A most important part to ministry is communication! So, the first week in Guatemala was spent in Antigua learning Spanish and about the amazing culture that would forever impact us. We attended a 5-Star language school where each of us had our own personal tutor to walk us through our own Spanish program. Since Michael and I were both 'familiar' with Spanish we considered ourselves at the intermediate level when we signed up for the school. On the first day, you are asked to take a placement test to appropriately assess your skill level and select a textbook from the grade levels A-G, G being the highest. Humbly, we were both placed in "Grado A."
We also visited the Lutheran Center in Antigua. Margrette, a friend from my parent's church in Colorado Springs, asked us to bring some pictures and information to a friend of hers at this center. The pictures were of her husband in 1951-52 at the center in Antigua....where he had done his vicarage! At one time the center was an active outreach to the city, and Robert Huebner was the assigned vicar. When delivering the photos we got to take a tour with Nury, the director of the center. Her current responsibility is to research the land to identify and excavate the ruins that they have discovered to be under the property! There is thought to be a whole building on their property, buried about 8 feet, of which they must uncover in order to fulfill their long-term goal of building a property fit for a seminary....quite the endeavor...well worth the effort in my opinion. It was a remarkable place to visit, and I had many aspirations as to what I would love to see happen there! (Now if someone would only ask, and then fund my ideas! Right Bill?)
While in Antigua, we stayed with a host family. Our family lived on the edges of town in a beautiful home. Even better was the relationship that we built there. We stayed with a family of 5. Lesbia, the mom, was the perfect hostess and was very helpful in our Spanish learning. She even wrote out many Guatemalan recipes for me!! The and her husband, Eduardo, had 3 girls ~Maria Jose, Andrea, and Marcella. They also had a young golden retriever named Dulce (Candy). This dog was so similar to our own! There were two other students who lived at the house with us, Kimmy and Donielle. They were teachers from New York and they were very nice in showing us around and helping us get acquainted with the city a little bit. It was great getting to know them as well. We were very well fed, and spent the evenings enjoying family. When leaving Antigua, it felt as though we were exiting a honeymoon of sorts, and were rather decided to return at some time in our future.
First of all, Guate is a beautiful country. It is tropical in that there was much rain while we were there, resulting in some amazing foliage. When in Antigua I loved the walk from our sponsor family's home to our Language school as we could just soak up the vegetation and look all around at the distant volcanoes! It was a brisk 15 minute walk that was a great beginning to each day. We started in the outskirts of town and progressed into the city, passing a few incredible churches, historical buildings, and a nice futbol stadium. The temperature was just right for wearing t-shirts and pants, ideal. Had we of been in St. Louis during this week, we would have been in the thick of summer with 100 degree days and more humidity than a Colorado girl can handle!
The food that we had was very rich and satisfying. I am just finished translating many recipes from the Spanish to English so that I can share them with friends. Highlights were the rice milk for breakfast, the avocado soup for lunch and the tortillas and plantains for supper. And I can't forget to mention the black beans....sensational! We went to only a few restaurants while there but were pleased every time. I specifically recommend the 'Cafe de Contessa' if anyone should happen to find themselves in Antigua.
Bartering for your purchases was a huge change, and one that was difficult to grasp, especially with how competitive I am. I tried to assess what the 'true value' of the item was since I was dealing with both a different currency, and the local people's assumptions that 'all Gringos are rich and should pay more'. And although there is truth to the later thought, you still don't want to be ripped off. Yet, when I was debating whether or not to buy something because the vendor would not come down any further, Micheal told me that I was walking from the sale over 1 American dollar! So I turned around and purchased the item. There was one artisan's store in which the prices were more or less 'set' and I choose to do more shopping there than in the markets.
In the produce market, I was amazed. I saw so many different spices and foods that I had never seen....it was so hard not to purchase a thing! Flowers abounded in magnificent displays, and the odious smell of 'fresh' fish engulfed the meat section. There were a lot fewer tourists in this section, and as I was taking pictures I realized that many of the adults would hide from my camera, so I stopped and therefore did not get as many pictures as I wanted of this colorful, glorious place.
As far as changes that made an affect on our daily life, there were quite a few huge ones. We had to be so cautious everywhere we went, especially in Guatemala City. Our freedoms to wander or have individual time out in the open was not possible. I could not carry my digital camera in the city, it would breach the team's safety for such a valuable item to be in sight. All money and personal information like passport and credit cards had to be in a concealed place, or just left in the house altogether. We had to keep an eye up at all times to see what those around us were doing, and while in the city we had 3 - 4 teenagers surrounding our team at all times keeping watch over us from the local gangs. Even the locals had this constant attention to their surroundings. There was no such thing as just deciding to go climb a near hillside for recreation, you had to be accompanied by a police escort! This was a surrender of freedom that I had never experienced before, and it was one that was quite hard to imagine doing for a long time.
