True Confession: I was ignorant (or, The Truth about Blacks’ journey to Civil Rights)

by Kate Vanskike

Let me be honest: Until the last decade or so of my life, I haven’t been incredibly interested in history. In high school and in college, it was simply a required class. In the latter, I’m embarrassed to say, history was the one course I nearly failed because I was taking way too many credit hours, working, participating in a musical and volunteering, and that was the class to take the fall. (My French class would have taken a fall too, if it weren’t for my mom doing my homework for me. Better put an ‘s’ on that confession in the headline.)

What’s my point? At age 43, I finally learned about the deep and twisted history of racism in our country. I learned that lynchings didn’t just happen “way back when” – they still occurred in MY lifetime. I learned that the civil rights movement didn’t end in the ‘60s when Lyndon Johnson finally signed the civil rights act a week after Martin Luther King, Jr. died for the cause. I learned that whites in America have continued to mold our history and frame the facts in such a way that they can feel better about themselves while slavery and racism still exist, just under softer terminology. OK, so we aren’t still “owning” people but our supremacy still flourishes while black families continue to teach their children to be cautious around whites.

I had to own up to all of these facts – and more – while spending a week this spring with college students on a trip to Montgomery, Alabama, where we were immersed in the history of our nation’s civil rights movement. Museum after museum after bloody museum called to my attention the horrible realities I missed in those history classes, whether due to my lack of interest or the lack of truth in our written records. In the evenings, the 10 students and two staff members in our group debriefed together – sometimes for two hours or more – processing what we’d seen and sharing our discoveries. Our discussions were academic and intellectual, but mainly painfully personal and vulnerable as we reflected on the natural biases we’ve carried, and ill-informed assumptions we’ve made.

As one student said, “It sucks to be honest with yourself.”

Indeed.

I grew up in a Missouri town, population 711, which had no black families. (Well, there was a black family once in the 20 years I lived there, but they didn’t stay long.) I went to a college that had approximately 10 black students. I moved to Spokane and lived in white neighborhoods and attended white churches. All the while, I learned from our (mostly-white) media about crime rates among blacks, little of it placed into context of the continuing harsh realities for blacks in America. (Consider the criticism of blacks taking to the streets following the deaths of Freddie Gray or Michael Brown.)

I don’t believe I’ve ever knowingly acted racist, but there is no excuse for my ignorance and the ways it has undoubtedly played a part in my thoughts and actions over the years.

And now … I have no excuses.

I have poignant encounters etched into my memory that won’t allow me to continue in ignorance. I have shared the dinner table with a professor who, at the age of 17, was a driver for blacks during the Montgomery bus boycott of the ‘60s. I have linked arms to sing “We Shall Overcome” with men who marched side by side with Martin Luther King, Jr.  – men who, by the way, feel our nation’s current situation is worse than it was during that era. I have listened to the barber who cut Dr. King’s hair share stories never recorded in our history books. I have looked deeply into the old, brown eyes of a black man who recalled not having been able to look a white woman in the eye. I have stood inside the home of Dr. King with a black woman who passionately impressed on all us that Dr. King’s greatest legacy was love, even when he answered 20-30 hateful, threatening phone calls daily. I have discovered more about Bloody Sunday and decades of violence against blacks than I wish was necessary, and I have stood by monuments erected for children who were victims of white pride and stupidity. I have also witnessed the fervent hope and faith of the black community intent on trusting the same God who abusive whites claimed to follow (which in and of itself begs further reflection).

I am ignorant no more. And that means I can no longer allow instinctive unjust thoughts to take root in my head. I can no longer assume that the mass incarceration of blacks is legitimate, or that African Americans have the same opportunities as whites, or that the slavery and racism and cruelty of the past has not continued to inflict pain on people today.

What I can and must do now is to continue the education, the discussion, and yes, the vulnerability, that 12 of us experienced during a life-changing week in Montgomery, Alabama. Because the question Dr. King asked more than 50 years ago still needs to be asked today: “Where do we go from here?”

