Thursday, July 30, 2009

He llegado

Much faster than I expected it to happen, I have returned to the States. For sure, it will be another week before I can pull my life together back here in Indiana and after that time I hope to share some thoughts and reflections about my time abroad.

Until then, I just wanted to let everyone know that I made it back safely. Thanks for all of your prayers!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The human experience...

I know it's been a couple of weeks, but a lot has gone on since then and I think that it has been providential that I haven't had time to write until now. When I last wrote I described the experience of mass at the hospital chapel and the incredible experience of Christ that I experienced in the presence of the residents of the hospital. I also described how I intended to return to volunteer at the hospital in order to seek Christ in a way that I don't think that I have ever experienced Him before. Because of a national holiday that week (the 30th of June), I was unable to register until this past Monday (the 6th of July). In the meantime, the weekend of the 4th of July, I literally fell into an opportunity to do something incredible. A young married couple, Kris and DeeDee Hatchell, have been studying at PROBIGUA for most about the same amount of time that I have this summer. Kris is an engineer and the director of mission trips for the engineering students of Lipscomb University in Tennessee. In these trips, students develop a economical and sustainable (read: low maintenance, using local supplies) method to supply clean water to poor communities in Latin America. For those who may not know, the biggest problem to the general health of poor communities in Latin America is the lack of clean water to drink, cook, and clean with. With clean water, the people of these communities can spend less time and money (money they often do not have) on health care and can spend it on developing their communities, whether it be through farming or some other industry. Thus (besides being a basic issue of social justice), having clean water is one of the fundamental ways that the people of these communities can begin to break the cycle of poverty.

The weekend of the 4th, Kris and DeeDee had planned to travel with a friend (a Guatemalan native who also works on community development projects) to some communities outside of Coban to inspect a couple of water sources that they might use to bring water into as many as four communities that currently do not have clean water supplies. My plans to climb one of the volcanos near Antigua fell through and at the last minute I asked if there might be room for me on their trip. By God's grace there was room for me in there car and within an hour I had a small bag packed and was ready to leave for something comepletely unknown. After a nice lunch at Christian's (the Guatemalteco) house we were off for Coban. I learned a lot about their work on the three hour drive up to Coban. They have helped out a few communities so far and are excited to continue to expand their work by partnering with other groups, such as Engineers in Mission. We spent the night in a hotel in Coban where we had a nice meal to prepare ourselves for the big morning of hiking up a mountain and then retired for the night. Saturday morning (the 4th), I sat in on a breakfast meeting between Kris, Christian, one of the local land owners and a leader of one of the communities that we were planning to visit that day to discuss the plans for capturing, cleaning, and moving water to the different communities on his land. He was very open and responded positively to the proposals, committing to working with Kris and Christian to help the people who live on the land he owns. Afterwards, we packed up and left for the mountains. We were able to drive farther than they had been able to in the past and so that shortened our walk slightly, which was nice considering that we still had a long climb ahead of us. The morning was clear and relatively cool. Thus even though the climb was tough, it wasn't as exhausting as it could have been. We arrived at the meeting point - a school at one of the highest points of a particular community that was close to the water sources. There we met one of the local residents before the arrival of Juan and Juan, two men from the farthest community away from these water sources (nearly 5 km) who were hoping that these water sources would be good enough to supply their community as well. After greeting each other and taking a bit of a rest, we set out to check out the water sources. For the first source, we literally had to walk through a corn field planted on the side of the moutain. The source looked great, however, and like it could possibly supply much of the needs of the communities that Kris and Christian were hoping to help. The community resident also knew of a couple of other water sources nearby and he took us there to see them. They were also great potential sources of clean water for these communities and so we were all encouraged.

The whole way to seeing these sources, we were accompanied by a small boy, probably no more than four or five years old. Hoping for an opportunity to practice my Spanish with someone who spoke at my level, I tried speaking with him. It seems however that he didn't know Spanish and probably only spoke the local Mayan dialect, so I settled for having a little foot race with him back to the school after seeing the second water source. After returning to the base community, I sat in on a meeting between Kris, Christian, and most of the community leaders that was meant to bring them together in order to emphaize the need for them to commit to cooperation between their communities before the project to bring water to their communities would work. We met in the Catholic Church there, which was nothing more than a post frame with wood panel walls, a corregated metal roof and a dirt floor. Being the priest-to-be, Christian thought it would be appropriate that I lead the prayer to open the meeting, which was a great honor. The meeting was fruitful and we left with a great sense that these communities would work together to help make this project a reality. We then had an opportunity to see their secondary school, which at this point was only one grade (7th) and had only a handful of students from each of the various communties. The kids were great and the girls were especially intregued with DeeDee who has naturally curly hair, something these young girls apparently have never seen before :) Soon we bid the youth fairwell and were off to the community of the two Juan's where a lunch had been prepared for us.

