Over thirty years ago, when Wayne and I had just moved to Ossining with two young children, I ventured to the top of the steep hill overlooking the Hudson River Valley where Maryknoll sits. There I met Sister Helen at the Maryknoll Cloister. She became a dear friend. When Sister Helen was 68, she and several other sisters moved to Lemoa, a small rural village in the mountains of Guatemala, to be a prayer presence among the indigenous people of the Highlands, the Quiche. Sister Helen is now 96, and while we have continued to see her when she returns to Maryknoll every three years for a renewal time lasting three months, we have dreamed of visiting her in her beloved home among the Quiche people. Pura Vida, an organization growing out of a United Methodist Church in Colorado, has collaborated with the Maryknoll sisters’ mission in the Lemoa area for many years. Pura Vida welcomed us to join one of their work trips, including us in their group travel and hotel accommodations. Together we will build two simple cinderblock houses. Our church, The Presbyterian Church of Mount Kisco, graciously supported this work project with a contribution for building materials.
I did my best, on the flight from New York LaGuardia Airport, to immerse myself in Spanish, and to switch gears to our Guatemalan adventure. I began reading What Prize Awaits Us, Letters from Guatemala by Bernice Kita, a Maryknoll sister who lived in rural Guatemala during the time of “La Violencia” in the early 1980s. I recalled that my letters to Sister Helen in the early 1990s had to be careful not to refer to any “sensitive” issues that might be noticed by the military, but this book gave me a deeper understanding of the suffering of the indigenous people of Guatemala. The brutal government of Rios-Montt systematically tortured and killed indigenous people. Since many of the indigenous farmers were Catholics, and the Catholic Church challenged the conditions of poverty in which the poor farmers lived, as well as repressive government tactics, indigenous people were seen as a threat.
Antigua was our destination, only an hour’s drive from Guatemala City. Just outside of town, at midnight, we were stopped by Guatemalan police at a checkpoint. Our tour leaders, Laura and Mike Richards, explained that this was not unusual, and after some negotiations with Archie and Jose, including an exchange of money (a “tax” to get into the old city of Antigua), we were on our way, escorted by the police, over rough cobblestone streets, to our hotel. Antigua is a charming Spanish colonial town and an international center for language study. Its narrow streets are lined with one or two story stucco and stone buildings (a necessity because of earthquake destruction), colorfully painted, and with flowering bougainvillea and jacaranda trees.
We entered our hotel complex, amazed at the outdoor courtyard around which it was built, brimming with green and flowering plants and trees, with a fountain in the center. Our room was simple, but included our own toilet and even a shower! We dutifully remembered NOT to brush our teeth using tap water, and fell into bed for a short five-hour night’s sleep.
Sunday, February 28
We were up at 6:15 a.m., and after a bountiful breakfast complete with fresh Guatemalan pineapple and papaya, boarded our trusty bus, with Archie at the helm, for the drive to Chichicastenango. Chichi was to be our home for the week. In the beginning the drive wound through truck farms rich with green lettuces and cabbages. As we gained elevation, dry hills and mountains became more wooded, and patches of cultivation became smaller, terraced on the steep hillsides. We climbed into the Highlands, the part of Guatemala where most of the indigenous people live, and where traditional dress is worn. Here, too, they maintain old customs, many of which combine old Mayan religious traditions with newer Catholic or evangelical ones.
Around noon we arrived in Chichi, a bustling city with “chicken” buses arriving from every direction, overloaded vehicles full to the brim carrying indigenous folk from the surrounding mountains, to market day. Smaller vans held as many as 17-20 people, packed carefully, and with colorful embroidered cloths holding goods bought at the market on their rooftops. The sound of intrepid engines, grinding gears, and friendly honks resounded through the narrow streets, competing with upbeat Guatemalan music. It felt like a big, chaotic fiesta, quite the contrast to our quiet entry into Guatemala City late on Sunday night.
We settled into our exquisite Spanish colonial hotel, Hotel Santo Tomas, right on the main street through town. We were in the middle of the action! Fortunately, while our tiny second floor balcony gave us a bird’s-eye view of the frenetic activity on the street, the door to our room again opened onto a lovely courtyard, with two fountains, and exquisite flowers everywhere. It was a tiny paradise where the grime and noise of the street fell away.
