Yesterday I returned from a week-long missions trip to Guatemala. I went with a group from my church to serve Hope for Guatemala/Esperanza para Guatemala, an organization started by Guatemalan Jose Armas that works to bring life and hope to one of the most dangerous zones in Guatemala City by physically and spiritually nourishing its people, especially its children. We were supported financially and prayerfully by family, friends, neighbors and our church family. The team joked that ‘what happens in Guate stays in Guate’ so you will be spared some of the more sordid details of our trip. Flexibilidad was the theme of the week. From the first team meeting in April, the team of 11 was told to expect the unexpected and that encouragement continued after our arrival from the Hope staff.
My first taste of the unexpected came mid-day Saturday shortly after our arrival on the ride from the airport to Tina’s condo where we would stay for the week. Traffic was wild. Eight people rode with Tina in an an early 1990s Chevy Suburban; the other three folks rode with Jose in a pick-up truck that also had our luggage. When trying to picture the scene discard any convention you may hold about driving and rules. We, and many others, drove the wrong way on one-way roads, we drove on shoulders, we made right turns from the left lane and left turns from the right lane. I never thought we were going to die, but I never really felt like we were going to make it to our destination without a wreck. ..which actually turned out to be true. We lost a part of our runner and tire guard after turning right basically on top of another vehicle that was sitting in a blind spot. I was in the front passenger seat and definitely should have said something but was shocked into silence while absorbing the surrounding madness. Jose was about 100 yards in front of us when we crunched the car. He immediately hopped out of his car and ran on a dead sprint to the scene and then played negotiator. Everything wrapped up in less than five minutes without the involvement of the policia or anyone else and no exchanging of information. C’est la vie.
Monday morning we arrived at the ministry center in zone 18, about a 45 minute drive from Tina’s condo, around 8 am with two teams: a construction team and a Vacation Bible School (VBS) team. Besides a few fruit-bearing trees and a cute mural painted on the front of the center, there isn’t much to appease the senses. The area reeks of urine, the air is filthy, and the landscape is littered with tin shacks and unfinished cement tenements. There is little to no grass or vegetation in this the land of eternal spring. It is all a bit much to take in and think esperanza. The staff has a vision though and there is hope. As part of the construction team I: helped construct shelving for a storage room; painted; let Calvin (el niño) stand on my shoulders in order to change a ligh bulb in a stairwell; and helped begin construction of a wall that will close off the open air third floor. One of the coolest things I experienced while working on this team was the camaraderie and selflessness of our team and the Hope staff. From day one we worked together well and really bonded. The work was difficult because we had outdated tools and materials and we lacked knowledge but we didn’t discuss such things. We simply got to work and did what we could and the results were good. The idiom that familiarity breeds contempt is disproved. One particular moment I cherished was when I was outside drilling holes in a rusted metal rod that would be used to support the bookshelf. I was getting a little frustrated because things weren’t moving as fast as I’d like when I heard the voices of the children singing loudly the songs our VBS team had practiced in the weeks leading up to our trip. It was the elixir I needed to recenter.
If there was any doubt about whether I should have gone, it was erased the first day. I was pulled away from construction twice: once to consult with Shanna, the missionary who is responsible for storing information about the children and their families, about how to store their data; and the second time to join a gringos vs Guatemaltecos soccer match. Computers and soccer, hardly my idea of sacrifice–even if we did lose and it was kind of my fault.
Each Tuesday two or three Hope staff go to a large market and gather produce to use to prepare meals for the 170 or so children who depend on Hope for a meal each weekday, and to distribute to families. I was lucky enough to be asked to go with Brandon, a missionary who has been serving Hope with his wife for the last 11 months, to gather this week’s produce. The picture at the top of this post is me at the market with one of the vendors who donates food. Jose began going to the market a few years ago to ask for donations. He has cultivated relationships with many of the vendors who have in turn become increasingly generous. Much of the financial support for Hope comes from US based donors, but the food comes from Guatemaltecos. The children and families of Hope are supported by Guatemalans and Americans alike. It is a beautiful thing.
All the food in the trailer was donated by Guatemalan wholesalers. The market is part of Hope’s ministry as well. Brandon prayed for a few sick folks we encountered. Even the vendors who didn’t give this week asked about Jose and the ministry and really seemed invested.
Wednesday and Thursday were special days for the children of Hope. We took a younger group to the Guatemala City zoo on Wednesday and then planned to go to a park. Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate and we had to head back to the ministry center after trying to wait out the rain. What could have been a time of disappointment actually turned into a special moment. Even with the rain, the kids were so joyful and happy. With unbridled enthusiasm they praised God in song with rousing renditions of the songs the VBS team practiced.
This is Heidi. She is one of the five children who walked around with me Tuesday and then sang so enthusiastically on the bus. She has 11 brothers and sisters, several whom go to the ministry center daily and get a warm meal and love and guidance.
Thursday we took the older group, mostly teenagers, to the zoo and then bowling. Most of the kids had never been bowling before. Three of the four boys in my group learned quickly. The fourth never seemed to grasp the concept; at one point during the second game he bowled six consecutive gutter balls. He still had fun though. I struggled the first game and actually almost lost to a couple of the kids. I told the other gringo in my group that if I lost to one of the Guatemaltecos that I would walk back to Atlanta directly from the bowling alley. Fortunately I persevered and pulled out the win even without my A game. I don’t think the children even noticed the scores. Everyone was pulling for one another. I loved hearing our group leader Laura’s group chanting the name of each bowler as she approached the pins. Lah ooh rah! Lah ooh rah! We all had a blast.
Friday was the last day we went to the ministry center. I painted while some others worked on constructing the third floor wall. After VBS and serving lunch we said goodbye to the children and to zone 18. We headed to Antigua–the city in Guatemala, not the island–and spent the afternoon shopping and strolling around before returning to Guatemala City to have a nice, farewell dinner with the Hope staff.
For a week’s work I am happy with what we accomplished. I am still processing my feelings. Our leaders did a great job preparing us for what we would witness so it wasn’t overwhelming. It was nice to share in the kids’ lives and to share experiences with them that they would not normally be able to enjoy.