By Mary Baudouin
The 15 young men — all rising seniors — from Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas were a world away from their comfort zones when they arrived at the door of a nondescript nursing home for low-income, elderly people in Antigua, Guatemala, on the second day of their immersion trip in July. They walked tentatively into the home and were immediately greeted by elderly people, some in hospital beds, others tied to their chairs to keep them from wandering off, and others who reached out for hugs. The boys didn’t know it yet, but their lives were about to change.
“The experience in the home was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done,” said rugby player Cal Turner. “Finding ways to interact across barriers was tough.”
Barriers were indeed broken, but in the gentlest of ways: by giving hand massages to the residents and painting their nails, not exactly the kind of “work” these young men expected to do on their “service” trip.
Throughout their week in Guatemala, these students and their teachers broke through many other barriers of language, culture, age and gender. Students played soccer and colored with children at Hospicio San Jose, an orphanage for children aged six weeks to 18 years whose mothers had AIDS, and had probably passed the disease on to their young children. They held babies and toddlers and got sore from throwing the orphans in the air and sliding them down a hill on pieces of cardboard over and over again.
They sat next to women from Mayan villages surrounding the beautiful, but polluted, Lake Atitlán and learned how to embroider and make tamales with corn husks picked from the fields surrounding the modest houses.
In area schools they danced in circles waving ribbons with five-year-old children. They played with hula hoops together. They worked with mothers to make delicious warm pineapple drinks and then shared the drinks together while trying to speak to each other across two language barriers — Spanish and K’iche’. They sat in on classes of high school students in classrooms where the only visual aids were chalkboards.
At times during the week, and especially during the evening reflections that the students and teachers held every night, the students expressed frustration at not being able to “do” more for the people they were encountering every day and not seeing what difference they were making. By the end of the week, however, they realized that they were the ones who had become different and they had been taught not by using their hands but by opening their hearts. They had experienced the “revolution of tenderness” that Pope Francis often refers to.
The boys from Dallas Jesuit College Prep learn from the people they came prepared to serve.
“What is tenderness?” Pope Francis asked an audience in 2017. “It is the love that comes close and becomes real. It is a movement that starts from our heart and reaches the eyes, the ears and the hands. Tenderness means to use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other, to listen to the children, the poor, those who are afraid of the future. To listen to the silent cry of our common home, our sick and polluted earth.”
Rich Perry, the director of community service and social justice for Jesuit Dallas and the organizer of this immersion trip, described his goal for this experience: “I believe that it’s not important if it’s big or small as long as it’s done with the heart.”
He and Jesuit Dallas have bonded their hearts to one special organization in Guatemala, where the majority of the week’s activities took place: Vivamos Mejor, which translates to “Live Better” in English. The 30-year-old organization is devoted to the empowerment of the mostly Mayan people living in the mountain villages around Lake Atitlán, where maternal and child malnutrition is a chronic health issue. The organization helps people improve their health through nutrition and hygiene education, provision of plants, farm animals and foods to diversify diets, and installation of basic sanitation equipment such as freestanding sinks and vented stoves in homes.
Vivamos Mejor also works to empower women by educating them about their rights, particularly the right to live free from domestic violence and the right to land and community participation. They also teach both the women and their spouses to value the wives’ non-paid work at home.
Located in the highlands of Guatemala, one of the most biodiverse regions of the world, the organization also has a strong environmental mission, carried out through a variety of education and training programs on conservation and research on agroforestry on their farm or, as they call it, their “living lab.”
The relationship between Jesuit Dallas and the organization began in 2008 when biology teacher Jan Jones organized a medical mission trip to work with Dr. Carlos Flores, the medical director of Vivamos Mejor. Each March for the last ten years, students from Jesuit Dallas have joined doctors, nurses, dentists and other health professionals from the Dallas area to do health assessments and provide basic care for people living in five communities surrounding Lake Atitlán.
In addition to their knowledge and skills, the Dallas team brings their own equipment and supplies. Open minds and hearts are important, too, so the volunteers can learn how to provide health care appropriate to the culture. During the medical mission, the days are filled with assessing and treating patients, but evenings are devoted to conversation, often about the cultural differences of medical care in the United States and Central America, particularly in Mayan communities.
