Journal Entry #68
It has been 8 months already, since I was in Guatemala on mission.
And I haven’t processed a damned thing.
I was kind of thrown into a full blown health crisis (Leishmaniasis) upon returning from Guatemala, and there was no time to unpack all of the feelings, experiences and interactions I encountered while there. You see, the 10 days are packed so full, there is no time to process in the moment, to understand the bigger picture and on top of it, we are trained to always remain neutral, even in the moments that are both shocking and appalling to our North American Standards.
This week, I have been challenged to process and write in order to speak at both Seagrave and Greenbank Churches for “Mission Sunday.” I thought I was ready, until I sat down to write, and found myself sobbing as I opened up the vault.
Ignorance is bliss.
Denial is safe.
But, it also does not educate or perpetuate change. So on top of all the other unstable emotions I have these days as I heal, I pushed open that vault door and began the unpacking process. It was raw, painful and full chin-quivering ugly crying…which I not only did in private, but also in front of the congregations at both churches.
Clearly, I have more to unpack.
This is what I shared:
Many of you have heard me speak before about our work in Guatemala. As a team, we have a broad focus of tasks and connections that we like to accomplish when we are there. Many of our projects are self-sustaining, empowering for the women and create opportunities for those we reach, to engage in life in a new way. Over the last 10 years, and 4 mission trips, for me, the shoe distribution is the most satisfying.
But it is also the most heart-wrenching work that we do there.
We took about 10 hockey bags of shoes with us this time. But, the truth is that we never have enough. We know going in to the mission that there will be children disappointed, ones that we won’t have the right sizes for…ones that will need sizes that we are out of. So as wonderful as those satisfied smiles are that come from the children that receive shoes it is equally as devastating when we can’t provide.
I thought that today, I would share with you a journal entry from the team, with a few personal excerpts from my journal to round out the experience. I hope that you will get a feel for how fast paced our time is there…for this is ONLY the morning from ONE day.
This year we ventured into new territory, breaking ground in a community that had never before seen aid-workers, a mission team, or even white people. When we arrived at Cajagualten School in a town that was built into the mountain side, we were greeted by about 175 students, who were standing at attention during their national anthem. Their morning assembly was about Racial Discrimination, and they were being instructed to be polite, respectful and welcoming to the Canadians who were here to visit. Their poster depicted different colored people, and clearly with the staring eyes and skeptical looks at our skin, colored eyes, light hair and 67’ tall Stan with a beard, that they had seen very little, if any at all “white” Canadians. The Principal welcomed us and I had the opportunity to speak with the kids and introduce the team. Our intention was to build relationships, extend trust and lay a foundation for future teams to continue support in their community and school down the road.
It didn’t take long for the children to open up, welcome us in…soccer has a way of bridging all social gaps! Rod was in charge of the ever popular “futbol” game. He divided the children into teams of 8 and handed them either a blue or yellow soccer jersey. The level of enthusiasm and talent was amazing not only with the boys but with the girls as well. The last team of the day had fewer players so one of the teachers played goalie for the blue team and Rod got to play goalie for the yellow team and judging by the smiles on their faces they had just as much fun as the kids.
Kelly and Dianne had the parachute, sidewalk chalk, skipping ropes and Velcro tennis ball toss. They loved all of the activities. The boys liked skipping as much as the girls. Dianne showed them how to step into the rotating rope to skip. Some accomplished this and they were very proud of themselves. Kelly tried to play tic-tac-toe with a small group but found they had never seen it before. They watched with great interest but never really grasped the game. It was a great morning of fun and games with the kids.
The children were eager to sit in a grand circulo (big circle) and learn a new craft. As we’ve seen in the last few days – some kids picked it up immediately, and right away started helping their classmates. Working so closely with the kids we saw how extreme poverty has affected them. Some children had skin conditions, others had severe respiratory infections – but all were happy to be in school with us. Many of the older children were so excited to finish their craft that, although they didn’t finish during the session, they gobbled up their lunches so they could work on them before classes resumed.
In the side of a mountain was the best place to talk about structures with the Science in the School Program. We had four large groups of students to work through the structures center. Again they amazed us with their building skills. They were even making structures by weaving sticks together that were secure and stable. It was organized chaos to say the least, but the children loved the LEGO and seemed to really grasp how to engineer a stable structure. Overall the Science in the Schools was a huge hit as science is not a part of their regular curriculum in Guatemala.
Fitting shoes on the feet of over 150 students this morning was a challenge both logistically and emotionally. Our inventory of shoes was somewhat limited after yesterday’s shoe distribution and the need for shoes here, was great. As the morning proceeded it became more and more challenging to find a proper fit for the children.
