When the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.”… 2 Samuel 7:1-14a
On June 23, 2018, fifteen youth and three chaperones from the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego arrived in Guatemala City. From the plane, they navigated customs, exited the airport, and boarded a van to the town of San Bernardino, where they would be staying. From Guatemala City to San Bernardino is just over 96 miles. The van ride took three and half hours, which made for over 18 hours of travel, start to finish.
Hot, sweaty, and more than a little bit tired, they got off the van, unloaded their suitcases, and stumbled into the hotel. At the front counter they were greeted with room keys and a question, “Would you like to work today?” That YES began the most exceptional experience of my entire life.
Any story about Guatemala has to begin with its’ breathtaking beauty. Everything is green and when I say everything is green, I truly mean everything. The weather is hot and humid and most afternoons have glorious thunderstorms. There are road side stands selling pineapples, and coconuts, and lychees that have been wheelbarrowed in from the field just behind the road. The view from the road itself includes a view of unusually shaped mountains… which you slowly realize are not mountains, but volcanoes.
More beautiful than the lush, green landscape, are the people of this country. Quick with a smile and a, “Buenos Dias”, they are sincere and genuine in the connections they make with each other. They are open to strangers, and give and receive help willingly and with grace.
This was particularly obvious in the village in which we served, Ixtacapa.
Ixtacapa is a very small, very impoverished village that is part of the town of San Antonio. Ixtacapa is populated with indigenous people whose Mayan culture remains strong. Their children play together in the street, the men go to work in the nearby fields, and the women work side by side to not just care for the children, but to ensure that their homes are maintained and that everyone is fed. They smile, and laugh, and say thank you over and over and over for coming to be with them. The smiling, warm, gracious residents of Ixtacapa live in extreme poverty.
Now, prior to going on this trip, I would have told you that the difference between poverty and extreme poverty was an adjective. It was a descriptor, intended to enhance an image for the person listening. But it is more than that. Poverty is defined as “the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions”.
In 1995, The United Nations defined Extreme Poverty as “a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services.” It is further qualified as living under the poverty line of one dollar and ninety cents per day.
In Ixtacapa, that one dollar and ninety cents often supports a family of 8.
Smack in the middle of Ixtacapa is the Partners in Development Clinic. The clinic is stucco and cinderblock painted a vibrant yellow trimmed with teal and is immaculately clean. All of the children in the Partners in Development child sponsorship program visit there regularly. They see the doctors and the dentist, they pick up supplemental food for their families, they study in the back room that has been converted into a classroom, and they PLAY with all of the teams that come through on either medical or construction based mission trips.
The children of Ixtacapa are its greatest treasure.
While we were in Ixtacapa, we were blessed to work on two different houses. The first house was just in the beginning stages, and our team carted rocks, and sand, and cinder-block down to the job site. We also dug trenches and strapped together rebar for support columns. We mixed concrete, and heaved an enormous boulder out of a stream that needed to be rerouted. The second house was in the final stages of construction. At that house our team mixed and applied the stucco to the interior and exterior walls, and poured the concrete floor. On our second full day of construction, we were actively working at both job sites.
I split my time between the two sites, working and taking pictures. As I walked to the stucco house for the first time, a young girl and boy began to follow me. They repeatedly called out, “Hola!” and I would turn, smile and answer with a “Hola!” of my own.
After many rounds of this, I turned and squatted down facing them to introduce myself. The young boy was too shy to answer me when I asked him his name, and scampered off in the direction from which we had come. The young girl looked me in the eyes, took a breath, and told me her name was Kimmy. After a few small pleasantries, I told her I had to go to the house where my friends were working, said, “Adios”, and turned to go. She walked the rest of the way at my side.
As we approached the house, Kimmy slipped her hand into mine and whispered, “La casa de mi abuela.” My grandmother’s house.
We were building a house for her grandmother.
A house made of cinderblocks and stucco. A house with a bathroom and a cement floor. A house with a tin roof to protect it from afternoon thunderstorms and the blazing sun of midday. A house that I would later find out would be home to not only Kimmy’s grandmother, but also her mother, her father, her three brothers, and Kimmy.
Less than five feet from where Kimmy’s grandmother’s house was being built, was where the family was currently living. The family of eight lived under a large black tarp that they had fashioned into a tent by securing it with twine to branches that they had harvested in the nearby fields. Their meals consisted of beans, rice, tortillas, and eggs when they could afford them. They washed their dishes in buckets of water that Kimmy, her mother, and her grandmother carried back from the nearby stream; the same stream in which they bathed and also where they went to the bathroom.
Kimmy is my story.
I will never forget the feel of her small hand as it slipped into mine.
I will never forget her smile and excitement as she greeted me each day.
I will never forget that I helped pour the floor in the house in which her family now lives.
But if you ask any of the youth that were on the trip, you will probably hear another story.
Perhaps their story will be about Amelia with the bright shining eyes and the infectious giggle who sprinted down the hill after school and onto the jobsite where she would launch herself into the arms of the first young person she would see.
Or maybe they will tell you about Jeremiah and Daniel, who were so determined to work each day that they brought their own buckets and bags to fill with sand and carry down to the jobsite. Who when they were working with the wheelbarrows moving the cinderblocks, I had to tell with my best mom voice, “Descanso”, take a break, and look down my nose, until they would put down the wheelbarrow handles and sit in the shade for a quick five minutes.
Or maybe it will be Karla, who convinced many of the girls to let her do their hair each afternoon when we were done working.
Or Anna, who always, always, always wanted to play Pato, Pato, Ganso (duck, duck, goose), and whose rules were always evolving.
Or Preety, who caught tadpoles, and fish, and chickens, and ducks, and brought them to show to all of his amigos.
But regardless of whose story you hear, you can be sure of one thing. It is the story of Ixtacapa, a small rural village in Guatemala, where love lives.
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