By Glenna Harkins
In June of this year, I had the opportunity to go on a mission trip to Guatemala with the Catholic Community of Christ Our Light in Cherry Hill. Guatemala is a country of about 16 million people located in Central America, just to the South of Mexico. It is a place of great beauty, with a horrifically violent recent past and a less than stable present.
Over the past eight years, Christ Our Light has established a relationship with the indigenous Maya community in a remote mountain village called La Puerta, located about five hours northwest of the capital of Guatemala City. The village was a target of both the government and the guerrillas during Guatemala’s thirty-six year civil war, and lost close to thirty of its catechists and community leaders during the bloodiest few days of fighting.
Unlike many mission trips from the United States, the Christ our Light mission is not about building projects and physical labor. Instead the groups of about 15-20 adults each year offer a “ministry of presence” and catechesis to the people of the village.
For those readers who aren’t quite sure what a ministry of presence seeks to do, its main purpose is to build relationships and greater understanding between groups of people. Over the course of the week spent in La Puerta, we shared meals and stories together, read and studied the story of creation, celebrated Mass together, and visited community members’ homes together. Even with the language barrier (conversations had to be translated from English to Spanish to their native Quiché and back again); by the end of the week the two groups had bonded.
I think about La Puerta and the people that I met there every day. There was Marcela, an older woman with a warm smile and crooked second-hand glasses, who welcomed us with hugs when we arrived. Lorenzo and Domingo, hardworking church leaders who served as tour guides and translators each day that we were there.
It was a young mother named Manuela and her children Maria, Maricruz, Jose, and Gregoria, who especially made their way into my heart and my prayers. Manuela had recently moved to La Puerta with her parents and brother and her own small children, while her husband moved to the coast of Guatemala to work on a coffee plantation. He had been sick, racking up medical bills that they couldn’t pay, which forced them off of their land and into a situation where they no longer live together. The father is able to come to visit the family only once per year, and that is only if he’s willing to forgo being paid. Their home in La Puerta was a three room log cabin where eight people lived. There was no electricity, no running water, no latrine, no stove. I’m about 5’10 and I couldn’t stand up straight inside. Yet the whole family radiated love. For God, for each other, for what they had, for their new community, and for us.
This trip to Guatemala was my third mission, and my seventh trip to Latin America. For me, one of the most difficult parts of any trip outside of the United States is trying to explain the depth of the experience that I had to folks back home. It’s like the feeling I get when people ask me about my work in Camden, NJ.
These places and their people are special, and you just kind of have to go there to get why. So, if you have it in your heart and your means to serve God and others by going on a mission, I encourage you to do just that. You will be enriched beyond anything you can explain.
Glenna Harkins is the Director of Programs at Catholic Partnership Schools in Camden, NJ.