In June of 2011, I took part in SSP’s inaugural Study and Serve program in Guatemala. I boarded a red eye flight from Los Angeles with eleven strangers to a place none of us had ever been, where we would be led by two women, only one of whom any of us had met. It was a journey to grow in faith through our good works and trust in each other, and true to the name of the program, I learned a lot along the way.
I learned how to be really open with people I had only known for days. I spent quality time with almost every member of our team. We talked about relationships, family, school, religion, how to handle traveler’s sicknesses, and who we hope to be someday.
I worked for local foremen who, despite speaking a foreign language, were clearer and more caring than some English speakers I have worked with.
I ate my first Guatemala-style spaghetti: in tortillas.
I learned that from 1960-1996, a civil war raged in Guatemala. A country in my hemisphere was at war during the first decade of my life and I had no idea. In Fatima and Santa Anita, my group and I came face to face with the reality of history as we met people who fought in the war, and people who were driven from their homes by the escalating violence.
Before the trip, we read “I, Rigoberta Menchú,” which describes Mayan culture and the injustices which led to war. Discussions about the book brought new meaning to our experiences on the trip, and to our lives back home.
I washed my clothes by hand in a pila (great big concrete sink).
I learned the difference between fair trade and free trade, and that local actions can sometimes have global consequences.
I was shown the meaning of true generosity when a woman named Giorgina invited Patrick and me into her home. It was the size of my apartment, and a good amount of space was taken up by a loom she used to weave cortes, traditional Mayan skirts. Taped to the cinder-block wall were the prayer of Saint Francis and pictures of her sister in Los Angeles. In that humble place, she served us rich vegetable soup and an abundance of fresh tortillas.
I learned what a gringa I am when having mild salsa with dinner on day six instead of salsa picante sent me into a tizzy of excitement.
A member of our team taught us all a lesson in friendship and welcoming during a soccer game with some local teens. During the work day, a deaf boy was helping us out. He caught on to the work quickly, but I was sorry we couldn’t talk with him more, and that we didn’t even learn his name. While the boys were getting ready for the game, Nick didn’t see the deaf boy on the bus, and specifically asked that he be invited. One of our leaders said this was the high point of the trip for her.
I practiced Spanish with people who were always patient and helpful, which made me reflect on how those struggling with English in the US are treated.
We learned the difference between heritage and home when we met Gio. Though Guatemalan born, he had lived as an undocumented immigrant in the US since childhood. He was deported in his early 20s to Guatemala City, a place he’d never been, with only the clothes on his back. He made the best of his situation and now teaches music and poetry in Xela, encouraging kids to achieve their dreams while staying in Guatemala.
I am grateful for all that I learned with my team, and for the chance to grow in faith with my new Central American brothers and sisters in Christ.
As anyone can see, I learned a lot about myself and the world around me on this trip. But perhaps most importantly, I learned that this SSP thing isn’t just for high schoolers. In the grand scheme of the SSP world, I’m on the cusp of old age. Most people are inclined to make a transition go from camper to staff, and doing the opposite is unprecedented. But my experience of becoming a camper again in this exciting new opportunity made it a rewarding experience. Though it was a challenge to overcome the trepidation I felt in taking such a big step outside my comfort zone, I am grateful for all that I learned with my team, and for the chance to grow in faith with my new Central American brothers and sisters in Christ.