In 2017, Perry and Dr. Flores began exploring other ways to connect the school and the organization, paving the way for a new social justice formation trip for students so they could be fully immersed in the lives and work of Highlands people.
In 2018, students and faculty came to the area and stayed in a hotel, rather than at the farm where Vivamos Mejor offers many of its educational programs. In an extraordinary move, one that met the school’s housing needs during their immersion trips and empowered Vivamos Mejor, Jesuit Dallas entered into a joint venture with Vivamos Mejor to build a 15-person cabin and renovated a small complex to house six additional people. Another Jesuit institution, Loyola Marymount University, constructed another cabin for their students who also regularly visit Vivamos Mejor.
In describing the impact this housing has made on the organization, Dr. Flores said “With this housing, we can bring people into the community. Now we can show people life in two directions — people learn about the community and the community learns about people.”
Perry said, “When Vivamos Mejor approached us about constructing housing on site, it was the ideal opportunity to make a direct, long-term impact while at the same time bringing our students closer to the community during each social justice immersion trip.”
Perry and Dr. Flores both emphasize that the social justice immersion trips are not meant to be ecotourism or voluntourism, but rather focused on relationship-building. The women whose homes are visited are part of the Vivamos Mejor organization, and they participate in the planning of the different trips.
“The people feel totally taken into account,” Dr. Flores said. “The visits are a moment for people to feel pride in their homes and in their participation in Vivamos Mejor programs. It is a special honor for people to be chosen to receive students in their homes — they even compete a bit for it.”
The women who opened their homes went to great lengths to prepare for the students’ visits. All the one or two-room homes had either dirt or simple concrete floors, but on the days of the visits, the women spread fresh pine needles over the entire floors, making their homes smell fresh and inviting. Some prepared small tortillas or little snacks to share, and all of them shared warm welcoming hugs.
On their first day in the Highlands, the students met Santiago Pérez y Pérez, a young man just a few years older than they who began using a wheelchair after falling out of an avocado tree. Keith Reese, a teacher at Jesuit Dallas, befriended Santiago and his family during one of his first visits to Guatemala and called upon the school to do so as well.
“Dr. Flores introduced me to the family, and I was immediately taken in by them,” Reese said. “On the initial visit, I came with nothing, but since then I have tried to help out in small ways. Jesuit Dallas bought Santiago a television and cell phone, and now we message once a week.”
Students met Santiago in his room, trying their best to communicate through an interpreter, but eventually resorting to smiles and handshakes as a way of communicating with their new friend.
Moments like this provided opportunities for breaking through boundaries. Eli Steger, a tall basketball player, described another moment at a school that he visited: “When I first walked in the classroom, a little girl named Samantha pointed at me and said, ‘That is negro.’” (Negro is the Spanish word for black.) “She had never seen a black person before. But she still wanted to be around me the whole time we were there, and she wanted to sit on my lap. I’ll always remember her.”
Eli’s friend Caleb had a tougher time breaking through the race barrier, because the Guatemalan students actually seemed afraid of his dark skin. But by the end of playtime, they were hugging him and making silly faces with him.
Another student described a moment of desolation as a breakthrough during his time in the nursing home. “I was struggling with how forgotten they were,” he said. “It was hard for me to see them living with purpose. But then I realized that they were living for that moment when I was tossing a balloon to them, which doesn’t seem like much, but was important to them right then. And that was enough for them. I need to be more like that.”
On one of the last days of the immersion, students took a tour of the Vivamos Mejor farm for an opportunity to see how the staff and volunteers there are “caring for creation” and preserving the precious forest and flora of the area. They saw the seedlings of plants and fruit trees, baby chicks and flowers that would eventually be given to families like those they had visited. As they were piling into the vans to leave the farm, they saw women and children in their beautiful embroidered dresses walking toward the Vivamos Mejor educational center. They had walked from their villages, some of them many miles away, to learn about nutrition and planting. Some of the women would stay overnight in the cabins that the Jesuit Dallas students had just vacated, the cabins that the school had built for their own community, but also for this Mayan community.
These two communities, worlds apart, are now bound together in a spirit of tenderness through seeing each other, hearing each other, dancing and playing and sewing and cooking together. A revolution of tenderness had occurred in the Highlands of Guatemala.
Mary Baudouin is the provincial assistant for social ministries for the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province.