Other changes included the bathrooms and plumbing for the city. It had all originally been plumbed with clay pipes, but with the earthquakes and effects of time, they were broken and had shifted. This being the case, you could not flush toilet paper! That took a few times to remember, it required breaking a habit that we have from toddler hood! The showers were also different. At our house in Antigua, we had hot water....scalding hot water!. We had to barely turn on the hot water and then let the ice cold water mix in for the 'perfect' tepid shower water. At our home in Guatemala City, we did not have the comforts of hot water pipes in the bathroom, and so we used a shower head that had electrical wires hanging out of it! Needless to say, I did not tinker with this equipment at all! The system was set up to have electricity running into the shower head, heating up coils on the inside that would then heat up the water that passed through. It was quite a trick to turn the water to flow slow enough so that it could pass through the coil at a rate that would render warm water. Once you accomplished the feat and felt proud of the trickle warm water you managed...someone in another part of the house would use the microwave or turn on a light, which would short the circuit to your shower head, starting over the process once more. Needless to say, I showered for shorter amounts of time than at home!
A nice change was the pace of life. Time was the people's greatest resource. They were so willing to sit and have a conversation. The day was started at dawn with a rooster's cry. Breakfast was served at 7 am. There was a mid-morning snack around 10:00 and then everyone broke for lunch around noon. There was a mid-day snack at 3:00 and between 7 and 8pm, we had dinner as a family. I could definitely go for these pauses in my day!
The actual 'mission' of our trip was organized through "The Servant's Heart". They are a ministry comprised of many Guatemalans and Americans who seek to serve the poorest people in Guatemala city. The majority of the population in the area are displaced Mayans that fled the mountains during the country's recent civil war, they were looking for safety and work. They found the garbage dump to be their best option...their only option. Being uneducated farmers, they had no skills to offer the city. They could earn meager pay by pulling out the items from the trash trucks that could be recycled for money, and a bonus came when they discovered that much food and drink was in the waste as well. It is a consistent job, one that generations of people have shared.
Yet, among this community that is seemingly hopeless, there is a growing desire for Jesus Christ. Our part in the ministry was to serve the people by building relationships and loving the unloved. What a blessing this was! Our first day consisted of us touring the elementary school that the Servant's Heart opened 3 years ago. This Lutheran day school is tuition free to the local children, but the parents do need to serve within the school one day a month by doing laundry, helping to clean after school hours, or working in the kitchen. There are currently 150 students enrolled in the school, and about 300 are on a waiting list to get in. Finances and space restrict the number of children enrolled. Breakfast, lunch, and after school programs are provided daily which allows these children a retreat from their home environment where most of them face starvation, abandonment, gang violence or abuse. So the kids flock to the school, they are eager to learn and strive to do their best with this great opportunity afforded them. Most of them have surpassed their parent's education by the time they are in 2nd grade. They are quick witted and aspire to be doctors, lawyers, pilots, teachers, pastors and models! They have joy in their hearts and a readiness to learn.
In addition to the children's ministry, we also prepared a women's study. Maryann had assembled hundreds of witness bracelet kit for the women to assemble after she taught on the woman who lost a coin and would not stop looking for it until it was found. The words that rang in my head, time and time again after this lesson, was that the coin was valuable - of utmost importance- that Jesus will not stop searching to find the one that was lost. When asked the question, "Do you have value to Jesus?" Some women nodded their head, some just wondered, and it was our joy to share the truth with them: Yes he values you so much that he would die on a cross and rise from death to save you! I think many women were quite affected by this thought, maybe even for some it was the first time they realized the were truly valuable.
Our team also served as spiritual guidance to the teachers and leaders of the school and ministry. We gave a few different studies for them. Michael even managed to get his slack-line down to Guatemala, and in his lesson taught on the 'balance' of leadership. Due to a lack in trees to tether the line to, we found ourselves up on the roof of the ministry building and the line was tied to the re-bar that protruded from the walls of the structure. It was a very thrilling event, and the leaders really enjoyed the challenge and message that this event brought.
The Servant's Heart also provides further education to their students after they graduate the 9th grade. When they graduate, The Servant's Heart offers to pay their tuition for high school and college if the student will work for them in the after school and Saturday programs for the younger children. Many of the students have elected to do this and have gained much responsibility and leadership within the walls of this ministry. They are thankful for their ability to serve the school that has provided so much for them. Even the six translators were once involved as children themselves, and now are attending college and in return lead the American groups through the week. They are amazing people with so much potential and drive!
