kitchen half of the house. Our home was separated into two ‘rooms’ by a thin wooden wall that reached about halfway through the house and corn, stacked five ears deep that had to last the family until the next harvest. On my left, towards the window, the corn that my host father would soon plant hung whole from the ceiling. It was a modest one-room house, seven paces wide by thirteen long, surrounded by the bare cornstalks from the last harvest.
After writing a few sentences in my journal, I soon abandoned the task in order to pull out my harmonica from my bag. Rather than playing on the benches outside the house while the sun sets, as had been my custom, I decided to come back indoors to play. I played a few songs that were facile to play on my harmonica, and then attempted a few songs that they might recognize – such as “How Great Thou Art,” a song that had been, early on, translated into Kek’chi and was quite popular in the Mennonite church that we attended.
Around me was my host family: my host father, Pedro, sat in the hammock towards the door after a hard day of work, my little sister, Tilia, bubbled about the kitchen, and my newlywed sister-in-law and host mother, Elena, toiled in the deep shadows of the far corner, grinding the tortilla flour on the stone for the evening meal. My host brothers milled about the house, listless before supper.
On a sudden whim, I decided to play—as the sun set—“Silent Night.” After only a few simple bars of the melody, my host mother suddenly stopped what she was doing, turned, and spoke her first direct words to me in these two weeks: “Noche de paz, noche de amor,” the Spanish title of the same song.
I had never talked with my host mother much at all, as she spoke only Kek’chi and we therefore had to communicate through my host brother, Roberto, or through my father—each of whose Spanish was functional at best. And yet—somehow across the deeply rooted gender separation ingrained in the Kek’chi culture, across the seemingly impassible language barrier, and across our vast cultural and economic differences—across all of this, a simple song celebrating the incarnation of Christ connected us as fellow children of God—that evening, in the shadows of poverty and marginalization, God was present among us.
In that moment, the song became deeply appropriate for our situation. As we were only able to work for a few short days in this community, our only way to truly minister was with our presence: we entered, in a way that simultaneously frightened and humbled me, their community as Christ to the world: an incarnation of service. At the same time, the people of Semesche were, to me, each revelations of Christ—in this community, I found an incarnation of Christ to an extent that I had never before experienced.
And so, as the sun set over the mountains, that night was indeed a night of peace and night of love.
- Donovan Tann