Five people from numerous churches in the Fargo-Moorhead area visited Guatemala July 21-29, 2019 for a delegation with Sister Parish. One delegate shares his reflections about the exchange.
After two months of rest and thought, I very much would like to share some reflections of our Fargo-Moorhead North to South Delegation to Tierra Nueva 1, Guatemala this past July. Linda Graf and I from St. Mark’s, as well as Vicki Schmidt and two senior students from UND, made our way to Guatemala City in order to participate in a “friendship exchange of goodwill” with a Sister Parish congregation called San Marcos. A West Fargo church had previously been the North American “sister parish” to San Marcos for many years. This relationship between churches in North America and Central American congregations began in the early 1980’s as a way to show friendship and solidarity with people living in poverty and suffering political persecution in different ways. Our experience focused on making new friends, exchanging cultural ideas and customs and living with folks from San Marcos for 4-5 days. We had numerous cultural excursions as well, but by far, our greatest gift to give as well as to receive, was listening to the many stories of violence and family disruption due to an ongoing civil war in Guatemala. This has led to the creation of new towns, starting as settlements with no public services of any kind, no roads, no water or sewer or electricity. One such area, now 40 years old, is called “Tierra Nueva 1” or “New Land 1.” Here we stayed with wonderful host families who cooked for us and welcomed us into their very modest homes. It is a similar experience I have had several times in Spain and Mexico, but unique in Guatemala as it was my first visit to this country. It was definitely the most rewarding aspect of our trip, in my opinion.
We first stayed in a religious retreat center in Guatemala City where we became oriented to the history, customs, food and climate of Guatemala. They were modest but very comfortable conditions. Our hosts were a religious order of women who cooked wonderful and plentiful meals for the guests of this retreat center. We also spent our last two nights here on our way back from Tierra Nueva 1. We saw government buildings, the main square, and a wonderful museum called the “House of Memories.” There we briefly learned of Guatemala’s history, its colonization by the Spanish (and the atrocities they committed), human rights violations, the many missing souls due to kidnappings and war. We also learned of the many heroes and heroines of this time, who spoke out against government actions against indigenous people and the (ab)use of land. It was a lot of information to process and comprehend, but we had excellent guides provided by Sister Parish. They live in work in Guatemala, hosting other church delegations. One is from Minneapolis and another from Nashville. Our third guide was from El Salvador—who happened to be free during our delegation, so she added much to our tour as well.
We made our way to Tierra Nueva 1 in a rented van and arrived about an hour later. Guatemala City is very large with perhaps 2-3 million people, and where we were headed was about 40,000. We visited families, widows and widowers, and people who have family in the USA, unable to leave to visit family in Guatemala for fear of deportation. Many, many folks had tales to tell of friends and family who had gone north, some who have stayed and some who have returned. We were made aware of the awful drug and gang violence present in the country, and consequently we were accompanied at all times. We heard such sad stories of pain and suffering that caused many emotions for all of us. I, being very emotional and hearing these stories twice in two languages, was very moved by their personal testimonies. The photos we saw on people’s walls of departed ones, the religious icons and deep faith of these people, going through more than just hard times, speaks to their strength and will to continue on. To see how little they had and how much they shared with us, was extremely humbling. We were guests in their homes and in their country—making us feel like more than just new friends, but family members from far away, now reunited after many years. The feelings of genuine concern for us and ours for them was very touching. As my language skills warmed up from many years of not much use, I became more in touch with the current situation that seems to cause cyclical poverty and despair, from a government that has forgotten its people in some ways. Especially those in Tierra Nueva 1.
Another excursion took us to the site of a recent volcanic eruption and the devastation that occurred in June 2018. We visited a church where the priest had worked with volunteers from around the world to help provide temporary housing for families who survived, but lost everything. Everything. It was like walking on sacred ground, knowing many souls had been lost in the lava flow, as well as homes and businesses. The remains of a church, believed to be full of worshipers, was almost too much to think about. I was deeply moved by this visit; even more so by our visiting with a young man, collecting firewood for his mother, who survived the eruption and disaster. Listening to his story of that day and all of its details was simply a gift that coincided with our visit that morning. We greeted him and said “God bless you and your family,” then quickly collected some Quetzales ($$) to give him. He was grateful and proud. We all gave him a hug and moved on to visit Antigua, Guatemala’s old capital city and touristy town. However, I didn’t move on that quickly. The morning’s experience had me emotionally devastated, thinking of all that we have here and how little others have in this world.
Back in Tierra Nueva 1, we shared mass at San Marcos and were warmly greeted by their Filipino priest. We sang in their choir that morning and heard wonderful songs of praise and thanks to God. We had rehearsed that song with my host family’s father, Carlos Aguilar, who is a very accomplished singer and guitarist. The previous evening we cooked a pork casserole dinner with potatoes and carrots for 120 of San Marcos’ members. We served the people this dinner in the church’s fellowship space and cooked it in the priests’ quarters. It was a great experience of collaboration, work and fellowship, led by Vicki Schmidt. I think the people were fairly impressed and enjoyed themselves. Dinner was followed by music and dance, provided by Carlos and Julieta, our El Salvadoran guide, serving as DJ.
On Sunday evening we returned to Guatemala City and then on Monday we visited UPAVIM, a community center for women and children, started with a woman from Texas in the early 1980’s. Her husband at the time founded Sister Parish, which continues today all around the country and Central America. UPAVIM employs women to make Guatemalan crafts, provides a day care and Montessori school, as well as schooling for children grades K-6. Its name reflects its goal: Women United Together for a Better Life. They have a US website where anyone can purchase crafts online in order to support this important center. It also was a great highlight of our trip, an uplifting experience to know it exists for women who may find themselves as single parents or widows, without much family or government support.
Please remember that while we may call this a “mission trip,” our primary mission was that of greeting and living among our sisters and brothers in Christ. We are all the same humanity, after all. As a very popular Latin American song says, “Todos son iguales en los ojos de Dios,” or “Everyone is the same in the eyes of God.” Sister Parish links churches together to share trips, experiences, family, friendship and culture with those in impoverished countries. It builds bridges of understanding through faith and love, mutual respect for one another and commitment to improvement of basic needs. Our current Sister Parish Committee is looking for a new church home, and St. Mark’s of Fargo may just well be that new home. The committee just authorized financial aid to San Marcos of Tierra Nueva 1 to create an overnight trip/excursion for its youth to a cultural site in Guatemala. Good things are happening there because of the support of folks in Fargo-Moorhead. It was an honor and a privilege to travel there this summer. It was a cultural exchange I will always remember. As I told many, many students in my Spanish classes, even if you don’t use the language you’ve studied, it has opened a new door into new cultures, new experiences and a new awareness of others that no one can take from you. As Americans, we should all strive to travel outside of our borders in order to realize what the world offers. We enjoy many freedoms in this country and traveling abroad makes you aware of them and helps us understand where others come from. Thank you to the members of St. Mark’s who have supported us through attendance at the Guatemalan Getaway Fundraiser and individual donations. It is a very worthy cause to support.