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Mission Abroad Is Not about Fixing Problems

February 21, 2019 by

For nearly thirty years my husband has been saying, “One day I’m going to take you to Guatemala.” My “yeah, right” response never deterred him, and when an opportunity to volunteer at the San Lucas Mission on Lake Atitlan opened up for the Spanish 4 class of high school students from the Mount Academy, and we were selected to chaperone, his words became reality. Just this past January we traveled with six students to Guatemala.

It’s tempting here to “tell you what we did,” and some background information is certainly in order. In 1963, Father Greg Schaffer, from the diocese of New Ulm, MN, was sent by his bishop to San Lucas Tolimán to work as a parish priest. Seeing the obvious needs of the community, he expanded his sacerdotal services to address very real, practical issues.  His original vision has developed into a well-equipped clinic, an elementary school, a self-sustaining and equitable coffee operation, a lively women’s center, and the construction of simple homes, projects now run by salaried Guatemalans. Father Greg died in 2012, and the mission is now financially supported by a sister organization in Minnesota called Friends of San Lucas. The whole story is moving and compelling, and my initial skepticism about a US-funded-Central-American project faded fast.

young people from the Bruderhof building houses in Guatemala

Volunteers from high schools and universities, churches and parish groups regularly travel to San Lucas to assist in building homes and installing wood-fired brick stoves, as well as providing muscle to get larger projects done. We were one of several groups at the Mission in the week we were there. Making new friends was an added bonus.

For most of our students, it was the first time out of their home country, and for all of them it was the first time in a developing country. While this is accepted terminology, I take issue with calling Guatemala a developing country, as it has its own rich and profound Mayan culture, with an understanding of time and space, architecture and science centuries older than our own. It is a country of breathtaking natural beauty and biodiversity.

As people who have suffered under colonialism, natural catastrophes, civil war, and continuing unjust economic systems (not to mention American corporations and a US-led coup), the Guatemalans shared their lives and their homes with us. Romancing poverty is not my style: I wanted to wash the babies’ faces, provide basic plumbing in broken-down homes, shoot the ownerless dogs roaming the streets, and pick up the trash. There is a ton of work to be done, and the temptation is to rush in and do it. But we learned some important lessons.

When the goal of volunteer work is mutual service, we focus on seeing what God is already doing.

The executive director of Friends of San Lucas, Bill Peterson, was also in town and we spent a delightful and informative evening with him. We were able to ask our questions and begin to process all we had seen and experienced. He discussed the three typical stages that someone like me goes through when we first arrive in a place like Guatemala. Most volunteers, when asked why they come down, say they “want to help.” Helping is our first response, and it is a noble one. It is the Samaritan’s way. But when we focus on helping, we bring only our strengths, and all we tend to see is weakness. The next stage is the desire to fix, to identify and eliminate the root causes of the problems we have encountered. Again, all we bring is talent and expertise, and what we see is that which is broken.

Bill brought us around to the third and key position: When the goal is mutual service, we focus on seeing what God is already doing. We engage the entirety of the other person or culture and come close to a truly moral relationship. Bill reminded us that it takes time, commitment, and a willingness to receive, to truly serve. Fixing and helping are certainly part of mutual service, but they can never be the entire relationship, and they are actually the easy part. How many of us are willing to discard our skills and talents, and show up ready to learn and be served?

Young woman weaving a shawl in Guatemala

It was an important conversation for our students to have, as our instinctive response is to give, to share our resources – both material and intellectual – with those we thought we had come to help.

A simply designed and grammatically flawed poster hangs on the wall of the Mission. It is not particularly beautiful and we smiled when we read the English translation: “Most than our service, God needs our love.” Mas que nuestro servicio, Dios necesita nuestro amor.” Love was certainly something we received, and prayed to give.

young men from the Bruderhof practicing tortilla making in Guatemala

Each day we had an opportunity to learn something about the Guatemalan people and the rich and diverse Mayan culture. We learned about the milpa, the trifecta of corn, beans, and squash developed centuries ago. We watched the women weave intricate patterns and designs that evoked distinct regions. We tried, and failed, to make the perfectly round corn tortillas that are eaten at every meal. And we listened to an elderly gentleman who, as a child, worked on a coffee finca, enslaved in a system that still exists today.

San Lucas Tolimán is smaller than most of the towns and villages that necklace the beautiful Lago Atitlan. The lake is an enormous caldera, whose sides rise abruptly from the shore, and I found myself looking for the yellow square that would wake me from a dream of living in a National Geographic full-spread. On the steep volcanic slopes hang the tiny fields from which the campesinos eek a living.

So when we returned home and a friend read these words from C. F. Blumhardt, I remembered the men and women who had fed us and let us into their homes, had worked with us at the building sites and sold us their crafts, laboring from morning until night, living on the quetzales they make in the marketplace. I know who they are, the poor in spirit blessed by Christ:

It must have been quite baffling to the educated world when Jesus pronounced, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” – blessed are the uneducated, those who do not try to understand everything with their intellect. Blessed are they who do not have to impress others by showing how smart they are. Blessed are they who are not always theorizing about spiritual things. What Jesus is saying is that it is the day laborers who are blessed, those who live from hand to mouth and yet are skilled with their hoe or pickax. Blessed are the farm workers with their plow, who can’t think about anything except how best to do their work. Blessed are the craftsmen who create their handicraft and who work hard to finish it on time. Blessed are all such people whom we label uneducated – for these people are taught by God.… Praise God that true wisdom is to be found upon the streets and not in palaces and lecture halls. —C. F. Blumhardt
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Carmen Hinkey

Carmen Hinkey

Carmen Hinkey and her husband Stephen live at the Mount Community in New York State.

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