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Go ahead, read the plaque. Michael Donald was lynched in 1981. Then learn about the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial Center
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Nelson Malden, Dr. King’s barber, who remembers when white men in cars began following Dr. King to and from his personal activities, such as coming to the Malden Brothers Barbershop. 
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The bridge at Selma where “Bloody Sunday” took place. Details at the National Voting Rights Museum
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Jars containing dirt from the sites of hundreds of lynchings – an awareness project of the Equal Justice Initiative
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Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pastored, preached and empowered people to take a stand.
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Shirley Cherry, tour director at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Parsonage, where Dr. King and Coretta lived during the era of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. And quite possibly the most powerful tour guide you’ll ever meet.
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This is me. Sitting at the table where Dr. King had his “Midnight Epiphany” – a confirmation that his leadership in the civil rights movement, no matter how costly, was right. 

DR398   (Our Dominican Vision Trip in 398 words)

a toddler peers through slats in a window to see visitors to her rural Dominican Republic home

Day 1
On the plane, drifting over clouds
And so it begins. We will play in unfamiliar settings and take in all the smells and textures that make up the tiny portion of the Dominican Republic which awaits us.

Day 2
On my bed, beneath a creaky ceiling fan
Sweat. Drips. Sopping wet. H-U-M-I-D is how you spell Dominican Republic.

Day 3
On the bus, heading to our first community
The intern announces, “It’s Terrible Joke Tuesday!”
Later, he says our gang of 6 participated more than last week’s group of 18. We attribute that to Senor Tim.

In a school room where the Village Savings & Loan members meet
A woman says, “We are grateful a thousand times a thousand – grateful for so many things. If we were to share them all, it would take days.”

Merengue musicians, with guitar and drum and guida.Day 4
On a balcony, surrounded by Dominican people, food and music
The Merengue starts, with guitar and drum and guida. They sing about the hard work of coffee growers. We clap and dance.

In a one-room church building, where children line the walls, eager to engage
The teacher leads a lesson on a familiar story: the birth of Jesus. Her emphasis is on a detail maybe we’ve missed before: “Jesus was born into nothing.”

Day 5
On the patio, while roosters call and shoo away the morning gray
Doves embark on playful races and the chants of a dozen birds are muted by the scuffing of tired feet. Morning has broken.

On a thickly forested mountaintop
A young boy and his father drive the oxen to haul logs – carefully selected trees removed for the health of the forest. 

Rosa, a most impressive farmer, shows the diversity of plants she has tended. Watching the chatter between gringos and her neighbors, she wraps her arms around a tree and smiles.

lush green farmed hills in Dominican RepublicDay 6
On a restaurant deck, over the lapping waves of the Caribbean Sea
We eat breakfast: four weary Americans and a cheerful Dominican named Chico.

How quickly bonds are made. With or without a common language, there is joy and understanding.

Day 7
On a bench outside Denver’s Union Station
Three new friends reflect on their good fortune: they have seen poverty and richness redefined by Dominicans. And they forge ahead as apostles of a gospel that blends care of the earth with care of those who inhabit it.


Written by Kate Vanskike, 
who journeyed to the Dominican Republic
with Amber Smith and Tim Busse to experience the work of Plant With Purpose, August 2016.
For more on how planting trees has helped diminish poverty, visit
www.plantwithpurpose.org.

My 2015 Review, by the numbers

10 Firsts

biking the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago

Attending Zags basketball games
Vegan cooking
Taking a college class as an adult (critical thinking)
Producing Gonzaga Magazine from start to finish
Joined the board of Healing Hearts Northwest
Biking to work, and along Lakeshore Drive in Chicago
Hiking the Avalanche Creek trail at Glacier
21 miles in Spokefest
Serving as parent advisor for student council
Pneumonia

6 Firsts with Emily

10940586_10204726065966079_597742440051006259_n
Tubing at Bear Creek needs to become a yearly thing.

Nighttime sledding at Mount Spokane
Participated in a MLK march
Attending a college lecture on racism
Volunteering for SCRAPS (animal shelter)
Serving with Blessings Under the Bridge (homeless ministry)
Haunted Houses

5 Top Activities for Em

Students from Spokane International Academy at Washington Capitol

Started 6th grade at Spokane International Academy
Second season of softball (shortstop, slugger, All-Star)
Serving on Student Council
A weeklong trip without family to Olympic National Park
Trip to the capitol building in Olympia

5 Traditions Kept

water over rocks in crevasse

Family Camp at Camp White
Spending my birthday at Glacier National Park
Fall harvest at Green Bluff
Halloween
4 weeks of Christmas activities

1 New-ish Tradition Kept

Hosting an international visitor.  And I just have to say more about this.  Last year, we had a 14-year-old student from Japan for 3 weeks and she was delightful.  This summer, we had two medical students from Guatemala for a month, and they were so much fun and wove their way straight into our hearts.  We are somewhat leery to do it again, only for fear that our next visitors won’t be as wonderful as Saori, Ale and Julia.

