We are seated on faded plastic chairs perched on the dirt floor of a one-room corrugated tin home. It belongs to Ovalia, a forty-three-year-old Guatemalan woman who is expecting her ninth child. Her face is lined, her hands rough. Her eyes are weary, but they seem to shine with an inner light.
Speaking quietly in Spanish to her five American visitors, Ovalia reveals the source of her light. "I put my faith in Mary," she says. "I pray to her and feel her spirit. She understands the struggles of the women here."
In these surroundings of unimaginable poverty, Ovalia's love for our Blessed Mother shines out like a beacon in the darkness. I know I am encountering holiness, and I feel blessed. For me, this humble home is a stopping point on a unique journey: God is waiting to meet me in the lives of families like Ovalia's.
Come and See! I had not imagined that my trip to Guatemala last year would be so rich in blessings. In fact, until just a few months before it, I had never thought of traveling there at all.
The invitation came during a conversation with two friends—Debby Grittner and Lorilee Petrangelo—at a coffee shop near our homes in Minnesota. All three of us graduated from a local high school run by the Sisters of the Visitation; we married and had children, but have kept in touch.
On that late August morning, my friends were telling heartbreaking stories about their recent mission trip to an impoverished region of Guatemala. Debby's eyes glistened with tears as she spoke about the stark reality of families struggling every day for their survival. Food, clothing, education, medical care—none of our own children had ever lacked these essentials. But in San Pedro, an hour north of Guatemala City, it was the exact opposite. My friends' encounters there had spurred them to action.
Lorilee told me how she felt called to establish a nonprofit health and wellness organization in San Pedro. Its name—the Grace Centre/Centro de Gracia—in honor of Baby Gracia, a little girl who died of malnutrition. Lorilee had met little Gracia on a previous trip. Spurred by that encounter, she was doing all she could to gather resources and spread the word about the community and its needs.
I was listening, riveted, when Lorilee asked an unexpected question: "Would you consider coming with us on our next trip to San Pedro?" My response was immediate and certain. Yes!
Never mind that at age forty-four, I had never traveled outside the United States and that I spoke approximately ten words of Spanish. Yes! As I drove home, I was filled with peace. I sensed that God had a special blessing waiting for me as I took this journey.
Visiting the Mothers. And so last March found me walking the desolate hills of San Pedro with Lorilee and Debby. Also with us were Debby's eighteen-year-old daughter, Amanda, and Sr. Marie Thérèse Conaty, seventy-eight, a former teacher of ours.
Our mission was to visit the homes of women in two neighborhoods unlike any I had ever seen. Most of the residents are refugees from Hurricane Mitch, a devastating storm that ripped through Central America in 1998, killing thousands and forcing thousands more to settle far away from their extended families. All along our way we saw ramshackle tin houses, laundry lines of clothes sagging in the dusty breeze, piles of garbage, and thin streams of raw sewage by the road.
Many residents of this area attend Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church. Its pastor, Padre Mario Ochoa, is a compassionate servant who is well aware that physical poverty is not the only cause of his people's suffering. There is also the pain caused by emotional poverty—especially among the women.
They welcome Padre Mario's invitation to visit with us. They want their stories to be heard.
Stories from San Pedro. We listen to Ovalia, whose children range in age from four to eighteen. Ovalia's husband rides the "chicken bus" daily into Guatemala City to sell ice cream. Ovalia is afraid he will abandon her some day, a fear shared by many Guatemalan women. She is grateful, though, to be married to "a man who does not drink and does not abuse me"—a statement we find profoundly disturbing.
Graciela, a young Mayan mother who lives nearby, has six children and sells handmade tortillas in San Pedro. She has virtually no education; when she was seven, she was sent to work in the fields, where she was raped by her uncle. "I feel like I never deserved to live," she says. Her husband has a job, but like Ovalia's, he is away from morning till night.
Maria del Rosario is a beautiful young woman, but her face cannot hide her anxiety and depression. Her husband has gone to the United States in an attempt to get a job that will allow him to support her and the children. Although he does send money, Maria is realizing that he will probably never return. This breaks her heart—and leaves her fearful about being a woman on her own. She feels isolated and longs for connection and friendship.
All the women's stories reveal the emotional issues that weigh heavily on the people here, along with malnutrition, illness, and the lack of clean water. We leave San Pedro committed to take these stories back home to help convince others to support Grace Centre/Centro de Gracia so that medical professionals and social workers will be given the resources they need to serve these devastated families.
Two Photos. Prior to the trip, I had tucked a photo of my husband and two children into my purse. I planned to show it to the women we were going to meet to indicate—where my Spanish would fail me—that I also was a mother.
When I showed the picture to Ovalia, she studied it intently. Then she asked if she could keep it. "No one has ever given me a gift like this before," she said.
I was overwhelmed at Ovalia's response. Despite the great differences between us, she saw me as a friend. In that moment, I felt the Lord making a profound connection between our lives.
I like to think that Ovalia looks at my family picture often. For my part, I keep a photo of her and her beautiful children on my bulletin board. Every day it reminds me of one of the most powerful moments of my mission trip.
"The Lord Was There." It was, as Sr. Marie Thérèse said of our whole time in Guatemala, "a new and profound way" of meeting God. "The Lord was there in our coming together, and there was no difference between our poverty and theirs."
I am so grateful that God made it possible for me to say yes to this extraordinary experience. It lives on in my heart, and although I am far away, the San Pedro community is always in my prayers. I join with Ovalia in spirit, asking Mary to be close to her and all the mothers of Guatemala, who are in such need of her love and protection.
Julie Pfitzinger lives in West Saint Paul, Minnesota. Since her visit, generous donations have enabled the Grace Centre board to purchase land and equipment for a park. Other projects are underway. For more information about Grace Centre click here.