WILMINGTON — The partnership between the dioceses of Wilmington and San Marcos, Guatemala, remains strong nearly 10 years after it began.
The latest delegation from Wilmington visited the Central American country last month.
Among those who made the trip were Ed Lyons and Bill McMahon, parishioners at St. Margaret of Scotland in Glasgow, and Padua Academy theology teacher Mike Sheehan. It was the first visit for each, and they came away amazed at both the poverty and the incredible faith of the Guatemalans they encountered.
Lyons said one of the things that struck him was the ride on pothole-strewn roads from Guatemala City to San Marcos, a 150-mile trip that took about eight hours. Everywhere he has traveled, he has seen pockets of poverty before reaching nicer areas. That wasn’t the case there.
“The further we got, I kept looking for the light in the clouds, and it was as bad or worse everywhere you went, from one side of the country to the other, just poverty, poverty, poverty,” he said.
One day, the delegation was able to visit a finca, or coffee plantation, on the top of a mountain.
McMahon was struck by the workers’ housing, rows and rows of what looked like Army barracks. They were invited into one of the homes, which had nine residents and two beds. Half of the home was filled with wood for cooking, and the smell of burned wood was overwhelming. There was a three-quarter wall between the living room and the bathroom.
“The families live within that area. They’re born there, they live there, and they die there. They seldom if ever come off the mountain,” he said.
But what struck them just as strongly was the hospitality of the Guatemalans. Upon seeing their visitors, one of the residents opened a two-liter bottle of soda that probably cost them half of their daily wage.
“Their hospitality and openness to us was unbelievable,” McMahon said.
The residents drink soda because the water is not potable, Lyons said, and the soft drinks are likely cheaper. This has led to problems with tooth decay and diabetes. There are also a lot of wounds since the people work with machetes and other tools while harvesting coffee beans.
Health care, however, is difficult to receive because of a lack of facilities and personnel. Government-run hospitals often turn patients away because they can’t pay, so many in an area of 400 square miles rely on two Maryknoll sisters who are medical doctors and charge only for the cost of medicine. “Health promoters” also are critical. These are volunteers with very basic training who can perform simple tasks, such as diabetes training, and distributing some basic medications.
The promoters’ dedication was striking, Lyons said. He recalled one such woman he met.
“She didn’t mention anything about herself,” he said. “She’s been doing this with a minimal education, three hours a day, seven days a week, during a war they had and everything else. And she was trying to express to us how grateful she was that there were people outside of Guatemala funding them.”
Sheehan was struck by the lack of formal education in San Marcos. Some of the children he talked to had never seen a book, and they were teenagers. Part of the problem, he said, is that in order to learn how to read in the schools, the government requires families to buy an additional book for $5 or $6, which is the daily wage for some. By the time someone in the family can afford the additional book, it’s often too late, he said.
“By that time the motivation’s gone and they have no real desire to learn to read,” he said.
In addition, he said, many parents cannot afford the uniforms required by the government.
It’s not that the kids don’t want to go to school, Lyons said, but the families need them to work. He spoke to one girl who knew English. The girl related the story of a 5-year-old neighbor who has to sell tacos every day to help her family.
Poverty pervades the schools as well, Sheehan said. He asked some students what they wanted for their schools, and “they want a clean bathroom. They have a six-meter hole with a toilet bowl on top, and nowhere for that to go.”
The delegation was able to meet with Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini, who forged the partnership with the late Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli and who will return to the Diocese of Wilmington the first weekend in May.
One request Bishop Ramazzini had was that the people of the Diocese of Wilmington help support a priest in El Quetzal. Priests in Guatemala are responsible for paying for their expenses, with some subsisting on a few dollars per week. This makes it difficult for them to travel to administer the sacraments and carry out basic parish duties, Lyons said.
At a Mass the delegation attended, Lyons was amazed at the sound of coins falling into a bag when it came time for the collection.
“It really struck me that they’re giving what little they have.”
Lyons said at the sign of peace, the Guatemalans were not satisfied with a handshake. They were hugging everyone, friends and strangers alike. He also took Mass cards with him, and after the Mass, everyone took one. He remembers seeing a pregnant woman rubbing her belly with the card as he left the church.
The people defied any stereotypes Sheehan may have had about the poor.
“The assumptions that you would make from the destitution and the poverty is that these people are either going to be terrifying or going to be violent. There’s all these stereotypes that go along with poverty, and I didn’t see that once during the entire trip,” he said.
Family in Guatemala
Lyons and McMahon are members of St. Margaret’s fledgling social justice ministry, and this visit fit with some of the projects they were researching. They hope to work their observations into the ministry’s work.
The group also hopes to raise awareness, and also funds, including for the priest mentioned by Bishop Ramazzini. They also want to make local schools aware of the needs in San Marcos so they can provide some support. McMahon said Christ the Teacher School, located next to St. Margaret’s, already has a partnership with a school in Guatemala.
Lyons said the hope is that people in our diocese come to think of San Marcos as family, “like we would think of another parish in the Diocese of Wilmington. If they were in trouble, how would we help them?”
Two delegates from San Marcos – Sister Bernarda and Padre Silverio – will visit Wilmington from April 20-30. More details are forthcoming.