Guatemala missions bring joy, education

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Fr. John Gerritts, pastor of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Hudson, makes a home visit near his parish’s sister parish in San Jose el Tesoro, Guatemala. (Photo credit: Claire Zajac)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald staff
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Headlines about Guatemala have recently focused on those fleeing their country; in March, two parishes of the Diocese of Superior sent mission groups to serve basic housing and medical needs in two rural communities.

St. Patrick’s, Hudson

St. Patrick’s Parish in Hudson visited their sister parish in San Jose el Tesoro in central Guatemala. Besides mission volunteers – both adult and high school-age – the group included a doctor, a pharmacist and an electrical engineer.

Lighting and ceiling fans were needed to improve the comfort and extend evening usage of outdoor facilities vital to the parish of San Jose’s faith formation programs. Medical care was provided to 180 patients in five days, a medical clinic opened and instruction given to three midwives, along with gifts of critical supplies for the annual average of 50 newborns delivered. In total, more than $10,000 worth of supplies and funds were raised and provided to the community.

Fr. John Gerritts, after his fourth trip to the site, shared in the parish bulletin how thrilled he had been to celebrate Mass on the March 19 feast of St. Joseph, the village’s patron. He said he reminded sister parishioners that, “while they think of all that we do for them, it is important for them to know that our relationship equally means a lot to us.”

He brought home “the memory of hearing their gratitude for us and remembering to be thankful for what they offer us,” as well as a powerful experience of hope, especially among the youth.

“These are kids who, for the most part, live in homes with dirt floors. Their parents do not have money to send them to camp, play organized sports or have a closet full of clothes … Some will eventually leave the village and others will live their entire lives there. But the smiles and laughter reminded me that these kids – just like the kids in Hudson – have hope. And that gave me a great deal of hope.”

Holy Rosary, Medford

Katie Zenner, development director for Holy Rosary Catholic Church and School in Medford, summarized her experience leading a group of 12 to an established Catholic mission in San Lucas Toliman, in southwest Guatemala, as “humbling and rewarding.”

The site was chosen at the suggestion of Zenner’s brother, Tom Gelhaus, a dentist who had been in San Lucas with his son some years prior. Gelhaus founded the ministry Muchas Sonrisas (Many Smiles), which has brought his dental ministry to developing countries since 2008.

The San Lucas Toliman mission, on the shores of Lake Atitlan, was founded by a priest of the Diocese of New Ulm, Fr. Greg Shafer. Sent by his bishop in 1963, the priest started a school, apprenticeship programs, medical facilities, a reforestation project and coffee bean company. Since Fr. Shafer’s death in 2012, an organization, the Friends of San Lucas, has continued and expanded his work.

For Zenner, the timing of the mission trip during Lent provided “a perfect journey to be able to touch on both corporal and spiritual works of mercy.”

The group’s primary work was finishing floors and stoves for homes started by previous missionary groups.

After a community breakfast at the mission, they loaded into the beds of waiting trucks that would take them to the work sites, past children waving and shouting “holas” and “hellos.” The warm welcome motivated them to work with the poor tools provided – concrete sifters with holes and pails with no handles.

Ann Meyer, who double-majored in Spanish in college, was able to help as an interpreter. She participated in the mission with her twin sister, Jean. The sisters were particularly moved by the chant-like thanksgiving blessing sung by families to whom they delivered groceries, as well as the solemn procession of Stations of the Cross the townspeople held for Lent.

Others in the group were also impressed by the fervent faith expressed by the locals at daily Mass, with overflowing attendance and vibrant children’s voices.

In the afternoons, the groups were presented with education sessions. With the help of an interpreter, they heard firsthand of the community’s struggles and successes.

For one of the first-time missionaries, Lori Hoffman, it was a very touching experience. She said she cried for days after returning home.

“We as Americans feel like we need to fix, but understanding that we can’t fix everything was the hardest part … and understanding the why, that we (the United States) are a big cause of the why.”

Gelhaus addressed some of the realities affecting the Guatemalans they met that relate to what Americans have been seeing in the news.

According the Gelhaus, 90 percent of the Guatemalans wanting to come into the United States were “all the kind of people we see (in the mission) – the people that are making $3 a day, if that, picking coffee beans for Starbucks or bananas for Chiquita.

“They’re coming for a reason. They’re looking for a living (wage), because of us … We have their land, we’re using them as a slave labor and they don’t have many options, so they’re coming north,” he said, referring to the land owned by American companies outsourcing Guatemalan products to American consumers.

Hoffman said after seeing Guatemala in the news since they returned from the mission trip, “to hear ‘we don’t have room,’ it struck a chord. I don’t like politics, but I can’t ignore it any more after this trip.
“These people don’t have a life or an opportunity. They want their kids to have a life, and they don’t feel like they have a choice” except to leave.

She iterated her struggle since coming home from Guatemala, feeling like she needs to be doing something, but not sure what. Her voice quivering, she expressed how emotional the experience had been.

“I’ve been with my head in the sand for so long – we saw so much, learned so much, that it’s hard to collect that in something that I can transmit.”

Hoffman now feels the obligation to share what she learned and seen, and to encourage others to do so firsthand themselves.

Gelhaus recounted what a priest told him during another mission trip, one he made to South America. The priest acknowledged that as individuals, Americans are some of the most generous in the world, but he said they are also the most naïve.

For the veteran missionary, the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” is true, but even more so, “a mission trip is worth a thousand pictures, or more, because when you’re there and smelling and seeing and feeling, then you have a different understanding” and you’re able to be taken outside your comfort zone.

The Meyer sisters were amazed that, although most live in shacks with dirt floors and corrugated metal roofs, “They’re so happy!” They said that families “looked like they won the lottery” to see materials delivered that would become a two-room home housing up to eight people.

“And thanks to the work of Fr. Greg, we didn’t see the worst of the worst,” Hoffman said.

Gelhaus affirmed, “It’s an education for us when we go down there … If you look globally, middle-class Americans are in the top-10 percent worldwide. What we consider poor in our country would be rich in Guatemala. The people we helped are the worldwide middle class; they’re not even the destitute poor.”

Speaking of a conversation with her son since the mission trip, Hoffman said she was inspired to see what one man was able to do: “Step by step, person by person, that’s how you make a difference.”

She concluded, “I feel like the people of Guatemala gave so much more to me than I gave on that trip, by far.”
As the trip leader, Zenner seconded Hoffman’s experience: “Missions not only allow you to help make an impact but also impact you.”

The group was also able to immerse themselves in past and present Guatemalan culture – doing laundry at the local “pila,” encountering vendors as they walked the streets of San Lucas, a boat tour of Lake Atitlan, a “drive that was a bit terrifying” around curves and over potholes to a local’s lookout point.

Through their encounter with the people, helping with their daily and long-term needs, and cooperating with such an organized effort at the mission site, Zenner’s final thoughts were, “The best defense against ignorance is experience.”

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