For The Dialog
Ss. Peter and Paul parishioners share their love with the people of Los Santos Reyes Parish in Guatemala
EASTON, Md. – When Fathers James Nash and Glenn Evers decided to send a parish delegation to the Diocese of San Marcos, Guatemala, last summer, they knew whoever went would be deeply affected by both the dire poverty and extreme faith of the people they encountered.
What they were not prepared for was how many parishioners, teachers, and school families of Ss. Peter and Paul church and school would want to be part of the delegation, or for the extent that the parish has embraced one parish and one school in Guatemala.
Instead of one initial delegation, interest in going to San Marcos last summer required two eight-member delegations. Those who went were shocked at the degree of poverty they witnessed throughout the department (state) of San Marcos, and especially by conditions at a school in the community of San Luis. They decided to form a parish-to-parish relationship with Los Santos Reyes (The Holy Kings) Parish in the town of El Tumador and another relationship with the school at San Luis, which is within Los Santos Reyes Parish.
Suitcases of help
Another delegation that went to Guatemala in February carried seven suitcases filled with medical and school supplies and two home water filtration systems. They also purchased a computer and printer for Father Rigoberto Matias of Los Santos Reyes; provided two dry erase
boards for San Luis School; added a supplemental salary for the one teacher who instructs students through sixth grade and funds for school supplies and materials, and investigated forming a St. Vincent de Paul Society council that would twin with the council at Ss. Peter and Paul.
In the works is purchasing a vehicle for Father Rigoberto, as he is known to delegation members, so he can travel more easily to 42 mission chapels within his parish; and donating 15 additional water filtration systems that will provide safe drinking water for 60 families. The Easton parishioners are also discussing the possibility of hiring another teacher for San Luis School, where one teacher alternated between rooms for first- through third-grade students and another for fourth- through sixth-grade students.
Two more delegations from Ss. Peter and Paul are planned this summer.
But the goal of the Solidarity program is not to simply provide material assistance to those in need. As Father Evers, who coordinates Solidarity Ss. Peter and Paul, put it: “We do not venture to Guatemala simply to fix problems, but to fall in love with a people, to love our spiritual family there and to form bonds of friendships with them. This does not exclude charitable works as there is extreme poverty there.”
Father Nash, parish pastor, visited San Marcos in 2013 and Father Evers in 2015, both with diocesan delegations. They decided it would be a good program to undertake as a parish.
“We were trying to establish more of a parish-to-parish relationship as well as a diocese-to-diocese relationship so we could have more of a connection,” Father Nash said. The February visit “was more of an intimate relationship” than his first visit, as part of a diocesan delegation.
Mary Jo Frohlich, a member of the diocesan Solidarity team who helps coordinate and accompany delegations to San Marcos, said the people of the Easton delegations last year “were overwhelmed emotionally by the poverty, and also by the true goodness and faithfulness to the church,” she said. “They had to respond; there was no alternative.”
Poverty and faith
Members of the recent delegation reflected what Frohlich said.
“We knew we would encounter poverty and despair, but I the depth of what we saw was greater than we had anticipated,” said Mike Brady, who brought two water filtration systems provided in conjunction with Kentucky-based Water with Blessings.
He wrote in the Global Solidarity Partnership newsletter of the great faith of the people of San Marcos: “God has truly blessed these people with faith in the midst of all their sufferings.”
Alex Handy, who heads the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Easton, also wrote that he “expected to see a poor country with people needing assistance. Experiencing it is quite different. The incredible outpouring to us from the people we met and their gratitude to us was humbling. What’s remarkable to me is that so many of the people have so little, yet they somehow struggle on and survive.”
He told The Dialog that “throughout Guatemala the people appear poor, barely making a living. Sanitation is a problem and water contamination claims many lives, including children, each year.”
Brady said the water filtration equipment is a simple home-based system. He has a master’s degree in environmental science from Johns Hopkins University, so he felt he had to react when he learned that “many of these people were just using stream water. Many of the teachers at various schools said children did not always go to school because they were sick,” a number with dysentery. The simple filters should reduce those absences.
Even more telling was his delegation’s reaction to San Luis School last summer.
“We had some teachers from Ss. Peter and Paul with us, and they were shocked by the conditions of the school,” Brady said. Elva Ochoa was the lone teacher for all six grades in a concrete block shed with dirt floors, few if any books, and little or no equipment. “When we were down there the first time they had shelves for supplies that chickens were sitting in. The school was attached to a barn.
“We immediately, I think all of us, decided that this was the school we wanted to help.”
Handy is concerned by the fact that the school goes only to the sixth grade. Then, “80 percent of children are forced to go to work, mostly fieldwork in agriculture. Obviously, this keeps most young people from rising out of poverty. We hope to address this issue over time.”
There is no way to compare the poverty he experienced in San Marcos with that in the United States, Handy said. Social programs to help the needy “are almost non-existent in Guatemala.”
The generosity of parishioners when they learned of the needs in San Marcos did not surprise Father Nash. “You ask them for something, and they were willing to help.”
He would like for many more people to experience what members of his parish delegations have seen first-hand, the deep faith of the people despite extreme poverty. As he wrote in his reflection for the newsletter:
“If I could send every member of any parish in our diocese on one of these delegations, I would. It puts so much of life in perspective and has helped me to appreciate the blessings in my life. The one thing that inspired me most was spending time with the children. They have so few worldly goods but they have an inner joy that I seldom see.”
For The Dialog