I stood in the front of the small Catholic Church looking at the statue of a man mounted on a rearing white horse, brandishing a sword.
“Él es el apóstol Santiago?” (Is he the Apostle James?) I asked.
“Sí, hermana,” (Yes, sister, he is) said Juan, the kind man standing beside me.
I had just arrived in Santiago (St. James) Ixcán, a remote village in Guatemala. Juan, a local catechist, had joined me as I stood below the statue before a meeting with all the catechists of the local parishes. I was there as part of my work as an agente pastoral (pastoral agent) for the parish of Christ the Redeemer in the town of Playa Grande, Ixcán, about six hours away.
Finding My New Family. I knew from the Gospels that St. James was a fisherman who left everything to follow Jesus, that he was one of Jesus’ closest followers, and that he was martyred. But I didn’t know who he was to me until I came to Santiago Ixcán. The village is home to three hundred Mayan indigenous families—poor subsistence farmers growing corn and beans in the Ixcán jungle in northwestern Guatemala.
The church in Santiago is largely run by lay leaders and catechists, with a priest coming to the community only every six weeks. The lay leaders direct church activities, maintain the building and grounds, and hold Communion services, charismatic prayer meetings, and holy hours each week. They travel to Playa Grande to receive formation on a regular basis.
During my visit, a lay leader named Augustine invited me to stay and live there with them. I thought, Live here? My eyes widened. The village was remote and accessible only by foot or mule. But after a month of soul searching, I heard God’s call, and I decided to accept Augustine’s invitation. I now walk with the people of Santiago Ixcán, sharing in their joys and sorrows and helping in their spiritual and material needs. My main work is to assist people who come to my door with various needs, including funds for emergency medical transport, food, and housing; a scholarship program; and a microbusiness for women weavers and jewelers. I also take Communion to the sick and pray with them, guide women’s faith-sharing groups, and offer spiritual direction.
In turn, they help me. There aren’t enough words to explain how I have been helped by the people of Santiago Ixcán. Suffice it to say, they have become my family.
A Saint during la Violencia. As a Catholic, I believe in the intercession of patron saints, who protect and guide us and intercede to God on our behalf. I was given a clear understanding of this truth through the testimony of the people of Santiago Ixcán. This is what they told me.
In 1982, they needed St. James. Their life was hard—the village lacked roads, electricity, telephones, and a hospital. The intense tropical heat and humidity, along with mud in the rainy season, challenged even the strongest among them. They were also twenty-two years into la Violencia (the Violence), a civil war that would last a total of thirty-six years.
Terrified after two of Santiago’s faith leaders had been murdered, the people gathered one day in the village’s Catholic church and school. They were running out of food, and they couldn’t leave the village because of the violence. So they decided to do the one thing they knew they could do—they prayed.
The leaders divided the men, women, and children of the community into groups, and throughout the day and night, in different shifts, they prayed.
“What did you pray for?” I asked.
“To be saved from the enemy, and if not, that we would be prepared to die,” Don Miguel, a village leader and catechist, told me.
“How did you pray?”
“We prayed the Rosary twenty-four hours a day in shifts for five months.”
Meanwhile, the Guatemalan military was burning and destroying the neighboring village, two hours away by foot. The villagers could see the black smoke billowing in the sky. Santiago Ixcán was next. The army captain leading a squadron of men had the order to “Destroy Santiago Ixcán.”
After the war, a former soldier from that squadron told this story to a person from Santiago:
We had the orders to destroy the village. But then something strange happened. A thick fog descended upon the area. In the fog, within a cloud, we saw a man mounted on a white horse. We were terrified. We weren’t familiar with this part of the jungle, we couldn’t see, and we were disoriented. Our leader communicated with his commander on the walkie-talkie: “We’re lost! We can’t see the way in this fog!” The voice on the other end barked, “Abandon the mission, turn around!”
The people of Santiago Ixcán are convinced that the mysterious man on the white horse was St. James. He was the reason their village was not burned to the ground.
He Protects Me. I arrived in Santiago Ixcán two years after the war ended, but dangers still lingered and continue to this day. Armed soldiers in uniform no longer roam the jungle, but groups of armed men assault and rob public vehicles and threaten all those who travel, including me.
Sometimes, when I travel in the early morning dark in a minibus or pickup truck, I imagine masked men armed with guns waiting around each bend. In those moments of fear, I picture St. James on his white horse galloping alongside my vehicle, sword in hand. He turns his head to look at me with an “I will protect you” look. Then I breathe deeply and settle back into the seat, and my head rests against the window. Fear leaves. I surrender my life into the hands of God under the protection of St. James. Along with the people of Santiago Ixcán, he is my helper and companion along my way to God.
Kathy Snider has served the people of Santiago Ixcán, Guatemala, for more than twenty years.
Do you have a story of God working in your life? Send it to [email protected].