Guatemalan friends at Spokane park

 

4 Fun Trips

Home by Kate Vanskike

Philadelphia – living history
St. Louis – all my parents’ favorite stomping grounds
Chicago – work and reflection, and biking downtown in the rain
San Francisco – Christmas road trip

5 Books Finished

“I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love.”

Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand)
Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil (John Berendt)
Travels with Charlie (John Steinbeck)
Tibetan Peach Pie (Tom Robbins)
The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)
A Jesuit’s Journey through the Tumultuous 1960s (Paul Swift)

7 Books Started

Jesuit’s Guide to Almost Everything (Fr. James Martin, S.J.)
The Book of Wanderings: A Mother-Daughter Pilgrimmage (Kimberly Meyer)
Another Roadside Attraction (Tom Robbins)
In the Company of the Poor (Paul Farmer)
Tattoos on the Heart (Fr. Greg Boyle)
Just Between Us (Meredith Jacobs)
The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Stieg Larsson/David Lagercrantz)

1 Big Wish

Peace, in our hearts and in our world. Courage to defend what is right. Finding God in all things.  Assuming the best in people.  Laughing more. Drinking more spiced tea, eating more veggies, buying less crap, enjoying more music, saying thank you more, celebrating all that is good. Peace, in our hearts and in our world.
a metal sign reading Peace is covered in snow

Meeting Grampa in the Middle of Nowhere: a Montana Mystery

Many roads in Big Sky Country have become familiar to me over years of quick weekend getaways, but my favorites are the less traveled paths I take spontaneously without knowing where they will lead.  Oftentimes, a map doesn’t include these roads and there are no signs: this is the best way to explore Montana.

Part of the thrill is wondering whether my adventure may include running out of gas before finding civilization, and contemplating what that experience might be like with a toddler in the car. I was driving my old Explorer on one such excursion back in 2009, a vehicle that could plow through about anything but would guzzle fuel while doing so.  My daughter and I were on a winding dirt road through miles of ranchland when I began to wonder whether I might reach a dead end and have to retrace my path on fumes and prayer. Where I saw Grampa

As I topped the hill at this gorgeous point overlooking the Flathead River, I saw a man on a horse, walking another horse.  I stopped the car and waited for him to approach.

“Hey there,” I said.  “Can you tell me if this road will eventually take me out to a highway, or I do need to head back where I came from?”

He got off the horse and looked at my map, showed me where I was in the midst of blank spaces on the page, and told me where I would eventually come out.  Then, looking into the back window where he saw my daughter, he said slowly, “What are you doing way out here?”

“I just want to see Montana from the backroads,” I replied.

“Me too,” he said.  He was a trucker from Lewiston, Idaho, got laid off, and decided to buy two horses and pack them for a journey through the countryside up to Glacier. All the while we were chatting, one of the horses stuck its long nose through my window for a sniff inside the car and some friendly strokes on the nose.

“What’s his name?” I asked.

“Rusty.”

Figures.  My grandpa had a pony named Rusty.  Grampa and Gramma loved Montana, having started a family there before moving to the Midwest to farm. Years later, Gramma would tell me Montana still called to her.  It called to my aunts, too, who moved from Missouri back to the Wild West where they’d stay for the rest of their lives.  It had my number as well, beckoned me back with regularity; it anchored me, it connected with me, it always left me feeling at ease.

I was thinking about all of this when the traveler’s eyes met mine, and for an instant, he was Grampa, back in the flesh. 

He shook me out of my reverie saying I’d be on the highway before too long, and to enjoy the views along the way.  He winked at my daughter and called to Rusty to move along.

I stared ahead, a bit dazed, as if in the desert confusing reality with mirages.  Then I grabbed my camera and stepped out of the car to capture the image of the man with his horses walking on down the dusty road.

There was no one there, and the only picture I took was of the silky green river winding its way to the mountains.

