Dentist Dr. Tom Gelhaus and his wife, Mary, members of Holy Rosary, Medford, just returned from a mission trip to San Lucas Toliman Mission, Guatemala. Accompanied by missionaries from Owen, Thorp and Withee, the couple helped build houses, toured facilities and learned about Guatemala’s tumultuous history. Gelhaus’ charity, Muchas Sonrisas (Many Smiles) raises money to provide dental and health care in Guatemala. He spent one day working with a medical team from Colorado; here, he puts preventative fluoride varnish on a woman’s teeth. (Facebook photo, used with permission)

Editor’s note: Dentist Tom Gelhaus was featured in a 2019 article. He returned to Guatemala last month. To follow his nonprofit, visit Muchas Sonrisas, Inc. on Facebook.

Mary and Tom Gelhaus, founders of the nonprofit Muchas Sonrisas (Many Smiles) Inc., led a group of eight to San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala, the last week-and-a-half of April. The mission church was built in 1584 and has been supported by the New Ulm Diocese in Minnesota for more than 70 years.

Mary and Tom, members of Holy Rosary, Medford, are from rural Owen. Brian Bredlau, Dan Tolzman, Lana Ciszewski and Jim Mauel are from Holy Rosary Parish, Owen. Barb Finkelson is from Withee and Nancy Abramczak is from Thorp.

Tom, Brian and Dan arrived uneventfully on April 20. San Lucas is about a three- to four-hour drive west of Guatemala City through many winding mountain roads and past several volcanos. The remainder of the group had a flight cancellation, and spent the night in Dallas rather than flying on to Guatemala City on April 21 as planned. Tom, Brian, and Dan went to Mass at the Mission Church, then spent Sunday afternoon at Casa Feliz, visiting Katie (Wallyn) and husband Juan Pablo Rodriguez and his mother from Columbia. Casa had been an orphanage during the war but now serves the elderly in the area. The men did construction work and helped with the construction of a new stove/house on Monday morning, then attended a presentation of the mission’s coffee program in the afternoon. One of the mission’s services involves buying coffee beans at a fair price from local farmers, roasting the beans and preparing them for export to the States. These beans are marketed here as Café Juan Ana.

At mealtime at the mission, the three men met a Colorado medical group led by Larry. This group has five general practitioners and five nurses, who are all volunteering at the mission hospital and villages. Larry is the chairman of the San Lucas Health Care Committee and has made 20 trips with medical teams. Among the doctors are Buzz, Jay and Cindy from Durango, all who later evaluated Tom’s angry-looking spider bite and prescribed antibiotics.

Our group activities were pushed back a day, until April 22, due to the rest of the group’s late arrival, so unfortunately we missed a day of construction and other activities. (Tom also lost a day providing dental care with the medical team.) Sophia and Kadence, visitor coordinators, were familiar faces from last year’s mission trip. The visitor program was also staffed by five or six other long-term volunteers who greeted us and acted as interpreters during the entire visit. Some of these selfless individuals had given up three or six months of their lives, livelihood and careers to work at San Lucas. During the week, we were able to tour the mission’s school, hospital, rural health center, coffee operation and women’s center, participate in cooking classes with local indigenous children and participate in the children’s Mass at the church. We also visited the Peace Park in Santiago Atitlan and listened to a presentation by a survivor of the massacre there during the Guatemalan Civil War, as the Muchas Sonrisas group had done last year.

We had a couple new native speakers as well, one of whom spoke of growing up on a “finca” or farm amid the strife. The other spoke of growing up in the San Feliz orphanage in San Lucas, and how the support and education procured through the support of Fr. Greg Schaeffer changed his life. All programs were extremely educational and informative. Some programs were really excellent and some even heart-wrenching, and most of us agreed that the cooking class with the children was a highlight of the trip. The Sunday free day boat tour on Lake Atitlan included visits to San Juan La Laguna and the chocolate factory, as well as a return trip to Santiago Atitlan, which we had previously visited by van.

So, what did we accomplish? Hopefully we showed others that we are a caring group with some love and compassion. I’m sure we slowed down the mission’s knowledgeable construction crews. On a previous trip to a different mission, we learned a work team takes about a week to build a house, which is usually two smallish rooms. If a mission construction crew of usually two or three fellows work alone, without the U.S. helpers, they can get it done in half the time. But they are patient with us as we learn how it is done completely by hand. It reminds us of when we let our children “help” us with painting or other tasks. It would be easier, faster, and done better to do it alone. But having us work with local residents is the best way for us to understand how Guatemalans live: what takes up their day, things like preparing food, finding and gathering water and wood, washing clothes. There is no warm water for a bath or shower. No convenient appliances. Most are elated to have a smoke stack over the wood fire, as lung issues for women and children are rampant, and a concrete floor rather than just dirt, making a home cleaner and warmer.

And what did we learn? We learned that these Guatemalans live with much less than we have. They live like most (75 percent) of the people in the world. They are the world’s middle class. Resources are available in their beautiful country, but foreign countries own much of the productive land and take these resources. The native Guatemalans are left with little, and if they are lucky, they might get to farm steep mountainsides, often tying themselves with rope to trees and planting corn seeds one by one. Those without land work picking coffee beans, bananas or other fruits and vegetables for large foreign conglomerates, or they work in clothing sweatshops. Sometimes they only make $3/day, but it takes about $5/day for enough corn to feed the family. By necessity, children often leave school after third grade to contribute an extra 50 cents per day to supplement the family income.

We learned of murders and massacres during the Civil War that the United States government initiated to appease our fruit companies, which ended only 30 years ago. Basically, 250,000 individuals died so we can continue to eat cheap bananas. We learned firsthand from a survivor who hid under bloody bodies. We learned of the assassination in 1981 of Bl. Fr. Stanley Rother of Oklahoma, who spoke out and worked for justice and peace, and we visited the room where he was martyred. Our presenter knew that the arms and ammunition used in these events came from the U.S.A., yet spoke with great thankfulness for what the American priests at the mission did at that time to help. Despite the injustices of the past, and present U.S. government and corporate policies that allow those injustices to linger, he continues to very much appreciate the support given by the Diocese of New Ulm, Minnesota, the Friends of San Lucas, others who travel to learn about the work of the mission, and the many long-term volunteers. It’s humbling to hear him speak to the good of our country and refrain from any bitter commentary.

We learn why immigration on the southern border is such an issue, why men are forced to leave their country and families to earn dollars to send back home, and why whole families leave to search for a future for their children. We meet families in the situation of the Honduran roadworkers killed in the Baltimore Bridge collapse. We learn it is difficult for them not speaking English in the United States, just as it is difficult for us visiting the mission not being able to speak Spanish or Kaqchikel (the language of the Indigenous Mayan population).

We learn having clean water is not to be taken for granted, that showers are not always hot, that many in the world live without and as some of us experience travelers’ diarrhea or contract amoebas, we learn how lucky we are to be here at the mission and receive medicines. So many in the Third World die of these problems without treatment.

And we learn that those “rich man” stories in Scripture are meant for us, that it is our indifference and naivete that lead us to be ignorant of our part in the Guatemalan tragedy, as we “ignore Lazarus” (Luke 16:19-31).