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VDS Voices Feature: Chelsey Overstreet Hedglin article

October 7, 2015

photo by Chelsey Overstreet Hedglinphoto by Chelsey Hedglin

Imagination Grant: Community Engagement and Religion in Yaxhachen, Yucatán, Mexico

by Chelsey Overstreet Hedglin 2nd year, MDiv

This summer, I was given the opportunity to travel to Yaxhachen, Yucatán, Mexico, through funding from the Imagination Grant. The purpose of the Imagination Grant is to advance global learning, theological reflection, and leadership skills and support creative, non-credit bearing projects proposed by students. Through interviews and participant-observation, I researched religion in Yaxhachen, specifically, the impact that religion has on daily life in Yaxhachen and if and how indigenous Maya religion has any impact on the present-day religious practices.

My relationship with Yucatán, Mexico, spans many years. My undergraduate institution, Millsaps College, owns a biocultural reserve about a mile outside of the town of Yaxhachen. I have been going to Yucatán with Millsaps College since I was a junior in high school. Upon entering Divinity School at Vanderbilt, I knew that I wanted to continue learning about Yucatán’s rich culture, thinking about religion and continuing to building wonderful friendships. Without funding through the Imagination Grant, I would not have had the financial means to travel to Yucatán to continue my relationships there.

 We all approach various times in our lives with different lenses. I have travelled to Yucatán now seven times throughout my life. In a way, each time I travel to Yucatán, I switch lenses and grow and develop as a student and as a person. I am grateful for my educational experiences that have allowed me to return to Yucatan time and time again. In a way, I have been able to track my educational growth from my experiences in Yucatán. 

Part of the reason I was able to go to Yucatán this summer is because of an incredible non-profit organization called Ko'ox Boon (pronounced “co-osch bone), which means "let's paint!" in Maya. Ko’ox Boon was started by three incredible friends and alumni of Millsaps College. "Ko'ox Boon supports local artists and harnesses the joyful, creative spirit of youth. Creative projects, like mural 
making and collaboration with the embroidery collective, promote community fellowship, cultivate economic development, and explore indigenous heritage and folklore."

It was a special experience to be able to see first-hand all of the meaningful work that my friends at Ko’ox Boon create. This summer, they hosted art camps for the children in Yaxhachen and renovated a community center that will form opportunities for community engagement. They also have an embroidery brand that has brought sustainable economic growth to Yaxhachen. 

 Dinner
Photo by Allie Jordan

We all approach various times in our lives with different lenses. I have travelled to Yucatán now seven times throughout my life. In a way, each time I travel to Yucatán, I switch lenses and grow and develop as a student and as a person. I am grateful for my educational experiences that have allowed me to return to Yucatan time and time again. In a way, I have been able to track my educational growth from my experiences in Yucatán. 

Part of the reason I was able to go to Yucatán this summer is because of an incredible non-profit organization called Ko'ox Boon (pronounced “co-osch bone), which means "let's paint!" in Maya. Ko’ox Boon was started by three incredible friends and alumni of Millsaps College. "Ko'ox Boon supports local artists and harnesses the joyful, creative spirit of youth. Creative projects, like mural
making and collaboration with the embroidery collective, promote community fellowship, cultivate economic development, and explore indigenous heritage and folklore."

It was a special experience to be able to see first-hand all of the meaningful work that my friends at Ko’ox Boon create. This summer, they hosted art camps for the children in Yaxhachen and renovated a community center that will form opportunities for community engagement. They also have an embroidery brand that has brought sustainable economic growth to Yaxhachen. 

