Back in the U.S. at Miami airport… For many years, I have had a strong sense of safety and relief when I pass through “customs”. Why I no longer sense that is a little unclear and perhaps a little unsettling to me. The reality that the people I just left feel like family to me now has to be part of it.
We have just heard news of the tsunami in Japan; how sheltered we have been from the rest of the world during this week. As I look at the pictures on the airport TV’s, I’m reminded of the reality of devastation all around the world. Sitting here, I listen to travelers debating about whether taking a cruise or having a guided tour is the best type of vacation. I even heard one woman who had just returned from a medical mission comment on how glad she is to be back in the “real world”. My cynicism is growing with every visit to the poorest in “my family.”
As we ended our week in Pueblo Nuevo yesterday, it seemed that I had just finished a tragic novel with one of those endings where you wish you knew what was going to happen next. I could imagine women in a book club closing the book and sitting around discussing what might happen. Sadly, this is not a book – it is reality. I close my eyes and picture a scene from yesterday. At this moment, I say a quiet prayer that I can paint a real picture to you who are reading this.
Our day began with great excitement and anticipation. After many lonely and busy hours spent preparing to find a way to convince these villagers that changes needed to be made if their health was to improve. Dr. Coral and Dr. Gary had the opportunity to complete the Children’s Health Fair with great success. They used all their posters, videos, teaching tools and persuasion to clearly demonstrate the havoc that malnutrition, contaminated water and poor sanitation can reign on your body. The children and mothers attentively sat with somewhat terrified expressions as they saw the realities of what they are exposed to every day. After the demonstration about the importance of washing your hands was completed, one of the children shouted out “But what happens if the water is dirty??” Dr. Gary laughed and said it was almost as though the child was “planted” there to bring them to the next topic–clean water!
By the time the day was over, people were approaching us begging to be put on the list to receive water filters!
We continued the pediatric, family practice, prenatal and women’s health clinics. Our med students had learned enough during the week that they were able to take excellent histories. My hope is that all the young people on this trip will realize that giving out medications and running a “clinic” is the least of what needs to be done to improve the health of any community.
Some of the group returned to Daniel’s home and rechecked his massive ulcer. After removing the “wound vac”, they witnessed miraculous healing. His ulcer is almost gone and his mother is totally capable now of caring for what he needs.
Dr. Dave and his son, Ryan presented Daniel with a soccer ball signed by a famous Guatemalan soccer player. Yes, I remember the chapter earlier in this “book” when I first met Daniel and wondered if he would just be another Guatemalan statistic that is never told or whether he might be given another chance at life. I thank all of the people on this team and all those at home who made this miracle possible.
But the story that is the most poignant is yet to be told. The beautiful Mayan woman I wrote about earlier in the week has deteriorated. We went to her poor village home and saw that her family had moved her to a different bed. She lay like a princess covered with colorful blankets as her many grandchildren surrounded her. Several daughters stoically went about their day looking pale and shocked. One of their brothers had left the country 2 months ago in search of money and the family had taken in his 13-year-old pregnant “wife” to care for. The tragedies they had all experienced in the last 2 months had left them listless. Terrible rumors about their other brother who had run away were rampant around the village. Thoughts whirled around my mind as I considered the desperate conditions of poverty that might have driven him to the life he was now in.
Despite our latest and greatest antibiotics and intravenous solutions, Tiburcia’s fever had now returned and she was extremely weak and short of breath. Her family lovingly invited us to sit with her and we exchanged soft words. I wondered how we had come to be so trusted that they would include us in this sacred time with them. She told us that her life was over. Her son was gone and she believes that he is dead. She no longer has a will to live and in response to “ Do you want to die?”, she said “Thank you.” Her daughters tried to assure her that her son would call later that day but she knew that he hadn’t called in weeks. Although everyone has tried to shield her from the rumors, she is his mother and like all mothers, we sense the truth about our children. She knows enough about his situation to know that the reality of his having been killed is very real. She whispered over and over that her daughters were lying as they were trying to protect her.