The minister was a jovial, wiry, high energy man, perhaps in his late 30s. Since today was a once-a-year “offering” Sunday, all the congregants had brought a gift from their “bounty” to place on the long table in front of the pulpit. There were roosters and chickens in small cages, a rabbit, clusters of blue corn and yellow corn, flowers, squashes, potatoes, oranges, avocados, and more. Throughout the pastor’s animated sermon, women kept coming forward with more gifts. The minister inspired us with his quick smile, and his reminders that this community of faith gave generously, putting Dios first, especially when they needed money to finish building the church. They had acted on faith, not knowing where the money would come from, but the whole community came together to continue building. “Dios es primero!” He sprinkled his sermon with Biblical texts, about trusting in Dios above all, especially when it is most difficult to do so. There were more women than men in the pews, and lots of children, who were very well-behaved for a sermon lasting 45 minutes. Everyone seemed very contented and relaxed to be gathered there. After the sermon there was singing, accompanied by synthesized keyboard music. A young man projected the words on the wall behind the pulpit. The tunes were familiar, “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “Thine Be the Glory,” and everyone sang in Spanish with gusto.
It was a spirited church service we shared with the indigenous people, lasting one and a half hours at least, spreading joy through the mountains.
Monday, February 29
Today we began our regular schedule: Breakfast was at 7:00 a.m., with fresh fruit, black beans, scrambled eggs, salsa and tortillas. All 27 of us gathered around the fountain in the courtyard after breakfast for simple devotions, a quiet and grateful moment together. We were eager to get our hands dirty with our construction projects, building two cinderblock houses in San Sebastian Lemoa.
We boarded our bus for a twenty minute drive through the mountainous terrain, twisting and turning around hairpin turns. Our first stop was the John Wesley Retreat Center, built by Methodists some 15 years ago, for the housing of young people on work trips, as well as for retreats and for an English language institute. This was where we would have lunch each day. After unloading lunch supplies, we divided into two construction groups, about twelve people for each site. Manuel, Marco, Elisio, and Otto, four young Guatemalan men hired by Pura Vida to be our construction foremen, also split up so that each work site would have two much-needed experts. We walked to our work site, a short ten minute walk which seemed longer in the 80 degree heat and at 6,000 feet altitude. Both Wayne and I had slight headaches from the altitude change from sea-level in Ossining. We were counseled to drink plenty of water.
It was difficult to comprehend the poverty of this homestead. Magdalena’s mother’s house was a dilapidated adobe brick construction, with two rooms, a tin roof, and pieces of plastic suspended here and there, either to keep out leaks or to provide extra shade. Magdalena had clean laundry hanging on a line across the dry, dusty yard, where chickens and turkeys roamed. There were piles of chopped wood sharing the yard as well, and, of course, a cheap plastic soccer ball. There was little shade, but the children instinctively sought out every square inch of it, including a tiny shadow created by the two big water barrels we would be using to make concrete and mud. Those same barrels became part of a “peek-a-boo” game with Osbin who was beginning to smile shyly at our silliness.
The team took good care of each other. The First Aid Team (Wayne and me) reminded people to take water breaks. We also cleaned and covered the inevitable scrapes and scratches, using liberal amounts of antibiotic ointment. Carolyn brought around mid-morning energy snacks. Then, on to work, twisting freshly-cut wire ties (Wayne’s morning job with Carolyn and Steve, the pastor from the Loveland Colorado Methodist Church), using a pliers to twist it tightly around the rebar C clamps which in turn held together long fifteen foot rebar “ladders.” These ladders would form the inner reinforcement skeleton of the foundation as well as the six columns that will hold up the “casa.” It was tedious detail work, but important preparation for the pouring of cement.
End of afternoon. Dusty, tired, happy. More “conversations” in broken Spanish, conversations punctuated more by smiles than words, the common human language that breaks all cultural barriers. “Manana?” asked the children. “Non. Miercoles,” I replied. Sadness in their eyes and ours. We would miss each other as tomorrow we would be at the other work site. Hugs and more hugs.