Finding Ghosts and Beauty

Moon PassI have unfairly judged North Idaho.  Terms like “backwoods” and “redneck” most often come to mind, based on experiences during my five-year residency there—the same timeframe as my five-year marriage to a true North Idahoan.  I’ve written off the panhandle of the Gem State as a home for bigots and racists, with a smattering of California transplants who’ve successfully transformed some beautiful landscapes into well-known tourist spots.

While my sentiments still feel (somewhat) legitimate, I must recognize there are many well educated, thoughtful, open-minded souls residing there, and beyond those fine individuals, North Idaho mustn’t be written off.

For one thing, I love good, unadulterated wilderness, and there remains plenty of it in the state’s panhandle.  North Idaho has a collection of pristine lakes and rivers, and ranges of mountains and forests left to themselves, seemingly empty of capitalist commercial juggernauts ruining them for the sake of a buck.  No, here—where locals drive big trucks with fishing rods, rifles and dogs—the land is pure as it can be.

IMG_6417Take, for example, the St. Joe Scenic Byway and rugged Moon Pass through St. Joe National Forest.   Every twist and turn in the road delivers a new treat to behold—from marshes to road-side creeks to mountain-flanked riverbeds.  Moon Pass follows part of the old Milwaukee Line—which would be an adventure unto itself, even without the surrounding mountain views, thanks to its tunnels and single-lane trestles high above the valley floor.  Moss-covered rock walls tell where water rushes over in the spring and trickles down in summer.  There are picture-perfect picnic spots high above the river, where the only sound comes from the water itself and the air is so crisp and clean, you want to bottle it up to take home.

And then …

Then there are the ghosts.  The cedar ghosts.  Hollowed out shells of trees left standing since the big burn of 1910 when fire roared through the forest and the lives of countless acres of giants and dozens of human lives, too.  They were 300-500  years old when the fire scorched their trunks and snapped off their tops.  And here they stand – gray and cold and unmoving, but not dead.

Cedar Ghosts

Oh, not dead.  For something in them spoke to me.  They want to recognized, loved. They have stories to tell and I must listen.  Stories of a land called North Idaho that calls to be loved rather than labeled.

August 2013

How Thanksgiving Will Never Be the Same

Sao's hammock timeSaori, a 15-year-old Japanese student whose name we would botch throughout her three-week stay in our home, brought many unexpected blessings to us this summer. I knew I liked her when her profile indicated she liked camping and hiking, and I loved the initial emails we exchanged before she departed her home and came to ours. (“What I want to do with you are too many!” she wrote.)

We were told many things about “typical” Japanese students in advance of their arrival: they’re shy, they need to be shown to pull the blankets back from the bed or they will sleep on top of them instead of under, they will shut the water off during their showers to conserve water, and if you want to treat them to something reminiscent of home, serve some Ramen noodles.

By the very fact that they were embarking on this journey to America for a three-week language immersion school and cultural experience, we assumed they enjoyed adventure at least a little. Sao, as she let us call her for short, seemed to have no limits on her willingness to embrace every opportunity to do something new.

We broke her in to some good old-fashioned American fun with camping over her first weekend. Those three days on the river in North Idaho provided her with a litany of “firsts” that she won’t soon forget: sleeping in a tent, having a campfire, roasting marshmallows, eating s’mores, swimming in a river, attending a church service, and viewing a whole galaxy of stars on a crystal clear night away from city lights. She was open to anything Emily and Alex (aka Lewis and Clark) wanted to do, and I warned her that was a little dangerous, as I never know what plans they will devise. She grinned from ear to ear and said she didn’t mind. The three of them took a raft and paddled it along the shore over to a cove where they got into the water and fished by hand; they caught a small minnow they named Ponyo, much to Sao’s delight. She and Alex built a massive sand castle with a fortress and a moat, and Emily successfully talked her into trying out a variety of jumps and positions on the diving board and slide. Later as her time came to a close, she said this camping experience was the favorite activity of her time in America.

At home during the week, we enjoyed our conversations with Sao as she returned from school excited to share what she had learned. On her first day in class, she was thrilled to discover some of the many ways Americans say yes (uh huh, yeah, okay, sure) and we added to her list. Dad continually confused her with his usual array of colloquialisms and jokes that only produced blank stares. “Did you bring the kitchen sink?” (Does he want me to use his sink? Am I supposed to wash something?) “Are you up for all day?” (Am I up? What does this mean?) But the two of them connected when she indicated an interest in a topic he deeply loves: the American Western.

