In the high valley, corn—twice as tall as any I have ever seen in eastern Washington—stalks the steep hillsides in a tightly planted phalanx surrounding the remote village community of Chitepey. The tasseled ears are a month away from harvest. There would be many lessons for me in Guatemala. What corn means to a family is only one. Everything you see tells you something, tells the story of the land, the people, the challenges of poverty and marginalization. Snaking the fields are slippery pathways, up and down with hand-hoed stairs in some places and mostly wide enough for our single-file procession to and from our base at the village schoolhouse to the homes of families where we install externally-vented stoves to reduce the risk of acute respiratory infection in infants and young children. The sound of rain on the broad leaves of corn as we walked through the fields is like nothing I have ever heard.
In the ancient Mayan creation story, the god of corn made the first humans. And so, I wonder, what the God of corn said to Lydia, one such young child, as she was gently made and walked into light and life? Did God speak to her of hunger and work, love and community? At 5 years old, she is no different and so different from any other 5 year-old girl. She is bare-footed, full of vibrant energy, curios, playful, shy yet eager to interact with the strangers. She is one of two girls in a family of 5 children and our team has time to play games that make the kids laugh and jump around. The children are remarkable and their smiles (as they tell me their names over and over again so I remember and pronounce them correctly) leap from their faces and explode in my heart like bright and colorful roman candles.
As it does for most of the school children in the community, Lydia’s education will end after sixth grade. I try to remember what I was learning in sixth grade and whether or not it was adequate to prepare me for the rest of my life; and wonder what would have happened if my schooling, which has been so rich and diverse, suddenly ended abruptly at 6th grade. How do you channel your innate ability and drive for learning at that age? Where does it go? There are no cars, no money for bus fare in this family to take kids to the next level of school, never mind the health clinic, both about an hour away. How will the possibilities of Lydia’s young life unfold? How much of what I think about is rooted in my own preconceptions (what I want and believe should happen for Lydia) and the tacit privilege that I take for granted?
In Lydia’s home, there are two beds. The stove we installed is heating up. It will lower the health hazards of smoke and soot, burn less wood than an open fire in the kitchen, and just as important save the family some money in the cost of firewood. Another lesson: Just because you are in the rain forest, doesn’t mean that wood is an abundant resource. What very little land a family owns is planted with corn, maybe some beans, a few stray coffee bushes, but no trees. Land is needed to plant corn—the fundamental staple upon which a family depends for survival. What fruit-bearing trees there are seem random. On these steep slopes, where rain cascades in torrents at times, the hillsides lack the benefits of trees whose roots help to keep the threat of mud-slides at bay. Lydia’s mother forms a tortilla from masa ground on a sloped stone called a batan. This is how she feeds her family. It doesn’t take but a moment to see the bigger picture, although the full realization came much later for me. There is no electricity, no running water…there is no pantry hiding dry and canned goods, no refrigerated or frozen foods. Just a handful of plastic utensils and plates for a family of 7; a small jar of oil for the cook top, a few pots. I look around repeatedly but cannot find food beyond the corn being boiled to make masa. It is not quaint; not some romantic ideal of a simpler life that one may choose or wish for. It is poverty. And, when given the choice between poverty and what is truly adequate (not abundant), I doubt any parent would choose poverty and hunger for their children. The question of nutrition is secondary to hunger. Malnutrition is a critical problem that plagues children in these communities. And while the government supplies the village with a kind of fortified porridge that the kids receive each day at school, it is unclear how this is anything but treading water in the middle of a wide sea. What happens to a family if their corn crop is poor? Some families have chickens, but not all do; and in the end, a chicken a day or week to feed a family of 7 is not sustainable (you would need many chickens to make that practical). The plain truth is far more complex than I had ever imagined: economic and political systems and structures which perpetuate marginalization and isolation, opportunity truncated by the lack of basic infrastructure (a road that doesn’t get washed out), severely limited access to healthcare, education, the basic goods of the earth—fundamental rights tied directly to the dignity of the human person in Catholic Social Teaching. The tortillas on the stove are successful and the family prays to bless us and our “gift” to them before we move to the next home.
The stoves are important, a crucial component in the strategic plan of our partner Medical Teams International, and a driver of transformation to address a serious health issue in a region where mortality in infants and children ages birth to 5 ranks 32nd in the world, where 14,000 children under 5 die each year, and where 48% of children suffer from moderate to severe “stunting” from malnutrition (UNICEF). The work that our own Providence Health International is doing and will continue in Guatemala, following the “hopes and aspirations” of our Sisters of Providence, is the kind of work to which our pioneering Foundresses committed the energy and passion of their lives.
I see Lydia a few more times before we leave our work in the community. The whole community turns out to thank and bless us, and to sing us safely on our way home, saying we are different but come from one God. My final memory of Chitepey is of Lydia, running along a small ridge by the school house as our bus pulled away, calling my name “Mateo, Mateo, Mateo.” And me calling back: “Lydia, Lydia, Lydia.” This is the moment I remember, far away and home in Seattle, which causes me to cry through the confusion of joy and sadness, beauty and terror that this experience has broken open in me.
And so, when asked to write something brief about my experience and how it has helped me as a Mission leader, I find no easy answer. This service trip, so deeply resonant with our Mission as people of Providence, does not lend itself to a condensed message but overflows and resists every attempt to distill a key learning that can be passed on or catalogued. It is not a question of “having the experience but missing the meaning” (T.S. Eliot), but of a disruption, or a meaning that continues to arrive, unfold and multiply, like the many questions that were raised in our team’s evening reflection time and sharing.
Sometimes, I think as Mission leaders it is tempting to believe that we will be “formed” once we complete or graduate from this or that program, that our Mission will be integrated and we will lead from that point forward in a new way. The unexpected truth for me is that this experience defies integration, as if integration were to mean that we have dealt with it, are done with it, have appropriated or exhausted it. Instead, this formative experience has fundamentally challenged my understanding of Mission leadership and dis-integrated my narrow sense and understanding of community, human dignity, poverty, hope, generosity, and charity.
Our lives are formed across the diminishing expanse of time situated between so many endings and beginnings—abrupt, painful, quiet, joyful: the birth of a child, the loss of a loved one, a first kiss, a deep calling, successes and failures. These are events that wake us up, throw us back into ourselves, and ask us who we are.
A profound waking moment for me was having my name called by a little girl named Lydia.