The bus chugged its way back to Chichi. In front of Hotel Santo Tomas was the entourage of Quiche women in their lovely embroidered skirts and blouses, waited to sell us more of their wares. We resisted. We showered, and went to dinner at 7:00 p.m. After dinner we gathered in a meeting hall for devotions and for planning the next day. Steve, pastor of the Loveland Methodist Church where 19 of our 25 volunteers are from, lead devotions. He told a story which culminated in a question for discussion, followed by a prayer.
Bedtime was early for all of us weary workers. We were asleep by 9:30 p.m.
Tuesday, March 1
Today we will see Sister Helen and Sister Connie! I awoke at 5:30 a.m. Thank you, God, for today. Thank you for bringing us to Lemoa. Bless the sisters in their work, opening hearts across cultures. Bless them for building this opportunity to expand our understanding of being human, across barriers, strengthened and gathered into loving community.
Our morning routine is well-established already. Breakfast at 7 a.m. with our bright-eyed group of 27. At 7:50 we gather around the fountain for devotions. At 8:00 we are on the bus, count to 27 to make sure all are accounted for, and off we go from Chichi to Lemoa.
Archie cranked and shifted our bus, which he polishes each and every day before leaving, up and around the S curves, through the arid mountains for our twenty minute drive. This is the dry season, with the rainy season arriving in May or June when it is very hot and humid, raining hard every day. The mountainsides are dotted with adobe casas, each with its small plot of clay soil where the people grow their corn and beans. The ravines and hillsides are partially tree-covered, evergreens with needles that are longer and finer than our northerly pines, and with orange, lemon, avocado and banana trees. One avocado tree can produce as many as 4,000 avocados in a season.
Today we would switch work sites, Team 1 going to the Gonzales family, and we (Team 2) to Lorenzo’s family. Lorenzo and his wife Catarina have ten children. Lorenzo, like Felipe, sustained a bad injury and cannot do much work. He was cycling one day, carrying a machete, and fell off the bike, severely injuring his leg with the machete. He now pedals around selling ice cream, not making enough quetsales to support ten children.
We saw a farmer hoeing his furrows, and another making adobe bricks. After the harvest of corn and beans has been secured in the months of January and February, and during this dry season, it is very difficult for the men to find work. They may travel a bit to a nearby slightly larger farm to do day labor. Or, some of them may travel three hours to the Pacific coast where they stay for two to three months, working for low wages for Chiquita Banana, Domino Sugar, or a coffee plantation. For some men leaving the Highlands from Monday to Friday has become the norm, returning to their families from work in Guatemala City, three hours away, only for the weekend. For now, these farmers have plenty of beans and dried corn stored for making their tortillas, but by August and September, food sometimes runs out. The rainy season in May and June becomes a very busy time again as planting begins after the first rain.
Today’s work on Lorenzo’s house would entail building up the cinderblock walls. We were grateful to be done with rebar for the time being as we were all nursing bruises or soreness from the repetitive movements of twisting rebar. First, we made the mud, not to be confused with concrete, which includes stones and is used for the foundations, not between the cinderblocks. Then we worked in twos, one applying just the right amount of the mud, using trowels, and the other placing the cinderblock and using a hammer to tap it into perfect placement along the plumb line. Elisio and Otto provided quality control, a little too much mud, or too little. Alongside the laughter and teamwork, our cinderblock wall began to rise, four layers high by day’s end.
We stopped work by 3:30 today because we were all going to visit Sisters Helen and Connie at their residence which is attached to a large Spanish colonial church, Iglisio San Sebastian. The church sits high up on top a hill, with a commanding view overlooking the village. The bus ground its gears up the steep incline. I could barely wait to ring Sister Helen’s doorbell, much as I had done some thirty years ago at the Maryknoll cloister, which also sits at the top of a hill with a beautiful view overlooking the Hudson River Valley. I could barely wait to throw my arms around her, this dear friend that we have dreamed about visiting in her Guatemalan home.
