The first time I travelled to Guatemala in 2007—with 11 other folks from Albany Presbytery—was a life-changing, amazing week. When it ended, I assumed that was it—a once in a lifetime trip. 12 years and 15 (I think—I may have lost count) trips later, it is clear that God had something different in mind. There are many aspects of this journey I could focus on—but, one of the threads which has been the most important, the most promising, and sometimes the most painful—has been the Mam Sewing School.

I am going to tell the story (mostly) in pictures.

In 2007, this is what I guess one might call the “program building” of the Mam Presbytery looked like. The lower section on the left is what later became the sewing school, and may have been where the sewing machines were stored—not sure I saw the inside of the building on that trip.

When we visited (my second trip) in April of 2008, this was happening:

Sewing in the courtyard, and just inside the very sparse building. The treadle sewing machines were donated by Albany Presbytery—in the 1990s, I believe.

In 2009, gutting and preparing the building for a major rehab:

Then there were a few years of wondering when the building would be finished . . . my observation is that building projects in the Mam community in Guatemala take longer to complete than US folks think they should . . . the first picture I have of the “completed” building is from 2013:

And here’s what was going on inside the building:

In 2014, the 10 Albany Presbytery women who journeyed to the Mam area for a “mutual women’s retreat” with the Mam Presbyterial, visited the sewing school, and were treated to this:

And here’s what the building looked like, pretty much like the year before …

Ismarie was their teacher then, and continued until very recently.

Shortly after this trip, the Presbyterial began to envision a second floor to the sewing room, and the possibility of expanding to more classes. Mission Co-workers Sandi and Brian Thompson-Royer assisted the Presbyterial in accessing a variety of resources from the states to make this happen, as well as bringing some folks to teach them to make items likely to sell in the states, and assist them in launching a Fair Trade business cooperative This happened in March 2018, mostly in one week, and when I visited in August of 2018, the building looked like this:

What once was a hole in the ground, was now a 2 story building, with an attractive external staircase, plenty of outlets inside… created by collaborative efforts of men from the Mam community and folks from Hamblen Park Presbyterian Church in Spokane, and Newport Presbyterian Church in Seattle, and Davis Community Church, of Davis, California. We of Albany Presbytery were not involved in the construction, but did provide some of the funding for the room.

But the sewing school itself, the women who planned the school and those who learned and were now ready to launch a cooperative… were not doing so well. Conflict, power struggles, miscommunication, have led to a break between the seamstresses who have begun to make items for US markets (and they have begun to sell) and the Mam Prebyterial. This is a heart-breaking situation, one which we of the partnership are prayerfully discerning our role in supporting, assisting, seeking the truth in love… and in partnership.

When the women of the Presbyterial heard we were coming to visit last month, they decided to plan the dedication of the sewing room so that we could be there. This was a joyous event, with a ribbon cutting, a service of worship, several women leading worship, including one very passionate and engaging preacher… it was a wonderful event, albeit flattened a bit by the sadness of the break with the students/graduates.

Here is the building as it looked that day:

And the celebration inside:

It is clear that God is at work in all this… but not, at this moment, clear how it will all work out. The sewing cooperative, Saq B’e, appears to be getting off to a strong start, making beautiful items, and working together well as a group. The Presbyterial is regrouping, figuring out how to continue to provide sewing classes in the wake of this messy set of events.

We of Albany Presbytery are also prayerfully reflecting on how to be good, faithful, partners and also true to our own sense of justice, fairness, and God’s desire for humankind. Your prayers are coveted (and questions are welcomed) as we continue to discern, trust, and follow God’s call.

About Rev. Kathy Gorman-Coombs

Kathy serves as co-pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Scotia, NY. In addition to working as a Teaching Elder, Kathy earned her Master of Social Work from Rockefeller College at SUNY Albany, and is a Licensed Master Social Worker and works part-time as a Domestic Violence Counselor at the YWCA of Schenectady, where her work includes a support group for women at the County Jail. You can reach Kathy at revkgc@gmail.com.

The purpose of the Albany Presbytery Blog is to share information, tell stories, and promote the mission and ministry of the presbytery, synod and beyond. While the breadth of this medium is intentionally broad, it is not a platform for opinion pieces related to business coming before the presbytery unless designed as part of an initiative to provide a diversity of viewpoints at the direction of the presbytery. Exceptions to this policy may be brought to the presbytery officers who will determine appropriateness of submissions.