Chontolá is a spread-out community of about 2,000 people, on the east and west slopes of a hill. An unpaved road runs along the top of the hill. Next to the road stands a church, the National Methodist Church of Guatemala, with about 250 members.
One day in 1982 the military moved into Chontolá, its mission to eradicate any guerrilla presence in the community. They arrived about 5:30 a.m. and sealed off the village from the outside. Anyone who ventured up to the road was seized and thrown into the National Methodist Church. And about 4p.m. as helicopters flew overhead, the military threw a bomb into the church, killing about 40 persons inside. Some accounts say the prisoners were machine-gunned first.
At one point, Rev. Diego Chicoj Ramos walked along the road from Chichicastenango, coming to visit the congregation he served on an unpaid voluntary basis. A military officer told him “You don’t want to go in there.” So he didn’t. But the next day he did enter Chontolá, and found the church destroyed, with only shrapnel-pocked steel beams standing and at least 16 of his congregation were now widows.
The military forbade gatherings of groups of people, so the congregation could not meet for some time. Diego continued ministering to the congregation family by family, walking one hour each way from Chichicastenango. The widows told him of their struggle to survive. They had to do the farming their husbands had done, plus care for their own children and those of their relatives who had been killed, and it was more than they could handle. So they asked Diego if there were any way the church could help.
At first the church gave them some rice and semolina. Then when this ran out, the church managed to find some cash, and gave them a small amount of money. But this also ran out.
The President of the National Methodist Church mentioned this problem to other bishops. They suggested that the women form a cooperative and do something to raise money. So the 16 women formed a cooperative and began to weave fabrics to sell in the market in Chichicastenango. But the government had forbidden tourists to visit the Quiché area, so nothing sold.
Gradually the government relaxed its restrictions. The congregation was allowed to meet again, and for a while met under a tree north of the ruins of the church building. Then they met in the space in front of the church. And the government allowed tourists back into the area.
The Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church in the US agreed to help rebuild the church sanctuary: shrapnel marks are still visible in the original roof tresses of the new building. Tourists returned to the markets, began purchasing the fabrics made by the Ruth & Nohemi Coop, and selling them “back home”. Carol Conger Cross of San Diego offered to help with the construction of a tailor shop for the Cooperative, which was completed in 1993.
Now the Ruth & Nohemi Coop continues its weaving in the village of Chontolá. The women make slightly more than the minimum daily wage (currently Q. 36 per day, or $4.50). They have replaced their adobe houses with cement block structures, and now have electricity and telephones.
As a VIM (Volunteers in Mission) team prepared the foundations for the first home to be replaced, they found a deposit of pottery dating from 750 BCE. Included among these items is a black pot similar in style and composition to Oaxaca pottery, and pieces of obsidian which come from Zacapa and the Sierra de las Minas, some 150 Km to the East, showing trading among communities in this Olmeca period.
The Tailor shop fashions the fabrics woven by the women into garments and a multitude of other items, now sold around the world by Ten Thousand Villages, other groups, and returning travelers. And the children and grandchildren of the original widows are now part of the weaving communities.
Concerned about the young people who moved to the city looking for opportunities and leaving their families without their support, the Centro de Capacitacion de Artesania Tipica (Artisans Training Center) was opened. In 1990, The Artisans Training Center moved to Chichicastenango to offer the members the opportunity for education, so they work during the day and go to school at night.
The aims of the project are:
1. Being a place to support and help widows, orphans and poor people.
2. Training young people.
3. To encourage young people and kids to finish school.
1. To give widows the opportunity to work in their own houses.
2. Tailor training for all interested people.
3. Assistance and company for legal and important issues.
4. Medical assistance.
5. To help kids and young people with secular education.
6. Housing improvement.
7. Build houses for poor people.
8. Assistance to malnourished kids.