It was one of the saddest moments of my life. This was the woman who had waited for hours and hours for me in our little make-shift clinic 4 years ago. She was the reason that I finally “got it” and realized that short term “mission” trips probably do more harm than good if not done in the context of a real commitment and respect for a community. I’ll never forget her disgust when I told her that I had run out of vitamins. She and her grandchildren had been the last “patients” of the day. Her eyes had filled up with tears and she pointed to her 4 listless grandchildren and told me “They are starving. They need vitamins.” I remember how in that single moment I realized the absurdity of all that we were doing. I asked myself “Do they really believe that? Do they really believe that vitamins are even going to begin to address their aching stomachs filled with worms, their constant fatigue and headaches from dehydration and anemia, their belief that it is “normal” for young children and women in childbirth to die?? I clearly, clearly remember that second; that second that my soul screamed at my brain and said “Really, really, do you want to continue this nonsense?” Do you really want to just keep setting up “clinics” that achieve nothing more than perpetuating this massive injustice? I thought about the reality that every time I fly to Guatemala, the plane is
filled with Americans who brag that they are helping the poor and are bringing people to Christ. Yet, they don’t have a clue about poverty.
In reality, why would we go and paint their walls? Why would we build their simple homes? Why would we hand out medicines and vitamins in programs that are short-lived and completely unsustainable? Surely these people would prefer to be given the dignity of building their own homes! Surely they deserve to be told that it is their lack of food and their filthy water that is killing them. And surely they need to be educated about the reality that it has often been the ruthless greed of wealthy nations that have reduced them to living like animals.
So in these 4 years, many incredible people have joined Randy and I in starting this project of love. We have had the great privilege of reading and learning from many tireless people who have refused to say that is OK for this world to exist as it is. Many of us have even had the joy of learning from our own children who are being educated about the reality of this massive global inequality from inspiring professors. We have had insightful, powerful spiritual leaders who have guided us in discerning God’s real “will” for how we should proceed.
In these years, our relationship with this community has grown to a level I never dreamed could be possible. I almost cry with joy when I see the improvements in nutrition, in education, in sanitation. To witness a group of people with no hope who now have “committees” and plans for a future is a testimony to God’s promise that with love, all things are indeed possible.
During each visit, Tiburcia has always been there to run and give us a huge hug. Despite her horrific rheumatoid arthritis, she has served us food and given us love. It’s hard for me to understand how we can be almost the same age and yet she feels so much older and yes, wiser.
To see her in this state is almost incomprehensible to me. I sat and cried with her. I asked her if she remembered that first visit and she smiled and said “surely”. I begged her to want to live. But she sadly looked me in the eyes and said “No, the time is come. I’m too tired. My head always hurts. My joints always ache. I can’t live without my son. I know Christ and I just want to be with him. I just want to rest. “
I begged her to remember all the others in her family, all of us who need her. I told her we’d be back in June and I wanted her to tell us her story so we could write it for all to read. At the age of 55, she has lived through the most violent of times in Guatemalan history. She is one of those who suffered greatly from the horrible Civil War that our own country was so greatly responsible for.
As she tightly grasped the cell phone that Deena left for her, longing for a call from her son, we said good-bye. As we left, her daughters hugged us and we all cried. I looked in the eyes of one daughter and said “Is it really hard to live here?” She sobbed and said ,“We have no work. We have no money. We don’t know what to do. It is so hard to have hope.“ I thought about the vicious words about “illegal aliens” that I often hear at home. Oh, if the people who say these things could only witness this scene. We walked to the bus and the chapter ended. Perhaps she will be the first one buried in the new cemetery. Perhaps there will be worse devastation for this family. Perhaps, there will be healing. But for sure, there will be a sequel.Yes, it was an inspiring, energizing week. Yes, we are making progress. But stories like Daniel's and Flori's and Tiburcia's remain. For any of you reading this, please consider joining us in this effort of love. Please pray for this community and especially now for Tiburcia and her family.