In addition to the elementary school, The Servant's Heart also educates older students in occupational training and indigenous crafts. They are trying to provide people with the skills to make earn a living outside of the dump. We visited the site for their sewing department, wood shop, metal shop, bracelets, weaving, and the new t-shirt printmaking machine that was donated to them. They create many beautiful things that require tremendous skill and time.
Aside from teaching, we also took part in two community outreach events. The first was visiting the homes and people of the area. We would walk through the streets with our translators and they would knock on doors to see if anyone was home. When someone would stick their head out, our translators would ask if we could come in and talk with them. The six of us from St. Louis, plus 1-2 translators would cram into a home and visit with the people. We would talk of their problems and joys, their families, their hopes and fears. We would read the scriptures and we would pray for them. We did this a few times in the week and it was an amazing event, every time. People whose children attended the school were so grateful for our service, one lady even asked to pray for us and our team! That was a most humbling moment. Other people had never heard of the ministry and had never set foot in a church and did not know the story of Jesus! Others would tell us about themselves and just needed to talk about day to day life. Each one was willing and available to take the time for us.
The second outreach that the ministry runs is a food kitchen of sorts. The Servant's Heart provides food for a few hundred people in the neighborhood or by the dump four days a week. We went and served the food from the back of a small pick-up truck named 'Rodrigo'. Each person was to wash their hands with the water and soap that we provided, then would receive a bowl of food and some drink in a plastic bag (a Guatemalan modified Capri-Sun). For many this was their first and only meal for the day. It was a beautiful thing to wash the hands of the old and young alike. All were calloused, dirty, and cut, but they were attached to people with looks of gratitude on their faces. Visions from this time will be with me my entire life.
Towards the end of the week we took a trip to see the dump. Since the dump is no longer access able to Americans, we had to go into the city's cemetery to go to an overlook point. My stomach still lurches when I think of this site. We had to walk through rows of cement walls containing the caskets of others loved ones, all the time smelling a most horrific vomitous smell. Sections of the wall were broken, and empty slots exposed of where the living could not afford the year's rent for their deceased family member, the grave was broken, and the body cast down the hillside into the valley of the dump. As we got closer, there were enourmous vultures circling above, waiting for the rancid garbage...battleing with another vulture or a person working below. For miles trash was able to be seen. Constant beeping was heard as the large garbage trucks backed up to dump their collections onto the mounds of refuse for the people to sort. Directly behind the trucks stood people anticipating what might be found in their upcoming search.
The stench and despair of this sight is minimal compared to the sense of distrust and hopelessness worn on the faces of those living there daily. And it wasn't until we were overlooking the dump that I realized the truest tragedy of the people's life was the lack of relationship and trust with their government, their neighbors, their friends, their family....... In comes the Servants's Heart, providing them with stability, dependable friendships, and a relationship with this God~man named Jesus with whom they can give their trust. It is a contradiction to the rest of their society, and it is something that they can never truly live without. What a ministry this is!
To say that Michael and I have a desire to be a part of this ministry through our lives is a severe understatement! We hope to go back and serve on many different levels, only time and God's plan will reveal to what extent this will occur. Yet, we are not incapable of helping these great families and assisting the school because we are further away now. We have commited to supporting a child that will attend the Servant's Heart School hopefully until she completes her aspirations to be what she desires! We chose a little girl named Genesis. We asked for a kindergartener because she is close in age to our kids, a girl because we already have boys that we sponsor through other similar ministries, and I thought of my Gramma's church in Texas named "Genesis Lutheran Church" and how Genesis means 'Beginings' and how this is the begining to a great relationship for our family!
In addition to sponsorship we are collecting items for the future Seminary groups to take with them. Hygiene items, shoes, clothes, stuffed animals and toys are a few of the things that we will send. We can pack two 50lb bags per person going on the trip to take with them for the families! It is such a huge blessing to their community!
We also can lift our friends up in prayer regularly. There are countless events in my day that make me think of our time in Guatemala. In some respects that may be the case since we just returned from the trip, yet I hope that these flashbacks don't fade away. Each time a memory pops into my mind, it is an invitation to pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ. (Take a moment to do so right now if you will!)
Lastly, we have the joy of sharing our story with others and encouraging them to get involved in some way themselves. I highly recommend that if you are looking for a mission to serve, the Servant's Heart should be greatly considered. Their website is: http://www.theservantsheart.org/ You will be forever changed.
I hope that this encourages you to make a difference in others lives today. Thank you for all of the support; the prayers, finances, and encouragement. We love each and every one of you with the love of Christ.