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Gangs, drugs and Jesus

Author: Beth Read, 12 April 2024

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Last year I visited Guatemala to see what Open the Book is doing for children living in extreme poverty and violence. 

Guatemala has one of the highest murder rates in Latin America, with 3,500 violent deaths each year, mainly through gang activity and drug trafficking disputes. Perhaps that’s why so many children and young people there are open to Jesus. They yearn for hope and peace, and Open the Book can provide that to more of them with your support.

We arrive at a metal gate and hear a bolt being slowly drawn across on the inside. The gate creaks open and a lady welcomes us with a warm smile. ‘Come on in,’ she says.  

Inside, we turn a corner and are met by the incredible sight of about 600 children aged between 4 and 12 seated in a small stadium singing a gospel song.

This is an Open the Book session and the Bible story today is called ‘Free at Last’. A team of 14 yellow-shirted Open the Book volunteers and 10 children perform the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt.

Into the lions’ den

Mixco Public School is in Tierra Nueva, a dangerous area at the northern tip of Guatemala City, the nation’s capital. Crime is rampant and some of these children have already been recruited into gangs. The volunteers tell us that the children especially identify with the Bible stories about overcoming trials and obstacles. They listen closely to how we can trust in God and find hope and peace in Jesus.  

Julianna, aged eight, played an Egyptian girl in the story. She tells us she wants to be a police officer when she’s older so she can protect people. Her favourite Bible story is about Daniel ‘because he bravely went into the lions’ den’. 

Cristal enjoys Open the Book because, ‘I learn about what is good and what is bad.’ Rosita says she wants to be a pastor. Her favourite Bible passage is Genesis 1.1 because, ‘We learn that God created the heavens and the earth so we could come and live in it.’ While Jennifer says, ‘After hearing the Bible stories, I now know how to talk to God.’ She adds that when she is older she wants to be a doctor so she can help people living on the streets.

The most energetic Storyteller is Pastor Juan Fidel Perez, 75. He’s been leading the local Rock of Salvation Church in Tierra Nueva for 45 years. Over a cup of the traditional Guatemalan drink, Atol de Plátano (a plantain and milk drink), he says, ‘Most young people don’t go to church so without Open the Book we would not be able to reach out and speak to these children.’

He explains that half of the families in the area live below the poverty line and a quarter of the population is illiterate. School drop-out rates are very high. He says the Open the Book volunteers are respected in the community: ‘Pupils speak to them outside school and they provide vital support to families in need,’ he says. 

Now they speak to God

One of the volunteers, Adeley, says, ‘When the children at the schools have sadness and difficulties in their life, now they can speak to God.’ 

The Open the Book session ends with a prayer and the children bow their heads and pray earnestly. 

Guatemala has a population of 19 million. Bible Society of Guatemala started running Open the Book in 2023 and already volunteers are taking the storytelling to 3,000 children at 6 schools. Bible storytelling teams also visit youth detention centres, teenage single mothers and schools for children with special needs.

Will you help bring the Open the Book experience to even more children in Guatemala? Through your generosity, more children will have the opportunity to engage with the Bible and choose a different life.

Give the Bible to a child in Guatemala

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