We may not always agree with every one of our neighbors. That’s life. And it’s part of living in such a diverse and dense world. But we must also recognize that part of being human is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance.


Ryan and Mr. Fisko on the shore of Lake Atitlan.

I am currently sitting in the back of a fifteen passenger van watching the Guatemalan countryside flash by and trying to gather my thoughts about the past few days. Makeshift homes dot the hillside and every free inch of land is covered in coffee plants and corn. Old Toyota pickups flash by, their truck beds full of men and women. And the afternoon rain clouds are just beginning to roll in over the horizon. As I take all this in I can’t help but feel a bit nostalgic. This experience is coming to an end and as much as I’m craving a juicy American cheeseburger I’m not quite ready to go home yet. Every day has brought new experiences and further insight into the problems at large in our world today. I have come to new understandings and begun to realize that the world is a lot larger and more complicated than I ever dreamed possible.

This past fall, I listened to a student from Georgetown University talk about religious tolerance in the modern world and specifically her experiences living with a Muslim roommate. She believed that due to crude, pervasive stereotypes, a large percentage of the world has become quick to judge and unwilling to understand the various religions of the world. Although I prefer not to generalize, I am inclined to agree with what this woman said.  I cannot tell you how many times I have heard someone say that all Muslims are terrorists or that anyone that isn’t Christian can go rot in hell. However, I feel that despite how hurtful these comments are, the majority of them are bred out of ignorance rather than straight religious intolerance. I couldn’t help but remember this presentation yesterday afternoon as our group explored Santiago Atitlan and learned about presence of the Catholic Church in this tropical lakeside city. 

The Church in San Antonio Palopo.


Earlier on in the trip we learned about the history surrounding the Catholic Church in Guatemala. It all began in 1492 when the Spanish arrived in Guatemala for the first time bringing missionaries and the full military power of the Spanish armada. Within twenty-one years, the Spanish had succeeded in conquering the indigenous Mayan people and began forcing them to convert to Catholicism. However, by that time, many of the Mayan people had already chosen to convert on their own. They had seen the superior military prowess of the Spanish as an indicator that the Christian God was much more powerful than their own.

Parroquia Santiago Apostle, in Santiago Atitlan, founded in 1547.

Our introduction to this Mayan-Catholic religion began at the end of dark alley in a small stuffy shrine. The room smelled of rum and incense and at its center sat a small wooden statue covered in clothes with a half burnt cigar hanging from its mouth. Off to the left, a man was kneeling before a statue of Saint Peter, shouting Catholic prayers and bowing his head to the ground. To be honest, the whole thing was a little freaky. Dolores, a native to Santiago Atitlan who had agreed to give us a tour, explained that this was a shrine to the minor Mayan god Maximón. When the Guatemalan people adopted Catholicism as their religion, they simply included Maximón among the other Catholic saints. Dolores explained that Maximón was neither an idol nor affiliated with any particular religion.

The minor Mayan god Maximon.

Inside the Cathedral in Antigua, Guatemala.

Instead, this small wooden statue was a way to tap into religious energy similar to prayer or meditation. People from all religions were welcome to come to this shrine and offer up petitions to their god. At first I was skeptical. The shrine of Maximón looked more like the inside of a thrift shop than a sacred place of prayer. It was only when I recalled that speech from the Georgetown student that I really understood where I was. This small, dingy shrine in Santiago Atitlan was the epitome of religious tolerance and openness. Although slightly sacrilegious and very open to interpretation, I recognized this shrine as one of the few places where anyone of any religion could come and offer up their prayers. No one cared what god you worshiped. No one cared what religion you followed. You were judged by faith alone and without prejudice.


4 Responses to Fire, Brimstone, and oversized Voodoo Dolls, by Ryan Opila

  1. Mary Masters Opila says:

    Ryan, I am so proud of your curious, open mind and your courage to debate, reflect and discern these issues of tolerance, spirituality and respect for all God’s people no matter what the circumstances are.
    Remember when you would come home from summer camp…? You never wanted to come home then either!:) Something to ponder on your flight home!
    Dad, Andrew and I look forward to welcoming you and your team home tomorrow! Safe travels and God’s blessings! Love, Mom

  2. Kyle Chalmers says:

    Yo Ryan,
    Excellent blog, my brother. When I went down to El Salvador last year, I had a similar feeling to the one I think your having. We all worship some higher being, and to persecute and hate someone for thinking differently about this individual is just flat out ignorant. All rational and loving people have morality, and by following their morality they are living their faith. It doesn’t matter where they are, a single person has the power to make a place holy through their faith and humanity, as I believe you have experienced with this trip and the shrine.
    Love brother!

  3. Jeff Bennett says:

    Hey Ryan!

    Great work here! I’m so impressed how you can look outside of your experience in Guatemala and draw connections from your past. The more of these blogs, the more I wish I could be there with you guys, experiencing true love again for the first time. Than you so much for sharing. See you Guys soon! Can’t wait for stories.

    Jeff Bennett

  4. Julie says:

    Just a few corrections:

    1) The Mayan belief system and cosmology is not a religion. It is a tradition. You can catholic and “walking the Mayan path” Or Buddhist, or Jewish, or Muslim.

    2) Maximon is not and never was a Mayan Deity. He is seen as a protector of the people, and the closest equivalent the Maya would have to a saint.

    3) The following is inaccurate. “Mayan people had already chosen to convert on their own. They had seen the superior military prowess of the Spanish as an indicator that the Christian God was much more powerful than their own” It is based on the writings of a priest responsible to the slaughter of thousands of Mayans who also destroyed as many of their texts as he could find. The resulting loss of knowledge would be equivalent to the burning of the library in Alexandria.

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