Westminster Presbyterian Church Educator, Susan Moseley, had the privilege to speak at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Rappahannock about the recent trip to Guatemala.
UUFR describes themselves as a sharing community dedicated to spiritual exploration, critical thinking, and social service.
Here is a transcript of Susan’s talk.
After two and a half hours of climbing, we arrived at the top of Volcano Chicabal in the western highlands of Guatemala. At 8000 feet, I was totally out of breath, yet filled with wonder. Then, I caught sight of the 700-step staircase down to the sacred lagoon. I felt overwhelmed physically and in some ways spiritually.
The sandy beach of the beautiful lagoon is where nine teenagers and two young adults from Westminster Church were invited to play games and share snacks with twenty Guatemalan young people from a local Presbyterian Church, and those were just a couple of the many shared activities over a three day period.
These youth from both churches, along with their adult leaders, were connected as prayer partners last fall, in order to begin praying for each other six months before we even met. The trip to Guatemala was the next step in forming a true cross-cultural partnership that is about faith, friendship, and shared Christian values. This youth partnership is pioneering a new paradigm for youth mission because it is a mutual mission endeavor in which activities and projects are shared and the relationships that are formed will be purposefully nurtured over time and distance.
In recent years, mission travel by American congregations to third-world countries, has become incredibly popular. In fact, mission tourism is one of the largest industries bringing American dollars into remote, rural areas and creating great challenges for the local economies. Some denominations, particularly the PCUSA, are now calling on congregations to reexamine their purpose for engaging with 2nd and 3rd world villages. My youth trip to Guatemala was just such a shift – a movement from projects for people to partnerships with people.
In the past, we thought we were helping when we traveled with tools to build a house or paintbrushes to paint a building, or toys to give to children. What we have learned is that such activities not only don’t help, they actually hurt.
• Say a church decides to send a team of twenty adults to Guatemala to build a new home for a family that lost theirs in the earthquake. With airfare, food, lodging, and building supplies, the cost of the trip would be about $30,000. Locals could build the same house for $3,000. So just send the money, and they can build 10 homes.
• What if we notice the clinic needs some paint? Shouldn’t we just purchase the paint and get to work? Most likely we were not invited to do this, and it is probably not a priority. The clinic may need supplies or equipment more. Besides, painting is taking away a job from a local person who needs the work.
• And as for toys…handing out toys and treats to the children of Guatemala teaches them to beg whenever they see an American and does not affect any sustainable transformation in their health or happiness.
So what can we do? A few years ago, Westminster Church began a different kind of relationship with Guatemala. During our first visit to the country, we were introduced to Rosario, a Guatemalan woman of Mayan descent. Rosario was managing a small clinic for women and children, and her focus was on women’s welfare. She provided prenatal care; she helped women suffering from domestic violence; and she organized a women’s association made up of women from a variety of tiny villages in the highlands. Rosario began enrolling these women in training programs to help them apply for microloans to start small sustainable business cooperatives. The funds these women raise help pay for their children’s education.
Rosario taught us so much about true partnerships. The women at Westminster became prayer partners with the women in the association and once those relationships were established the church began raising money to help purchase water filters for the women’s homes in the highlands where they have no access to clean water. Each filter costs $110 and can provide fresh water for as many as 17 people. Every household that wants a filter must contribute $10, which is a huge investment when their income is less than $1 a day. It is very important that the women contribute to their filters in order to feel ownership and a sense of empowerment, and that the filters are made in Guatemala providing a business and income for Guatemalans.
This work with the water filter project has been ongoing for about 4 years, but the youth partnership, which was the focus of my trip, is just beginning. In preparation for the trip, we learned about Guatemalan history and culture. We prayed for our prayer partners and our teens raised $100 each for the water filters project. We also told them about our favorite game called Nine Square that we wanted to teach them when we arrived.
Nine Square requires a large grid built of PVC pipe and metal connectors. We purchased the metal connectors and they cut the PVC pipe according to the measurements we sent them. So our first activities together, after introductions, were to build the grid and learn the game. The beauty of this game is that it has no winners or losers, but it is both challenging and fun, and everyone can play. Now the youth have a permanent Nine Square game at their church just like we have one here at Westminster.
Through this youth partnership experience, we learned that the most important gift we bring to our gatherings is not our dollars, and the most important work we do is not fixing things. The most important, transforming work of mission travel is to develop and nurture cross-cultural friendship. Friendship reminds those from very poor communities that they are not invisible, not forgotten, not without hope. Friendship is where we began and through friendship, we will discern and determine together what the needs are and how we can best help. We plan together, pray together, and evaluate together.
So…the purpose of my talk this morning was not to share a travel log about Guatemala or to convince you to sign up for a mission trip. My purpose was and is to share a word about friendship, which I believe is a sacred discipline for all people. I believe friendship is intended to create the environment we need to be vulnerable with each other, and vulnerability is one way we expose our true selves. In friendship, you see how smart, how silly, how worried, how lonely and how loyal I am. But, I also recognize that not everyone can be so transparent. We are made differently. Thus, I believe friendship is not always about fairness, equality, or even happiness, but it is about building trust.
When friendship crosses the deep divides of language, economics, race, and culture, then there is hope. The teens and adults from Westminster were changed by our developing bonds with the young people from Guatemala. I believe they too are different as a result of our encounters. Friendship is deeply spiritual and healing work, and it can change the world.