“What is ‘Western’?” she asked when she heard that her class would be celebrating Western day. Dad sat down with her and showed her a map of the U.S. and explained how gradually people explored the wide-open and Wild West. He opened a book and showed her pictures of corrals and old west towns. He showed her a short clip of cowboys at work on the movie “Lonesome Dove.” And she soaked up ALL of it. Her teacher later told me how proud Sao was on Western Day to know what chaps were, especially when no one else did. That day, they also made “Wanted” posters of themselves and learned some country line dancing with the help of their American friends.

TurkeysDuring the last week of school, the Japanese celebrated all the American holidays in one day. They made Valentines, had a BBQ for 4th of July, dressed up for Halloween and gave white elephant gifts for Christmas. The day culminated with all the host families coming together for a Thanksgiving feast. When Sao learned that her teacher would be carving a roasted turkey for us to eat, she was conflicted. I found this odd, as this was a girl who was willing to eat anything. (She loved Mom’s roast pork and tried everything that was served.) It was only later on the ride home that I learned why Sao chose to go meatless for that particular meal. Our neighborhood has a flock of turkeys that wander through our yard every morning, and she had grown quite fond of watching them. As we came up the hill to our house, I had to stop the car to let the family of turkeys cross the road. “Turkeys!” she exclaimed. “And you would EAT them?!”

We threw a party for Sao and several of her friends on their last weekend. They gorged themselves on sugar cookies and played a wide variety of games in the yard, along with having a water gun fight and jumping on the trampoline. Oh, the trampoline. She was so timid her first time on it, unsure whether she should really jump. She quickly got over that and enjoyed seeing Emily do flips and tricks. They even slept on the tramp a few times, woke up sopping wet once as the sprinkler system soaked through all their layers of sleeping bags and blankets. So many memories she won’t likely forget soon.

And as for me … I won’t forget the impact quickly either. Sao became an instant daughter to me. I was so excited to watch her grow in her comfort with speaking English and with doing things on her own around the house. She would play the piano and cook Japanese dishes for us, show the kids how to do origami cranes and use her kendama. Her voice always held enthusiasm and her eyes always shone with wonder.

May Sao never forget what chaps are. Or that the Q in Scrabble should always be used where one can make double or triple points (in her case, for “quill,” which also added a new word to her vocab). Or that demi glace sauce is French is that’s why no one at the local Safeway knew what it was. Or how wonderful an afternoon nap in a hammock can be, hanging between two tall pines near the river.  And how tasty huckleberries are, picked right from the bush. And how fast fiddlers in a Bluegrass band can play those violins.

And in return, may we always welcome youth exploring a foreign land and look for ways to bridge people across the globe. And consider it a blessing to share the great enjoyment of so many firsts, especially something as simple as viewing the stars, far, far away from the lights of Tokyo.

May we always remember a bright-eyed 15-year-old girl named Saori when we carve the Thanksgiving bird.

What I learned in 90 minutes at Las Obras

Or: My “failure” at serving severely disabled kids

Las Obras home in Antigua Guatemala
Las Obras home in Antigua Guatemala

Following a week of service in a rural Mayan village, our team headed to Antigua, Guatemala, for sight-seeing.  It wasn’t all fun and games, shopping and eating, though.  Our leaders wanted us to experience Las Obras Sociales del Santo Hermano Pedro — a hospital/home for the most severely disabled and deformed.

I thought to myself, “I used to take care of people with major disabilities.  I can do this.”  And it wasn’t so hard anyway, seeing how well cared for the patients are: impeccably clean and tended to with such compassion.

Then we entered a children’s unit, and things became a little tougher.  There were kids who wanted to be playful and others who were disfigured beyond belief.  Each one who reached out, Pedro touched compassionately and talked to them gently.  We followed his cue and begin interacting with the children as best as we could.  Next came the infant ward, where we were greeted by a tiny girl who was crying and holding out her hands to be picked up.  We wandered through the room, stopping at every crib.  Two with cleft palates.  One with cleft palate and additional disfiguration of his face.  One little boy lying contentedly, swinging his legs around in the air while lying on his back; he had Down syndrome, and nothing else “wrong” was apparent.

“Why,” I asked the Father,” would a child with something as simple as Down syndrome be in a place like this?  Where is his family?”

“He was abandoned,” said Padre.  “Like most of them.”