For our devotions Steve told a story about flamingo migration. A few leaders start off on the journey, but only a few follow. Each day they set off anew, each day failing to get the critical mass to follow. Then, suddenly, one day, ALL of the flamingos join in the flight south. The question followed: Can a small action make a difference? We discussed our visit with the sisters, the simplicity and humility of their lives which inspire so many others, small compassionate actions making a big difference.
Wednesday, March 2
Our first stop today was the Rosario School, also affectionately known as the “Cornstalk School,” because it had originally been constructed from cornstalks. It is a Kindergarten through 6th grade public school, located out one of the hard-packed clay roads on the outskirts of Lemoa. There are two public schools in Lemoa, one of them on the single paved road through town, and the Rosario School. Pura Vida helped build it some years ago, four classrooms and a kitchen. Shortly after Pura Vida supported this project, the government decided it should get involved as well, and it started to build another wing across the courtyard from the new school. Unfortunately, this project was never finished, and it has now become a dilapidated and dangerous work area being held up from collapse with hundreds of pieces of lumber.
One little girl, about seven years old, all dressed up in blue, kept watching me carefully as the crowd of children kept snaking closer and closer to the seated guests. I felt like I could nearly read her mind: “No, I don’t quite want to smile…but let me peak around the boy next to me…I’ll smile a little, but no eye contact…Oh, I guess a smile won’t hurt…Let me see, what kind of mischief can I get into?..Aha!...just you wait…Look. See? My hands are empty and I haven’t thrown a thing!...Well, these pretty pink flowers on the edge of the stage…I think I’ll toss them at the boys…
Another little girl, probably a Kindergartner, entertained me less, but absolutely stole my heart. Since she was tiny she stood right up front, near us, eager with anticipation for the performance, poised and attentive. Her eyes met mine with ease and grace. She smiled gently, and then refocused her attention on the stage. She embraced the show with wide-eyed appreciation.
It was time for a parting photograph, including all students, teachers, and visitors. Such friends we had become in a morning together! We left the Rosario School with two brand new soccer balls, which made it front and center into our picture. As we boarded the bus, we received one last “Adios!” from a small group waiting, in front of a field of drying adobe bricks, for their own bus. Their school day ends at noon. It included the little girl in blue, now waving vigorously with both hands, our new Guatemalan friend.
Tired, dirty, and happy, we placed ourselves in the care of Archie for the ride back to Hotel Santo Tomas for dinner, devotions, a little journal writing, and bed.
Today our first stop was a visit to a casa Pura Vida had constructed a year ago with donations from the family of one of our team members, in honor of their mother’s 90th birthday. Since our group will be constructing just over half of the two houses we are working on this week, this visit would allow us to see a finished product.
We walked down the narrow clay path in single file. Tall brown corn stalks stood like sentinels at our left flank. A bit ahead, just where the path turned left toward the casa, stood a tiny white stucco church: Iglesia de Dios Betesda. Our path was now surrounded on all sides by corn stalks, a dense tangle of gold and brown. The tangle thickened into a world of woven squash vines grown as tall as a tree. We had entered a maze of arid brown stalks and vines, a secret entry way to Ana Luisa’s “settlement.” Then came the five laughing children, also single-file on the narrow path, running to greet all 27 of us with hugs.
Archie dropped off most of the workers at the worksites, and then drove eight of us who were teachers back to the Cornstalk School to spend time in some classrooms. Chris and I went to a sixth grade classroom where Laura was the teacher. The students ranged in age from 11-14, depending on their skill level. Since they were engaged in a hands-on project using yarn and colored paper to fashion simple cells, we had the opportunity to ask Laura some questions. With the help of Archie, we had a fascinating conversation.
Is it difficult to keep a disciplined classroom with sixth graders? Yes, it is hard work because of their age.
Since the public schools end after sixth grade, will any of your students go on to Basico (Middle School)? No. No one in this class of twenty students will go on, either because they cannot pay the necessary money for uniforms and books, or they don’t have the motivation to commute to Chichi or Santa Cruz, a twenty minute bus ride, each day.
What do the students do after finishing sixth grade? The boys mostly work with their fathers. The girls usually marry at sixteen or seventeen, and begin having children.