One little boy was reluctant to take off his shoes for us. He didn’t understand that we weren’t going to take his shoes. But we do this so that we can see how well they are actually fitting and then gauge a new more appropriate size for the child. When this boy removed one of his shoes, more than a cup of dirt poured out of it, directly onto my wounded and bandaged foot. Doing my best not to panic, but carry on with the mission, the state of this child’s feet were atrocious. There is a difference between a pair of feet that have been hard at work or play for a day, and a pair of feet that have never been bathed before. Warts, corns, cracked and broken toe nails, filth not to mention the smell. These little black shoes were clearly too small and I can’t figure out how he was wearing them with all that dirt inside!
Of course, at this point, we were running low on shoes of his size. Through an interpreter we explained how a shoe is supposed to feel when it fits properly. Everything we gave him he said was mas grande – too big.
But they weren’t, he just had never worn shoes that were his size before.
He was reluctant to agree with us because what we were telling him was so vastly different than what his reality was. In the end, we gave him a choice between two pairs of shoes. The struggle was real.
It was clear that this boy had never been given a CHOICE before.
Let me say that again. He struggled to choose between two pairs of shoes, not because they were a certain name brand, or had a certain look, or fit better than the other…but because he had never had an opportunity to CHOOSE for himself a pair of shoes that he liked. It took several awkward moments. We waited patiently, gave him space to decide and in the end he took a pair of rubberized running shoes.
Another little boy had really bad shoes. Worn, tattered and holes in the soles…again a too small fit. Not only did this boy struggle with a choice between shoes but he told us that he had never had his OWN pair before. Initially I thought that he meant that he shared among his siblings. But my heart broke when the teacher told us through the interpreter that both he and his brother share the same pair of shoes…and because shoes are mandatory in order to attend school, they take turns both wearing the shoes and going to school.
They take turns going to school.
So the dilemma was a beautifully juxtaposed one. He was excited to have a choice of new shoes, ones he could call his own…but also exhibited guilt and disappointment because he was getting something that his brother was not…simply because it was his day to wear the shoes and attend school.
The choice brought him to tears, and I too had to turn away, compartmentalize all those feelings and tuck them away for later.
We took turns, some of the team members need breaks from this difficult job. Especially when all we could offer the children was a choice of shoes to take home for their mom or dad or another sibling and not for themselves. Some left with only socks, some left with a belt.
Because, just as we anticipated, we ran out of shoes.
We worked hard to make sure all that visited us, left with something. Only one boy left empty handed, and I wonder why he did? Maybe the choice was too big for him? Maybe he was disappointed that he couldn’t have something for himself like the other kids? Maybe he didn’t have a mom or dad, but lived with other family?
I can only speculate. Regardless, my heart broke a little more when he walked away.
The children loved the goody bags and soccer backpacks! We presented the Principal and the teachers with supplies for their school, soccer balls and skipping ropes and a set of soccer jerseys. They were so happy and excited, they invited us to come back every year! They explained that the school is comprised of children from 4 different Indigenous communities, each one having a different dialect and that their resources for learning are very lean. We extended an invite to the teachers to join us later in the week for Brian’s teacher training session at the School of Hope. They were excited to be included and kept saying “God Bless You.”
It was an emotional exchange that was full of gratitude on both sides.
As we gathered as a team to say thank you and goodbye, other community families and children had gathered around the school yard fencing, peering in, reaching in. Some without clothes, most without shoes, clearly desperate for any gifts we may have for them. A few of us handed candy and dinky cars through the fence…but even that comes with a risk…because we only have so many…and surely someone will be left out. Seeing the good that we shared with these 175 children was an amazing feeling and at the same time we were slammed with the knowingness, that even that still wasn’t enough.
There were a few tears in the van on the way back for lunch. It was quiet as we pulled away…some children following the van hopeful for a candy or a dinky car. Many of us needed to take a moment to decompress after seeing the extreme poverty. There were moments that were so raw, but we have to push through to serve the kids, and be inconspicuous with our expressions and emotions so that we are not offensive. It isn’t because we are being judgemental, it is because life here is so vastly different than home for us. Sometimes, we have to compartmentalize those shocking moments, and when we are safe with each other again, we can debrief and share our experiences to find a place to put our experiences.
This was without a doubt in all my experience of Mission Work, the most emotionally, spiritually and mentally charged work that we have ever witnessed and been a part of. It was a hard day for all of our team members. We leaned into each other for support as the emotions came, as the reality of what we just experienced settled in, and we reminded ourselves and each other that we are enough.
For today, we did a good thing.
We did enough, today.
And even though there is more to do, more help to be had, we did what we set out to do…we made real connections, we made friends, we shared education, love, compassion, understanding and hope. The work we do isn’t an overnight fix. It isn’t something that can change lives in a day.
What we do is plant seeds.
We planted seeds of hope for those children and those teachers that day. And it is important to know that what we did was enough. And now, we have paved the way, and future teams will be able to build upon what we have done.
And we will be back…to do enough on another day.