As we left that unit, most of us in tears, we turned a corner and there was a large piece of art depicting a person with severe deformities clinging to the feet of Jesus.  I could barely breathe.  Yes, that is the way they must feel – please Jesus, don’t leave me!  These are absolutely “the least of these” of whom Jesus spoke.

On Sunday, after my team departed for LA, I returned to San Pedro Iglesia where the residents of Las Obras join together for Mass.  There were more people in wheelchairs than in pews: people without legs; others with hands and feet turned to unnatural positions; some drooling.  Clapping, rocking, some with flies gathering at their mouths.  Some of them didn’t understand the homily any better than I, but we were together, sharing communion.

Three times, I returned to Las Obras, hoping to talk with the British doctor who volunteers there and to offer some time myself.  With limited Spanish, I asked the receptionist for Leslie, and she replied, “En la manana,” and so, I returned in the morning and went through the same routine.  Finally, on my last day in Antigua, I skipped breakfast and headed straight for Las Obras so I couldn’t possibly miss my connection with the English-speaking doctor.  This time, I didn’t even have to ask the receptionist — she asked, “Leslie?” and immediately got on the phone.  Leslie wasn’t available, but a Volunteer coordinator spoke English, and that was just what I needed!

(a photo from Google) Children in wheelchairs, under nets, to keep flies out of their mouths
(a photo from Google)
Children in wheelchairs, under nets, to keep flies out of their mouths

Soon, I had a volunteer badge and was escorted to the children’s ward.  There were several other Americans present who felt about as awkward and inadequate as I did, not speaking Spanish but trying desperately to do something good.  The children were all in their wheelchairs, lined up in rows around three sides of the courtyard.  Some appeared to be completely unaware of all reality, others were distressed.  I sat next to a teenaged boy, reclined in his chair, who was nonverbal but very alert.  I began singing, and without thinking about it, I was singing “Love in any language, straight from the heart, pulls us all together, never apart…”  He recognized the “I love you” in Spanish and smiled widely, looking at me as if to beg for more.

Then I went to Jessica, a beautiful girl with braids.  I touched her hair and I said “muy bonita,” (Very pretty!) and she gleamed with delight.  Perhaps they don’t often hear people tell them they’re beautiful, because by all means, some of them are difficult for many of us to look at.  I read part of a Dr. Seuss book to one boy and tried clapping hands with another, then one of the workers asked if I would take a crying boy for a little stroll in his chair.  He was so upset and she said the only thing that calms him down is being pushed around in his chair.  So we wandered through the garden and I rocked him slowly back and forth like you would a baby in a stroller and he became restful.

Confrontation with comfort

(photo from Google) This is a girl I visited who was very aware and delighted by attention
(photo from Google) This is a girl I visited who was very aware and delighted by attention

Eventually, some of the men from the American group came into the courtyard, and I made some quick labels in my head about them being straight off a corn field in Iowa.  It was somewhat comforting, in a twisted kind of way, to see others who surely were more out of place than me.  I had secretly named one “Cowboy Nascar” (yes, he was wearing a cowboy hat and a Nascar shirt) and soon was ashamed of my labeling and judgment, because he was WONDERFUL and so natural with these kids.  He made them laugh and soon had a gathering around him.

As much as I tried to feel that comfortable and relaxed myself, it never happened.  I continued to sing to different kids and take them for strolls, but at just an hour and a half into it, I had to leave.  And I felt guilty for that.  A whopping 90 minutes.  What’s wrong with me that I can’t do this longer?  Am I just selfish, unable or unwilling to face such difficult situations?

I was hungry, so that was my ticket out the door.  I turned in my badge, got my purse and left Las Obras with a heavy heart.

What did I learn—about myself—in 90 minutes with “the least of these”? 

Many things, but here are a few vivid lessons.

  1. In case I haven’t heard the old cliché enough: you can’t judge a book by its cover.  Cowboy Nascar was gifted, and he was willing, and he made a difference.  Guaranteed.  And I should do away with hasty generalizations.
  2. In truth, I went to Las Obras to volunteer because I thought doing something “noble” would make me feel better about myself.  Really?  There are so many things I can say about that foolishness!  It was clear that I forced myself to go.  The day before, I so desperately wanted to avoid it that I walked as far as possible and went into a resort where I had myself a spa treatment!  As it turned out, letting someone care for me felt pretty good, and I need to learn to accept that without shame or guilt.
  3. Everybody knows:  we don’t all have the same gifts, and we don’t have to.  The cool thing about Dr. Leslie, the British woman I never got to meet?  I’d heard that she had stopped by Las Obras for a quick tour like my group had, she loved the opportunity she saw, and she never left.  When my friend Mark said “Thanks for your service here,” she replied to him with all sincerity, “Brother, it’s no burden.”

