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The Gift of Friends in Guatemala

IUCC Guatemala Trip – February/March 2012
Reports from Members of Irvine United Congregational Church
On a Week Spent Building Stoves, Immersing Themselves in a New Culture and Studying the Needs of Students at San Bartolome School in San Andres Itzapa


(Mixing cement to make stoves)

The Gift of Friends in Guatemala by Terry LePage

     The people we met in the town of San Andres Iztapa, Chimaltenango district, Guatemala, were so gracious and welcoming.  Despite our “fair to almost nonexistent” levels of Spanish, they welcomed any attempt at conversation.  For me this meant large doses of sign language and laughter.  They shared their hopes and dreams with us, as well as their gratitude for our presence and our friendship.  I am still pondering what it means to be friends with people so far away from my home and in such different life circumstances.  I know that friends love to give to, and receive from, one another.  Here are some of the gifts I received from my new Guatemalan friends.

• Learning, learning, learning…  How people live in Guatemala.  How education is essential in breaking the cycle of poverty.  How infrastructure we take for granted in California is lacking, and sometimes unsustainable, in San Andres.  How committed community leaders are offering a better future to families in their community despite very challenging circumstances.  I’ve not met activists more inspiring than Carlos (founder of Escuela San Bartolome, a private school that lifts up the native Kaqchikel language and Mayan culture, while supporting the poorest families of the town in educating their children) and Everilda (president of a project to bring safe drinking water to 300 families).

• Breathtaking natural and human-made beauty.  Carlos was our guide for a tour of Lake Atitlan, an unspoiled lake ringed by towering volcanoes.  Everilda showed us how she and her daughters create the beautiful woven textiles that are the proud artistic heritage of the Mayan people.

(Lake Atitlan)

• A personal face on undocumented immigration.  The mason we met had lived and worked all over the U.S.  Everilda’s husband, after not finding employment too long, is on his way to the U.S. so his children can keep going to school.

• Not taking things for granted.  Running water, drinkable water, hot water.  Food that doesn’t have to be prepared from the ear of corn over an open fire.  Access to education.  Garbage pick-up.  A gas-powered vehicle. 

• The power of connection and affection.  Madre Marina (founder of the convent where we stayed, age 85) greeted each of us personally during our meals at the convent. We drank our morning coffee serenaded by the call-and-response prayers of the sisters. Young teachers shared their struggles and aspirations with us.  People welcomed us into their homes and their lives.  The schoolchildren addressed us as friends, and spoke of our sacrifice in leaving family to visit them, while showering us (and each other) with affection.

Here are some of the things I hope I (we) gave to our Guatemalan friends:

• Health.  The five stoves paid for by IUCC gifts and installed by masons, with support from our mission team, will prevent burns and respiratory disease. The simple masonry stoves (with spiffy stainless cooktops) ventilate smoke through chimneys, and reduce pollution and deforestation in the region by using wood more efficiently than the open cook fire they replace.

• Advocacy.  From our new friend Art Simon, founder of the advocacy group Bread for the World and fellow traveler, we learned how much difference U.S. government policy can make in alleviating poverty in places like Guatemala.  I’m a member now!

• Caring.  When challenges seem insurmountable and resources are thin on the ground, it helps to know you have friends.  I’m sure Carlos could have found Guatemalans to paint those school walls.  But because of our labor the children and staff have a visible reminder that people thousands of miles away are supporting them.

• Hope.  Carlos and Everilda have big dreams for their community.  Maybe our friendship can help them realize those dreams.  I am praying to discover ways that I, and IUCC, can empower these visionaries.

I hope more people visit San Andres Itzapa to give and receive gifts of friendship across barriers of distance and circumstance.  We have truly been blessed.

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