Returning to Guatemala

In just three days, I leave for Guatemala.

I have vivid memories of my trip to Esquipulas, Chicaman last year, the intensity of poverty, the beauty of the people, all that I learned about prioritizing relationships, and a painful clarity about how much I have and take for granted.

Twelve of us spent the week helping install latrines and handwashing stations in Esquipulas, because the leading causes of death in children ages 0-5 are diarrhea (41%) and acute respiratory infection (25.3%). Providence Health International (PHI) is committed to ensuring that each home with children under five will have a sanitary latrine and clean-burning stove, and every mother will have access to health education and support. That each family will have access to clean water.

Some other facts about Chicaman: 

–Chicaman is made up of 71 communities, with a population of 35,000

–There is one doctor for every 10,726 people.

–The rate of chronic malnutrition under 24 months of age is 66%

–Almost 88% of the population lives in poverty (less than $2 a day) and 67% lives in extreme poverty (less than $1.25 per day).

It’s easy to go on a trip like this and be struck by how important it is to help, to want to offer as much as we can in the way of time and resources. But it was more important that we build relationships.

We witnessed powerful examples of the importance of relationships. PHI and Medical Teams International (MTI), our community partner, are committed to partnering with families — each family that was to receive a latrine was to dig a deep hole before we arrived. However, we came to Esquipulas the week after Easter. The majority of the village is Catholic, and the father of one family was also the deacon of the church, responsible for the community’s extensive Easter celebrations. When we arrived he was still finishing digging his hole.

However, we had seen him earlier that morning. Across the way, when we’d been installing a latrine for another family, this man was present, helping his neighbor, and putting his neighbor’s needs ahead of his own. And when the time came, his neighbors reciprocated.

I couldn’t help but think in “my” world, I would have said “Gosh, I’d really like to help you, but I’ve been really busy and I need to make sure I get my hole dug before the team arrives.” But that’s not how it works in Guatemala. And that sense of community, that valuing of relationship — they are the better for it, and I’m aware of what I lack.

Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, known as the “Father of Liberation Theology,” in talking about the “preferential option for the poor,” says that “It is good to specify that the preferential option for the poor, if it aims at the promotion of justice, equally implies friendship with the poor and among the poor. Without friendship there is neither authentic solidarity or a true sharing. In fact, it is a commitment to specific people.” (P. 157, In the Company of the Poor: Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, edited by Michael Griffin and Jannie Weiss Block).

Gutierrez also says that “There is no true commitment to solidarity with the poor if one sees them merely as people passively waiting for help. Respecting their status as those who control their own destiny in an indispensable condition for genuine solidarity.” (P. 156)

Next week I’ll be returning to Esquipulas, this time co-leading a group of Providence Alaska caregivers (14 of us, altogether). Again, we will partner with Medical Teams International, this time helping with a water collection project.

I know that this trip will be about far more than water. My heart will stretch. And ache. And love. 

I can’t wait to share the stories with you.

If you’d like to support this work, you can do that by clicking here, through Providence Health International. We can only do this together.


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