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Working alongside the Maya people
Sept. 20, 2010
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Ten people from St. John’s Catholic Church in Darwin return from Guatemala

By Kristen Miller
News Editor

DARWIN, MN – This past June, 10 people from St. John’s Catholic Church of Darwin embarked on a mission trip to help the impoverished of Guatemala, and returned with new perspectives on life.

A group of 10 traveled to San Lucas Toliman to work with San Lucas Parish and its mission. San Lucas is the sister church of Diocese of New Ulm.

The team included: Joyce Evenski, Cassey Hoffman, Colleen Bonniwell, Melissa Benoit, Stephen Hansen, Paula Baert, Joanna Zillmer, Ruthann Hansen, Kris Haffley, and Gloria Kotila.

Six of the women – Hansen, Haffley, Kotila, Baert, Evenski, and Bonniwell – sat down with me and explained the mission and what they learned as a result.

Efforts at the San Lucas Parish, which was originally founded by the Franciscan order in 1584, attempt to respond to the “expressed felt need” of the Mayan people, which accounts for about 90 percent of the 35,000 people living within and in its surrounding villages.

Its volunteer effort is not for people to come and “help” the people of San Juan, but to “learn and walk with” them.

Working alongside the Mayan people

While there, the missionaries worked on a number of projects as part of the mission of the San Lucas Parish. Projects associated with the mission include construction, reforestation, coffee processing and picking, stove-building, and other related tasks.

With coffee production being a staple in the Guatemalan economy, an important aspect of the mission is its Juan Ana Coffee project.

This project is run and owned by the San Lucas Mission and works to provide “adequate, sustainable living for coffee farmers by paying fair, consistent wages for their coffee, regardless of the market value.”

Not only are the coffee plants important for the people in providing jobs, they are also necessary in addressing the erosion problem within the mountainous country which, due to deforestation, has been prone to land slides.

For the St. John’s missionaries, this meant packing bags of dirt to assist in the coffee bean production process.

In an effort to address this problem, the University of Michigan is working closely with the San Lucas Mission and the Maya people in creating faster growing, more productive coffee trees that have deeper roots.

While working among the Mayan people, the women explained the simple life that is led by the people of the culture including the lack of power tools.

They were told that it is very important that the Mayan culture is not influenced by the American culture, Haffley explained.

People can still be seen working in the field using nothing but a hoe, Baert said.

As part of their mission work, the missionaries helped by hauling large boulders to build roads which have been constructed on volcanic soil and washed away from the heavy rains.

They also helped build a women’s center that would be used to teach young Mayan women about their culture.

A large part of the trip, aside from the work itself, was learning the culture and what the Mayan people face every day.

The missionaries were especially surprised by the high mortality rate and low life expectancy, which is partly due to dysentery and unsanitary conditions.

Many of the houses, which are built along the mountainsides, are made of cornstalks and corrugated tin with nothing more than a dirt floor.

Adding to the high mortality rate is the primitive way women still cook, which involves cooking over three rocks and a flame.

Much of the smoke created when cooking is not ventilated from the house, causing respiratory problems.

Death also comes from the region in which the Mayan people live.

Guatemala is home to more than 30 active volcanoes, on which many homes are built.

While there, the group witnessed mud slides; a result from heavy rains and the years of clear-cutting along the mountains.

“The devastation was just unreal,” Haffley said.

Part of the San Lucas Mission’s work is to assist people who lost their homes to mud slides, Baert explained.

Kotila said that the mission’s goal is to allow families the opportunity to earn their house rather than just having it given to them.

At San Lucas, this is done in the form of “sweat equity” in which the family contributes a number of hours to the mission.

The mission also provides a medical clinic and school to the Mayan people.

“[The mission provides] the infrastructure so the people can have the clinic, the schools, and the means to provide for their family,” Haffley said.

“So their children can have a better life,” Hansen added.

They talked about how appreciative the Mayan people are for all the work that is done on their behalf.

“They are such gracious people,” Evenski said.

The group was appreciative of the support they received from the St. John’s Parish before their trip.

In just one weekend – a second collection during Mass and a breakfast after – $800 was raised to help benefit the mission.

The money will be used to help those families who were displaced as a result of the landslides, according to Kotila.

New perspectives on life

There were many things the women took from their trip.

For Baert, her idea of poverty changed, explaining that in Guatemala, it’s about working to survive since there is no safety net within the government.

Now, Haffley really thinks about what she is buying, asking herself, “Do I really need this?” knowing there are people all over the world who have to live without.

Evenski found the people so grateful and appreciative of all that was done for them.

“They are such gracious people,” she said.

Bonniwell found a new appreciation of where America’s food comes since there, there is no means of storing or preserving the food.

Kotila found it enduring to work alongside such simple people who endure so much each day.

“They deal with pain, the same way we do, but they are so much poorer through it,” Kotila said. “It makes my life’s problems so miniscule.”

The trip was extra special for Hansen and Kotila, who both were reunited with their sponsor children.

Hansen has sponsored 8-year-old Erika, a native of Guatemala, since 2006, through the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging.

In 2006, Erika’s family lost their home in a mud slide forcing them to relocate to a new community, Hansen explained.

For $30 a month, Hansen provides Erika with schooling, medical care, and food supplements.

Kotila met her sponsored child, Claudia, for the second time during this trip. Kotila has sponsored her since about 1990, through Common Hope (formerly the Godchild Project) based out of St. Paul. Claudia is now 21, graduated from high school, and works for the municipality, Kotila explained.

“It was an awesome feeling to have her so grateful,” Kotila said. It was even more profound to see how grateful her parents were for Kotila’s support over the years, she said.

“I have felt honored to be a small part of her life,” she said.

Kotila and Baert spent 10 days working with the Common Hope work teams near Antigua and Guatemala City before meeting up with the rest of the mission team in San Lucas.

This mission works to “do only that which people cannot do for themselves,” which in turn, gives them “independence and dignity,” according to the website.

Before going on the mission trip, Baert was asked why she was taking a vacation to work.

“I’m glad I took the ‘vacation’ I did,” she said, adding her experience was greater than any four-star, all-inclusive hotel.

San Lucas Mission

When the Catholic Church in Rome called for greater involvement of clergy and lay people in world missions in 1958, the Diocese of New Ulm began a diocesan partnership with the Diocese of Sololá, Guatemala.

In 1962, Fr. Greg Schaffer, a diocesan priest from New Ulm, began serving as pastor of the San Lucas Mission, according to the mission.

Socio-economic programming at the mission is based in Christian social doctrine and is designed to develop six basic human rights: food, security, shelter, health care, education and work.

Possibly one of the most well-known missions in Guatemala, the San Lucas Mission has contributed to “the enhancement and enrichment of the whole person – spiritually, intellectually, and physically – by addressing both the immediate effects of poverty and its underlying causes.”

The missionaries noted that one doesn’t have to be Catholic do be a part of the mission experience in San Lucas.

The women noted several colleges and high schools from across Minnesota were there as part of their service projects and to have the cross-cultural experience with the Mayan people.

For more information about the San Lucas Mission or to help by purchasing Juan Ana coffee, visit www.sanlucasmission.org.

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