Are there any big problems, especially the young boys hanging around with little to do? Drugs? Gangs? Vandalism? Not really. The villages like Lemoa have Mayan leaders who have strong leadership. If a boy is causing problems, he must meet with them and receive a warning or a punishment. Generally, that is enough to deter bad behavior. (Sisters Helen and Connie had also told us a story about village justice. One boy in Lemoa was using drugs. The Mayan leaders called the village together on the steps of Iglesia San Sebastian. The young man stood on top of the stairs, with the village calling out to him not to do drugs. He apologized to the community. This deterrent seemed to work to help him change his ways.)
Do you teach sex education? Yes, we do, but it is very difficult to break traditional patterns. This is a machismo culture, and men think women should have babies. (Laura showed us her teacher’s manual which covered human anatomy.)
Where do you live? I am from Lemoa, and I have taught at the Rosario School for four years. I love this school. I have two children, and my daughter has a Pura Vida scholarship to attend Basico in Santa Cruz. My husband travels to Guatemala City for work because there isn’t much work here. He is gone Monday through Friday, and returns for the weekend.
I asked the sisters about a typical day in their lives. They arise very early, Sister Helen possibly at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. That is Sister Helen’s time for meditation and prayer, while Sister Connie does Chigong. Morning prayer is at 7:00 a.m., followed by breakfast. Sister Helen is a voracious reader. Having requested and received a Kindle for her 90th birthday, the sisters were even able to secure a Wifi connection. They both spend a fair amount of time connected to the internet in this tiny mountain village. Sister Helen reads spiritual literature, keeping them abreast of new spirituality. They are also connected to a broader catholic community. A couple of hours north of them, in San Andres, live two other Maryknoll sisters, including Bernice Kita, author of the book What Prize Awaits Us. These sisters usually visit Helen and Connie in Lemoa twice a month. There are also sisters living along the Caribbean coast of Guatemala whom they see about four times a year for meetings in Guatemala City. There are also the daily visits from local women and children.
While we were having dinner, a little past noon, the doorbell rang. Sister Helen jumped up to answer and Sister Connie commented that their visitors always seem to come at dinner time! I followed Sister Helen to observe a moment of her daily encounters. She was greeted by a young woman who was carrying her approximately eighteen month old baby in a sling on her back. Her older son was in the hospital sick, and she needed bus money to visit him. Sister Helen listened attentively, asked a few questions, and then left briefly to get a bit of money for her bus fare. With the help of local leaders, the sisters receive input on which villagers are truly needy. A few minutes later a young woman joined us at dinner. Valentina was spirited and had a quick smile. She has been living with the sisters for six months, and will stay with them until her graduation as a social worker. With Sister Helen and Sister Connie translating, we learned about her field work in Lemoa. Her grandfather had been killed in La Violencia.
After dinner, Sister Helen brought out an absolutely perfect pineapple upside down cake she had baked for us. What a beautiful effort she made on our behalf, and I had to have two pieces in order to properly show my appreciation!
We walked back to the retreat center mid-afternoon, finding our fellow workers finished with Lorenzo and Catarina’s house, at least to the point at which we stop and the next Pura Vida work crew commences, at the end of March. They had finished pouring the U blocks full of cement and five layers of cinderblocks were in place.
For devotions tonight we discussed the question, “How do we want to walk through life?” We spoke of our desire to walk together, not alone. A symbol for this became those rebar C clamps we cranked into shape on Monday. For our prayer, we all stood and linked arms, forming C clamps, much stronger together than separate.
Our last day of work brought a little sadness. Since we were ahead of our work schedule, Laura talked to Mark Ely, the director of Pura Vida, about another job we might begin. So Friday morning half of the group went back to finish work on Felipe and Magdalena’s house, and the rest of us went to an entirely new site, the house of Francesca, mother of a daughter and a three year old son named Luca. Her husband had abandoned them, and they were currently living with her mother in a rather dilapidated domicile with plastic hung over parts of the roof to keep out rain. Our job was to begin prepping the land for a foundation. We also measured a circle, six feet in diameter, where we began to dig into the hard-as-rock soil for a latrine. This hole would eventually go down twelve feet. Our one pickaxe was the only effective tool to break through the parched clay. After the soil was loosened, we used shovels to scoop away the dirt, and by the end of the morning a small group had painstakingly dug down about two feet. The rest of us cleared a piece of land, about 25 feet by 25 feet, for the foundation. The land was covered with thistles and tough, brown corn stalks. Some of us used large hoes to loosen the earth, while others pulled out the loosened vegetation. It was hard work!
