When we go on a mission trip, we often want a task to do – something tangible to show that we made a difference and made a positive impact for God’s kingdom. For some, that means building a house, painting walls, putting on a Bible camp, or, as was the case for our Guatemala mission trip two years ago, planning lessons and teaching in classrooms. There is something in those activities that make us feel “useful” and we have something to show for our time and efforts.
But what happens when the task is undefined, we aren’t sure what we’re doing, or if it actually makes any difference? Over the last several days, our team has been reflecting on those questions and why, exactly, we are here. We’ve gone in and out of classrooms, sometimes with little substantial interaction with students – either because of the language barrier or, in the case of older students, they might seem disinterested in our presence. There has been an underlying sense of disconnection and “uselessness.” Those feelings got named in both small groups last night and we entered today holding on to those feelings.
As a group, we have talked about what “mission” is. Mission is not the task of saving the world – whatever that might mean. It is not necessarily providing something that those we encounter do not already have, presuming that we have or even know what others need. Sometimes, mission doesn’t necessarily look like much or provide tangible results or great pictures to show family and friends back home. Mission is discovering what God is doing to restore our oftentimes broken world and joining in.
God is certainly at work in Guatemala through Safe Passage as the organization provides education to students; a safe and nurturing environment for those who do not have that elsewhere; opportunities for mothers in the community to have opportunities away from the dump, spend more time with their children and families, and grow in their self-confidence. That work began long before our team from St. Thomas arrived and it will continue long after we have left. We have the opportunity to be witnesses to all that is being done through Safe Passage and, if nothing else, be present with the students, mothers, staff, and volunteers this week.
And after the reflection and conversations that have taken place over the last two days about feeling disconnected and of little value to Safe Passage’s ongoing work and the ultimate reign of God’s kingdom as it will be expressed in Guatemala, today was a wonderful day. It was a day of presence, growing relationship, and joy for us and for the people at Safe Passage.
We began our day with a previously unplanned activity for our group: aerobics with the women of Creamos (Safe Passage’s social entrepreneurship program for women in the community). The weekly aerobics class provides exercise to increase the physical health of the women, time for women to be together in community, and a place for women to grow in self-confidence as they discover they are able to push beyond what they thought possible. When we heard that we were doing aerobics, we figured it would be a light routine with some jumping jacks and maybe a little bouncing around. We were wrong. It was intense! It was a full half-hour of very strenuous exercise the likes of which one would find in a CrossFit gym: burpees, tough core circuits, and painful arm exercises. Not only did we have the chance to sweat a lot, we had the privilege of being present with the women – joining them in their space and their weekly routine. The pushed us, spoke words of encouragement, laughed with us, and thanked us for allowing them to share their lives with us. At the end of the class, one of the women thanked us and told us that she began excercising when she was 200lbs. She now weighs 130lbs and has more self-confidence than she ever has. Oh, and we will be very sore in the morning.
Beginning the morning with a workout with the women of Creams.
After aerobics, we spent more time assisting in English classes in the CRE (educational reinforcement center for middle and high school students). The classes we worked in today were advanced students who were practicing simple past tense (we’re not quite sure what that is and we’re all native English speakers…we probably should pay more attention in English class). The class activity was for students to be paired with our team members and interview us about yesterday: what did we eat for breakfast, what did we play, ect. They also asked us why we came to Safe Passage. The conversation allowed for some real connection.
Assisting in English class.
With a bit of extra time before we had our next scheduled activity at the colegio (the building that houses the elementary-age programs), we sat in the lunchroom at the CRE. Our team was apprehensive and uncomfortable – wondering if the students would want to engage. As we spread ourselves out in the lunchroom and waited anxiously, connections started to be made and conversations – sometimes with words and other times with body language and laughter – began. A large part of mission is receiving hospitality from others – allowing one self to be vulnerable and step into another’s world without an agenda or idea of the outcome. Our time at lunch with the older students was practice in doing exactly that and we were provided wonderful hospitality and received it with grace. We even ran into a few students we remembered from our Guatemala mission trip two years ago and they remembered us!
While Safe Passage has a large (and growing) number of native Guatemalan staff in their organization – particularly teachers – they still rely on a large number of short and long-term international volunteers. Volunteers serve as tutors, classroom assistants, and English teachers. Part of the hope in hosting Support Teams like ours is that people will be inspired and discern a call to serve in other capacities in the future. We had the chance to visit with three long-term volunteers to hear about their experiences. They were all women in their mid-late 20s who had made a decision to step out of themselves and the “normal” progression of life to live intenrionally in service to others for a period of time. One had a high paying tech job in San Francisco but felt remarkably unfulfilled and like she wasn’t making a difference in our world that truly mattered. So she quit her job, packed up, and moved to Guatemala to work with Safe Passage for a year and is now looking at serving under-privileged youth full-time in the future. Another had aspirations to become a lawyer and, unsure of whether she would get into law school, also applied to be a long-term volunteer at Safe Passage. She ended up getting into law school but still made the decision to turn down her acceptance and come to Safe Passage. Her time here has clarified her calling and future and she might pursue a completely different career. Many of our team members have felt the beginning of a call to do something like serve as a long-term volunteer at Safe Passage or similar organization in the future.
Our talk with long-term Safe Passage volunteers
After our chat with the volunteers, we made a quick trip to the jardin infanti (preschool) for the end of recess. Again, our team had wondered whether our brief time there yesterday had been worthwhile and whether we had made any impact, no matter how small. Well, as soon as we stepped onto the playground, the children we played with yesterday ran up to their chosen friend and grabbed us to play some more. They not only remembered us, but wanted more of us. We added to our already sweaty day begun in aerobics with wild games of tag.
Playing with our friends again at the jardin.
We ended our day at Safe Passage back at the CRE with more English classes and activities with a group of 6th grade students. Every class has a chance to visit a local water park with Support Teams each year. Since we are here at the end of their “busy season” for Support Teams, all of the classes have already made their trips. A group of 6th graders has been chosen for a special second trip based on their attendance, participation, behavior, and level of responsibility. They 6th graders we played with are the group we will be going to the water park with on Saturday and our time with them was intended to introduce us and begin forging connections between our team and the students. Nothing creates connections like a game of dodgeball! There was competition, conversation, and more laughter.
Dodgeball with the 6th graders at the CRE.
Tomorrow is a free day for our team – a day to take a break from the physically and emotionally draining work we have been doing and recharge before we end our time with the 6th graders at the water park on Saturday. We’ll be going to some nearby Mayan ruins to see and experience more historical Guatemalan culture.