Their community was indeed far from these water sources and I started to imagine just how tough it would be for Kris' group to bring water to this community. We arrived and the whole community, it seemed, was there to welcome us. Now, they prepared lunch for us, not for everybody, which meant that we ate while the community sat and watched us eat. Needless to say I felt slightly awkward. They prepared a traditional dish (the name of which I forget), which was a soup with various spices and (typically) a type of meat. That day they prepared it with beef, which for a poor community had to be quite an extravegant gift for their guests. After lunch we had a meeting with the community to explain what we found that day and what the next steps would be. Kris and Christian answered some questions from the community and, again, it all seemed to be very fruitful for both parties. From there we drove out to visit one of the last communities along the road.

Along the way we stopped at the house of one of the Juans. It was an experience that I will never forget. This simple house of posts, wood paneling and a thatched roof housed Juan, his wife and his five children. They had only three beds for all of them (and the beds were only a sheet of plywood on four posts with a blanket). One of the bedrooms doubled as the kitchen. Christian pointed out to me the small shelf with a Crucifix and a statue of the Blessed Virgen and told me that they were devoutly Catholic. Then they showed me his water supply. Basically, he set up a frame sticks tied together and laid a plastic tarp within them to catch rain water that is channelled from his roof. There is no cover and so the water is nowhere near clean. This, however, is the water that they drink, cook and clean with. During the dry season, Juan and each of member of his family have to walk one hour to the river to fill jugs with water and then carry them one hour back to his house - something that they have to do two to three times a week. As we looked at Juan's water capturing system, Christian whispered to me that what we were looking at was a sin, indicating the obvious injustice that so many have clean water but Juan and his family could afford nothing more than this. In my heart I agreed with him completely but outwardly remained speachless. As we prepared to leave, Christian asked if I would give Juan and his house a blessing. I told him I wasn't authorized to do such a thing. He asked me, however, as a representative of the faith that Juan and his family so devoutly followed, to pray with them. I didn't want to at first because in my heart, I knew that he had to be so much holier than me. Suffering accepted with a humble spirit purifies ones soul. Thus I am certain that Juan is much closer to God than I am right now. Humiliated (in the truest sense of the word) by what I experienced, I accepted that, nonetheless, I was indeed a representative of the Church to him and so I agreed to pray with them there. In that moment, I had a glimpse of what it really meant to be a priest and that it meant to be a physical presence of the spiritual reality in which these people have placed so much faith. It was a powerful experience that will form my formation in the years to come.

After a brief visit to the last community and an hour's worth of drama as we tried to get someone to open the pad-locked cowgates that crossed the road back to town (you'll have to ask me about that later... it is quite a story and it confirmed for me that Juan was well on his way to sainthood), we were on our way back to the hotel to rest and return to Antigua the next day. On the return trip, I had a great opportunity to learn from my traveling companions (who are all Evangelicals) a little about their faith as well as share a lot about the Catholic Church with them. It was truly a great experience and I couldn't thank them all enough for it. I returned home with a refreshed and humbled spirit.

I've had a lot of feelings and thoughts throughout this week since that experience. In spite of the fact that the people of these communities seem to have a very difficult life, nonetheless there was something very attractive to me about their life, something that seemed much more authentically human than what I've experienced elsewhere. It reminded me a lot of my experience in Haiti and I've begun again to try and discern what that means about what God has called me to in my life. The whole situation - from the impromptu decision to go, to the focused work of meeting with communities to share our gifts in a spirit of justice, to the sharing in the life of a community - all felt like it was all guided by the Holy Spirit. Right now I'm not sure what it all is pointing me towards. I thank God, however, for the opportunity and pray that I can continue to be open to what he desires to reveal to me and especially to how he plans to use my gifts here and also how he plans to use this experience in my future ministry. Thanks for reading and your continued prayers. Your comments are always welcome. May God's peace continue to be with you!

For a view of all of the pictures, click here.