[Throughout the year, we’ll be posting periodic reflections from Sister Parish community members in honor of our 25th Anniversary. Today’s reflection is an interview with Bob Heberle, done by Nancy Wiens. Nancy is a current Sister Parish board member, and Bob is a former board member and longtime supporter of Sister Parish. They are both members of St. Joan of Arc Catholic Community in Minneapolis, MN which is linked with Tierra Nueva II in Guatemala City, Guatemala. You can read more 25th anniversary reflections from Sister Parish community members here.]
Nancy: Could you talk about what inspired you to become involved with Sister Parish?
Bob: In the 80’s, I had been very involved in Central American issues and trying to educate the American public about the atrocious crimes we had been committing in Central America, supporting the massacres in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador. I participated in different protests in various places and I was arrested several times. I became very frustrated because I couldn’t get my fellow American citizens aware or concerned or agitated. The crimes of our country were so egregious. You know, that was during the Oscar Romero days (in El Salvador) with so many massacres going on down there.When I toured Central America in 1983 and visited the civil and human rights groups working there, all seemed to have the same message. The message was, “Come down here to see what’s going on, and go back to your country, the U.S., and tell them what’s going on and get them to do something. You are after all a citizen of the U.S. and therefore have some input.”
So from those first days in ’83, hearing this message that they were telling us, in spite of the horrible suffering they were undergoing and the massacres that were happening — I never forgot that: the important part we could play. The only place we had any power was with our government. And from that day on, in ’83, that’s what gave me the incentive to work up here on behalf of the Central Americans, politically and educationally. At that point, really, my mission became to bring these stories to my community.
Nancy: What drew you to Sister Parish over other organizations?
Bob: When the committee at St. Joan’s was deciding and sifting through the different programs that existed, we had Sister Rita and Vicki Schmidt come and tell us about Sister Parish. It seemed to fit what I wanted so perfectly because it was solidarity without charity, and that was the theme that resonated with me. It meant that what we had to do was show solidarity, here, in our country, to protect and help the people down there.
Nancy: When was your first delegation trip to Tierra Nueva II, Guatemala?
Bob: It was in 1995, I think. There weren’t that many of us on the first delegation, maybe 8.
Nancy: What memories stand out from that delegation?
Bob: [On the murder of a priest in Tierra Nueva II] Actually, in 1994, the year we were first scheduled to go down there, Padre Alfonso Stessel, who was the pastor of Tierra Nueva 1, was gunned down on the street right outside of the church walls. That created a little consternation for us, because we figured, you know, if they are killing priests… Well, that murder was never solved and they tried to claim it was a holdup but he still had his watch on and he still had money in his pocket. We did set up the delegation for the next year then – I think we might have been planning to go that year but we put it off because of that murder of the pastor.
[On the creation of St Joan and Tierra Nueva II’s mission and vision statement] A couple members of our group got together (with Tierra Nueva 2 members) and it was hot – that’s all I remember. It was hot and stuffy, and they met for 2 hours, and they hammered out our linkage’s objectives & mission together in that hot, airless room. And that mission statement they hammered out in that heat and discomfort, it was so beautiful and it still is to this day. It mentions women and children and how we are really in a solidarity mode. That’s always been the mission for St Joan of Arc and Tierra Nueva II, and I’m so incredibly grateful for that mission to have been maintained over the years, even with different people, totally different people.
[On Tierra Nueva II’s church] We were there in Tierra Nueva II when the church was just flowers — tall, reeded flowers that represented walls. There was no structure, just some back buildings that are still there, a reception room and a non-functioning bathroom that was used for storage.
Why do you value the people-to-people connections and long-standing relationships that come with Sister Parish?
It’s so important, really, to have those relationships. Just to be invited into their homes, that’s such a spiritual experience, to be invited and treated as a sister or brother. In addition to regular back-and-forth delegation visits, our spiritual connection has been wonderfully nurtured for more than 12 years by our joint Bible study group.
Nancy: Why have you stayed involved with Sister Parish over the years?
Bob: Because I’ve seen them be consistent with their mission statement over the years. And I’ve been so relieved and gratified by the consistent leadership shown each time.
Nancy: How do you feel people have been changed by the Sister Parish experience?
Bob: Boy, it’s done a lot of good stuff. We’ve had some young people come up and they turn their lives over – those people have become very passionate about social justice issues, these young people. It’s been really, really neat.
I’ve also gained a reaffirmed faith in my community of St. Joan’s, which is one of the pillars of support for Sister Parish. I have a deep faith and hope that they will continue through the years.