Obviously, serving these vulnerable children and adults is her gift, her calling.  But that doesn’t mean it’s mine.  I don’t have to beat myself up for having only lasted 90 minutes in a place where she’s remained more than a year.

Let’s chat.

I think we could have some good dialogue about this experience, so I’m inviting you to chime in.  What about my vulnerability in this story did you connect with?  Did it remind you of similar experiences where you faced some tough truths?  Let’s talk.

Receiving more than giving

Thursday was our last day in Sehaquiba and we were sad.  In a few short days, these amazing and wonderful people worked their way into our hearts.  They have changed us.

IMG_20140519_130655693Our instructions were to focus on doing one stove installation per team and to do it with great intention and presence … to pay more attention to the family and enjoy their company.  We were quite happy to oblige.  We rode up the hill in the bus a couple of miles and then hiked in to Jose’s little house, which, interestingly, was the first little home on the hill I had noticed when we first arrived in Sehaquiba.  It was there I had seen two little girls watching the bus round the corner into their world.  Those two little girls stood atop their hill once again, and this time welcomed us up to their home.

When the stove was complete and the Monitoring Mothers had done their teaching about its use, some girls immediately set about preparing tortillas.  They pat the meal like pancakes, then add some spiced black beans, add more meal and pat into a perfect tortilla to put on the stove.  Kendra jumped in to participate, and then me.  You would think patting some black bean mixture into a tortilla would be easy, but I managed to make a mess of it, and they laughed when I put mine on the stove!

The room was rearranged and a table set in the middle, with a bench alongside for us to sit and eat the bean tortillas and drink the Moosh.  Fortunately for a corn hater like me, this was 99% warm sweetened milk and 1% corn.  Per our tradition, we gathered for a blessing, praying for the family and their health, and them praying blessings on our families and our safe return home.

DSCN0668Back at the community center, music was already playing and groups were gathering for our closing ceremony.  Like the welcoming ceremony just days before, the facility was decorated and the spirit was jovial.  Women were cooking stew in huge pots in another room, and the marimba men were keeping things lively while the kids danced with us again.

Jose opened the ceremony with a spiritual reflection and scripture, then Enrique (the mayor) gave his speech:

“Thank you for the love you’ve shown us and for your help in community development.  We’re so happy having you here working together with the people – your organization, coordination, empowerment.  We thank God for these Americans thinking about this community.  We have understood the need for these stoves – no more smoke in the house – this is important for our good health.”

The community council representative said “We don’t have anything to pay you back, but we are so grateful for what you’ve done.”  They presented Mark with a thank you note written in three languages.

The last Qiche speaker said,“We love Americans … because they become our friends.” 

They love us not because we brought them a physical gift but because we developed relationships with them.  And while they said they had nothing to give us as thanks, that wasn’t true.  They gave each and every team member a gift – something made with their own hands, for us to take home and remember them by.

After many speeches, gifts and dances, we made our way to the bus, where the Monitoring Mothers and their kids joined us for prayer.  The Mother who prayed (Josephina?) was sobbing, and then were the rest of us.  I watched Ophelia wipe tears from Olga’s cheek.   Such amazing women trying to accomplish so much for their community, and feeling powerless without the support of the Americans and MTI to back them up.  Ironic, really, as THEY are the ones doing the work, providing education and helping their fellow community members to see what must happen for them to experience improved health and wellbeing.

Saying goodbye was SO hard.  I am already dreaming of the day I can return and embrace them with a warm and hearty, “Masalachole!”  (How is your soul?!)

Back in Coban, we had dinner and MTI staff presented us with certificates that have the photo of our team with the Sehaquiba community, and a bag of Coban coffee, too.  More moving speeches, more thanks, more appreciation.

I don’t need – or deserve – all that, because truly, I have received more than I have given.

(If you care to hear any more about the experience working in Guatemala, send me a note!  If you want to learn more about the amazing opportunities with Medical Teams International, visit www.medicalteams.org.)