Church in mission: Hands-on revelation

By Barbara Sallettes, Contributing Writer
Photo | COURTESY BARBARA SALLETTES

During the summer, I had a wonderful opportunity to travel with a small group of Maryknoll missioners from across the country on an immersion trip to Guatemala.

In our church beset with many problems, the organizations we visited were an inspiration. They not only helped the poor but actually empowered them to make a difference in their own lives.

Each of these organizations is a ray of light in situations that are dark with poverty and joblessness. Here are some reflections on four of the ministries we visited:

• Caminando Por La Paz in Guatemala City (fathertomsmission.org) was founded by Maryknoll Father Thomas Goekler, who felt a call to live among the poor and served there until his death in 2010. The house is located in Zone 18, one of the most marginalized barrios of Guatemala City. Caminando Por La Paz is like a Catholic Worker house, with people living there and serving the community. Neighborhood children are fed every day, have after-school tutoring sessions and are provided with high school scholarships if they attend tutoring sessions.

• The first thing that strikes you about Hospicio Santa Maria en Pajapita, an AIDS hospice, is the serenity and beauty of its location, set among trees, flowers and bushes. The hospice was founded by two Maryknoll sisters, one of whom is still here, and the work is now carried on by Guatemalans.

In the 1980s, AIDS patients came here to die. Now, with new medicine and good nutrition, many can return home. Patients are cared for with love. There is an exercise room with soothing music, and care-givers offer massages. Patients who come here have no economic resources to go anywhere else. The hospice cares for 16 patients. If they are able to leave after a few months, they often have trouble finding work or starting their own business because of the stigma of having HIV.

• Las Rosas (Toj ROJ) Microfinance Program – with help from Catholic Relief Services, U.S. AID, Caritas and two other organizations – was established 20 years ago to empower women by creating collective savings accounts, which are used for emergency expenses, such as funerals, or short-term loans to members. The money box has a creative lock system. There are three locks, and a different woman holds one of the keys.

Money saved for business

A member can borrow to start or expand a business. Within a few months, she is expected to begin paying the money back. The women’s earnings can be used for their children’s education or other needs. The group began by making and selling food. They now grow tomatoes in a green house, raise chickens, make jewelry and beads, and crochet. The program is life-changing because these women are not able to get a loan from a regular bank.

• Centro De Paz Barbara Ford, Quiché, Guatemala (www.cenpaz.org) is named after Sister of Charity Barbara Ford, who was killed in 2001. Her murder was never completely solved – she was carjacked, and politics could have been involved. The 61-acre center is unbelievably beautiful, with a hotel and restaurant, a farm, a butterfly garden and an emphasis on natural resources. Space is rented out for events by the local community, including wedding receptions. There is every effort to be self-sustaining.

Sister of Charity Virginia Searing is the executive director, but the programs are conducted by local Guatemalans. Sister Virginia will be gone in 20 years – or sooner – and the goal is for the Guatemalans to assume the leadership roles.

Centro de Paz offers classes in sewing, baking, cooking, electronics, cosmetology, farming (irrigation and the use of organic fertilizer), basket making, animal care, human rights, spiritual development, finances, reproduction, violence against women (and classes in this for the men also), business startups, construction, math, reading and critical reflection, bee keeping and others.

Sister Virginia has worked particularly hard to develop resources in mental health. This area was hard hit by the civil war, and citizens experienced much trauma. Training is given to mental health workers in the Mayan practices of alternative healing, acupressure and other techniques, as well as meditation, movement, finger painting and therapy.

As a Catholic often beset by concerns that our church has lost its missionary zeal, I was inspired by my 10-day trip to Guatemala. It was a continued call to action.

Barbara Sallettes is a parishioner of Transfiguration of the Lord Parish in New Orleans. For more information on short-term mission trips, go to maryknoll.us

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