NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) – When Deb Byler sensed a call to offer spiritual direction to Kekchi women in Guatemala, she was uncertain how it would unfold.
Byler, who serves with Mennonite Mission Network, wasn't sure North American training in spiritual direction would translate in ways that aid the faith journeys of indigenous Mennonite women of Mayan ancestry. They live in the country's north-central mountainous communities that are home to about 140 congregations belonging to the Kekchi Mennonite Church.
This church is divided into six regions, throughout which Byler has supported female leaders in further developing their gifts for ministry. In conjunction with indigenous women, Byler also sponsors Bible studies and facilitates trauma healing workshops. In addition, she partners with women groups to prepare materials in the Kekchi language on priority themes that are distributed to thousands of women.
Given that much of this ministry is geared for groups, in 2018, Byler sensed a call to also work with the leaders one-to-one in spiritual direction. Though a new concept for them, three leaders agreed to try it in order to seek a deeper, more connected relationship with God.
Because they took the risk, everyone is growing and stretching through this intercultural engagement, Byler said during a recent interview.
Their gift to her was the challenge to be more aware of the Holy Spirit working in her spiritual direction ministry, Byler said.
"Their sensitivity to both good and evil spiritual realities in the created world [fostered through being in tune with the unseen activity in the cosmos/universe] adds depth to North American Christianity that can tend to be more one-dimensional and materialistic," Byler said.
Her gift to the Kekchi leaders was to encourage a more open sharing about what is true for them, rather than trying to please Byler and others through what they express, she said.
Before Jesus' love became more deeply absorbed in the current faith communities, the practice of casting evil curses on someone with whom you are in conflict was more common, Byler said. But the old fears of others still hang on.
"People grew up afraid of being vulnerable with others because what they shared could be used against them," Byler said. "And even if they weren't afraid of a curse, it is not common practice in this culture to share personal information in prayer groups or at church."
Traditional Mayan thinking includes the idea that natural entities – especially water and trees – contain powerful spirits, and one must be in harmony with these spirits so as not to be harmed, Byler said.
Ancient pathways, additional steps
Byler hopes that spiritual direction both affirms the strengths of their ancient pathways and offers additional steps that could be taken on a Christian pilgrimage. In sessions, Byler invites them to share what is on their heart, after which they pray together, asking God to bring guidance, comfort and healing.
Though each woman is different, there are common themes and stressors experienced by women in the indigenous communities: the fear of social disapproval, and the suffering evoked by inadequate resources and abuse issues, Byler said.
"Of the three women, the one who has suffered the most tends to be the most open, and that has brought much joy to me as we connect more deeply with God and with each other," Byler said. "I sense the Holy Spirit is moving powerfully in her life and bringing healing from her former views that God creates difficulties in her life to punish her for her sin."
Byler said that even though cultural tensions contribute to the women's reserve about personal sharing, sometimes sessions move beyond a list of prayer requests into a deeper encounter with God.
"After my final prayer for a participant at the end of the session, I opened my eyes to see that she had tears in her eyes," Byler said.
The woman said, "I understand through your prayer for me and my daughter that you understand my situation and my daughter. I'm not crying because I'm sad. I'm crying because I'm so happy."
Another participant said, "No one has ever done anything like this with us before. I really like having a place where I can talk and have someone listen to me."
To honor the confidentiality of the women working with Deb, their names cannot be shared.
Exploring dreams for personal spiritual insights
Byler also strives to more deeply understand the Kekchi women's connection to the dream world, and then to help the women explore their dreams for additional spiritual insights.
In her own personal therapy for childhood trauma, as well as her master's studies and doctoral work in pastoral care for missionaries, Byler has explored the power of dreams. They can provide insight into oneself and one's relationship to God and others. However, her work has been done in a North American context – a framework that differs from an indigenous one, she said.
"Kekchi people take their dreams seriously and literally," Byler said. "For example, if a person appears in a dream, the dream is about that person. In the North American context, one would be encouraged to see the person in the dream as a symbolic figure representing a part of oneself."
Byler said they often ask her to interpret their dreams, but she often redirects them back to themselves.
"This is new for them – inviting them to form their own conclusions," Byler said. "I hope the way I work with the women assists them in perceiving that God guides with compassion rather than with punitive justice, and that God, who created the spirit world, also created them, and wants to relate to them personally, intimately."