In the corner of the future house stood a tall, mature banana plant. It needed to be saved as it provided an important food source for Francesca and her family. Wayne started digging to find the roots. Soon Bob, Rob, and Archie joined in the battle, as well as Francesca herself. With dogged determination they used every primitive tool at their disposal to coax that banana tree free. They hacked, and they consulted on strategies. They tried slipping a rope under the roots they had exposed about a foot and a half down, all pulling together, to no avail. Finally, after undermining it from all sides, they pushed and pulled, and slowly it gave in and fell to one side. It was much too large to carry away, so they rolled it off to one side. Later, Francesca would herself split it into three or four smaller banana trees with her machete, and plant those. What an effort that was, and we all clapped and hollered when it went down! Big smiles broke out on Guatemalan and American faces alike.
While I was helping to hack away corn stalks and thistles, mischievous Luca tried to get our attention to play: “Hola! Hola! Hola!” This impish little boy would not take “trabajo” (work) for an answer. He found two discarded bits of trash in the yard, bottle caps from plastic water bottles, and started to hurl them in my direction. With his persuasive gestures, I was soon playing catch with him, tossing them to him, and then he back to me. Every time I successfully caught them, his peals of laughter communicated that he had never had such fun in his life. When I finally insisted on going back to “trabajo,” he picked up a small hoe himself and started working too. Periodically, the “Hola!” rang out again, precipitating another round of “Catch the bottle cap.” We could not have asked for a more joyful last morning of working alongside this little family.
At 11:00 a.m. our Archie-driven bus carried us back to Magdalena and Felipe’s house for a blessing of their half-completed house and for good byes. Magdalena, Ana Maria, Selena, and Fernando greeted each one of us with warm hugs as we stepped off the bus. We gathered in front of the house for a picture, workers and family bonded together as strongly as the cement we had poured. Then we circled around the casa, all laying hands on the top layer of cinderblocks, while Steve said a prayer of blessing for this home of protection and love. There were more hugs, all the way to the doors of the bus. One more last special hug for Ana Maria. “Buen suerte! Via con Dios!” We will miss this dear family, and we will treasure memories that are as lasting as our names which we etched into the wet concrete of the fifth layer of their new casa.
We boarded our bus and headed to the big town of Santa Cruz, twenty minutes down the road. This is where Dolores goes to the John Wesley School, and this is where Sister Helen and Sister Connie attend mass every Sunday. When we arrived, we received what we now understood to be a signature of Guatemalan warmth, hugs for all 27 of us from four eighth graders who represented the student body. Since today was Sports Day, the students would not be attending classes. We entered into a covered courtyard which had just been completed in 2014. Here the two heads of the school, the CFO and the principal, passionately described their vision to create this school. The principal, who is also a Methodist preacher, described an actual dream he had to start a school. At first they had one small building with 46 students, but with no money to pay teachers. They were close to giving up, but persevered by paying the teachers for three years with their own money. As enrollment grew, Pura Vida learned of the project and organized work groups to come help build. In 2008 and 2009 the second and third floors were added. The enrollment is now at 540 students, 340 of whom are scholarship students, many of them supported by Pura Vida families. They are grateful to God for Pura Vida helping make their dream a reality
After our visit, the principal/pastor boarded the bus with us to say a prayer, a fervent prayer of gratitude and blessing for Pura Vida and for the John Wesley School of Santa Cruz.
Sister Helen and Sister Connie joined us at Hotel Santo Tomas in Chichi for dinner tonight. Sister Helen told us stories about some of the other Maryknoll sisters scattered about Guatemala. Both of the sisters clearly enjoyed this noisy meal with 27 hard-working people who had come to share their love for the people of Guatemala. We said our goodbyes, knowing that we would see the sisters in a year and a half when they return to Maryknoll for renewal.