May 08, 2016
For the past two summers I was fortunate to go on the vacation of a lifetime. In fact, I enjoyed it so much, I plan to go back again this summer for a third visit. So, you’re wondering, where is this great vacation spot? Well, I will tell you – there are no white sandy beaches or fancy swimming pools with waterslides. In fact, sometimes there was not even running water at all. There are no luxurious hotel lobbies with shiny marble floors and fancy decor. Actually, some of the places I visited had only dirt floors. There were no extravagant musical productions with flashy Las Vegas-style costumes. But, there were precious young children who could entertain you for hours with their laughter and games. This fantastic vacation spot is what I like to call “my happy place….” otherwise known as the central American country of Guatemala. The scenery boasts breathtakingly beautiful mountain tops and volcanoes. The culture proudly holds on to centuries of Mayan traditions and vibrant markets filled with rainbow textiles and some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. But, deep within these gorgeous mountains, poverty reigns in many of the small rural villages. Some of which is heart-breaking, largely due to over 30 years of civil war. More than 75% of the Mayan population lives below the poverty line. Children, as young as 7 years old, work on farms or in mining jobs rather than attending school or birthday parties as young children their age should. And sadly, the people of these small villages do not have access to any healthcare, which is how I became involved with this wonderful country.
It was through the encouragement and leadership of a Youth Minister at Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church, Reverend Jay Clark, that I signed up to go on my first Guatemala medical mission trip sponsored by Pulaski Heights United Methodist church in partnership with the non-profit group, Project Salud y paz: an international ministry of health services and education to the people of Guatemala. I had the privilege to meet amazing doctors, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, interpreters and other volunteers, as I watched these selfless people, who were taking time out of their busy lives, offer their talents to change the lives of others.
Each day during the mission trip, my group traveled several miles outside of our base, city, Chichicastenango, to different rural villages to set up a clinic which offered
free medical services from vaccinations to cataract surgery to heartburn. I don’t really remember an “ah-ha” moment where I realized this place and what I was doing would become something very special to me, because it seems that every moment from my Guatemala trips will be cherished forever. When I first arrived, I felt so insignificant…I knew I couldn’t operate on anyone to save their vision, extract infected teeth, vaccinate young children, prescribe medicine to cure their illnesses or inspire the group each evening in bible study and prayer. But, I quickly learned, you don’t have to necessarily be a brain surgeon to make an impact on another person’s life. The job given to my group of youth volunteers was to distribute donated shoes, toys, and dental kits to the patients after their clinic visits. I vividly remember the first woman I helped, as she was beaming with excitement to get her new pair of shoes. Since the people of Guatemala are relatively small as compared to our physique, this woman-who was probably in her late 60’s-selected a child’s size to fit her small foot. It was a pair of brilliant light-up, Disney Princess shoes. I offered her another pair, maybe more appropriate for her age, but nothing was going to stop her from walking out of that clinic with her sparkling Disney Princess shoes. Together, we picked out a toy for her granddaughter, and a big blue hat to match her ____, the traditional blouse for a Guatemalan woman. I’ve never been much of a “hugging person,” but she grabbed me so tight, touched my face, and starred into my eyes-her way of thanking me because we didn’t speak the same language. And, just like the woman with the Princess shoes, everyone we helped with either new shoes, a toy they never had or learning how to brush your teeth- revealed that same gratefulness that touched my heart. Even towards the end of the day as we ran out of shoes and toys and all we could give was a pair of socks, their smiles and hugs still prevailed.
Where I found the most joy was with the Guatemalan children. Families would line up at our clinics and wait for hours to receive the medical care. The youth volunteers were armed with soccer balls, bubbles, and arts and crafts to entertain the children while the families waited. I learned a lot while playing with those children. I definitely learned to never challenge a Guatemalan when it comes to soccer, because there is probably nothing they take more seriously. The toddlers, teenagers, and grandparents all got a kick out of watching this “tall gringa” poorly attempt to keep up with the speedy Guatemalans. I had no clue what they were saying, but through the snickers and giggles, I knew I was putting on a show for them. I couldn’t have felt happier to be completely embarrassed.
I also learned ways to communicate without spoken language. My limited high school Spanish didn’t help me much on these trips, as most of the rural villagers had different Mayan dialects rather than Spanish. Coming from two very different worlds with different languages, culture, and privileges, I quickly forgot about all of those differences when playing with the kids. I forgot I was in another country far from home and all I could feel was the happiness radiating from the kids through their laughter and smiles. They exploded with joy with the simple gift of a soccer ball, like nothing I had ever seen before, and it was contagious. You couldn’t help but feel what they were feeling. Our group talked about this and we agreed, it was one of God’s mysterious way of showing himself to us. My takeaway from all of this was a totally new meaning for true happiness: one not judged by materials and possessions, but just a strong feeling of gratitude for being alive.
Our team would gather each evening to share our unique connections with God through the work we were doing. That’s when our Guatemalan team coordinator with Salud Y Paz, Jose, shared his story. His words will stick with me forever. He thanked us over and over again for the team’s hard work and then asked us to pray with him. We prayed for his family, especially his two young daughters: one who had been diagnosed with eye cancer and the other recovering from another surgery, both younger than I. He held back tears as he explained the financial obstacles in moving his family to the capitol city where they would receive better medical care. He told us and truly believed that God would be with him and he kept repeating he had faith, faith that God would get his little girls through it all.
I had a difficult time leaving that evening behind. I could see Jose’s faith was so much stronger than mine. For me, it was a wake-up call to see this person, who experienced so much hardship in his life, still maintain such a strong faith in God – a faith, that someone like me who grew up so privileged, takes for granite all too often. I had an even harder time leaving the country. Through the mission trip, I discovered how I could make a difference in a person’s
life and suddenly my small teenage life back home seemed so insignificant. It was a challenge to accept the horrible circumstances and living conditions many of the Guatemalan people endured. How could I have so much and they so little? How can we share the same God but not share the same blessings?
In our Gospel reading today from the Book of JOHN, Jesus prays for all believers that they be united:“Jesus prayed for his disciples, and then he said, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father are in me and I am in you…”
Despite the hardships and the vast differences between my life and the people of Guatemala, we share the unity of Christianity: that we are all one. In my very small way of making a difference, my joy was found in showing love for these people and the desire to help them towards better lives. And, all this was made possible through our mutual unity with God.