Cross

Photo by Chelsey Hedglin

It is impossible to encapsulate my experience into this short blog post, but in order to give context and detail to the research and interviews that I conducted this summer, I will share about one of my interviews. I attended a service at the Presbyterian Church in Yaxhachen, interviewed the Presbyterian minister and several members of the Presbyterian congregation. In contrast, I attended a service at the Catedral de San Ildefonso de Yucatan while in Mérida, Yucatán a larger city about two hours from Yaxhachen. While the Catholic congregation in Yaxhachen was more difficult to access given the fact that the priest only comes to town about every two weeks, I was able to have a conversation with a man named Evalio, the groundskeeper at Millsaps’ biocultural reserve Kaxil Kiuic. Members of Evalio’s family have been groundskeepers on the land that now houses Kaxil Kiuic for generations. While at Kaxil Kiuic, I learned about a 250 year old cross filled with religious symbols that is displayed in Evalio’s home. Evalio told me about the Catholic congregation that used to have a church on Kiuic land. He explained the traditions, rituals, and ceremonies that have historically been practiced on the land and how he practices Catholicism while attempting to preserve the traditions of his Maya ancestry. He alluded to his desire to continue the rituals on the land because he felt that keeping the tradition of the land is important. There are so many things to be said about the sacred space that has been created and is being created on that land. 

The experience with Ko’ox Boon this summer allowed me to delve beyond the role of student or vacationer and into authentic community with friends and neighbors. What I observed was mutually beneficial community engagement at the most sincere level I’ve ever seen. The community of Yaxhachen is invested in Ko’ox Boon, and Ko’ox Boon is invested in the community. This work is difficult, and it is even more difficult when it is done right. Ko’ox Boon gets it right in every way. Warm hearts, creative hands, radical hospitality and the spirit of engagement are all alive in Yaxhachen. Ko'ox Boon's visions of community, love and mutually beneficial relationships were realized this summer through the creativity that thrived in the minds of all who were working together in community.

“People go with hallelujah.” –Rev. Calixto Zi Uk, Pasto, Presbyterian Church, Yaxhachen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Original watercolor and photo of watercolor by Chelsey Hedglin

Finally, in the spirit of Ko’ox Boon, each person who was a part of Ko’ox Boon’s programs this summer was invited to produce a contribution to their Museo en Vivo (living museum) that was put together at the end of the summer. The Museo en Vivo was displayed in the town center and was a community-wide event intended to celebrate the creativity of the summer. For my contribution, I created a series of watercolor paintings. I was able to spend some time on my last day in Yaxhachen reflecting on my research, my experience and everything that I had learned during the time I was there. I had conversations with amazing people who had so many beautiful quotations and taught me so much. I pulled some of those quotations from my interview notes and placed them on watercolor paintings that I did on my last day in Yaxhachen. The quotations are intentionally left without context and are intended to speak for themselves in the language in which the person spoke them to me. The spirit of community is alive and effervescent in Yaxhachen. Sacred space has been and is being created at every moment. Ko’ox Boon embodies unconditional love and mutually beneficial relationships. I am incapable of fully articulating the beautiful experience that I had in Yaxhachen, so I hope these paintings can speak for me.

I hope to take what I learned this summer with Ko’ox Boon and use it along my journey as an elder in the United Methodist Church. Learning about the impacts that religion and evangelism had on the community of Yaxhachen will be of benefit to me in my future ministry because it has allowed me to become informed about both the negative and positive effects evangelism and religious presence might have on a community like Yaxhachen. I’m interested in conversation around international “mission” trips and the impact that they have on communities. It is important for religious organizations to educate themselves about communities that they intend to be in missional relationship with and have conversations with said communities in an effort to maintain mutually beneficial relationships before they enter into contexts in which they could be potentially harmful. Conducting this research in Yaxhachen educated and empowered me to begin conversations in the United Methodist Church about configuring a sustainable and beneficial model for the typical (and sometimes harmful) “mission” experiences in which churches often participate. The work that Ko’ox Boon does is a prime model to which the Church should pay attention.

Ko’ox Boon Website: http://www.kooxboon.com/

Ko’ox Boon on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kooxboon?pnref=story

Ko’ox Boon on Instagram: @kooxboon