In November 2018 I went with an OCMC medical team to work as a health educator for 10 days in a clinic in Aguacate, Guatemala, the spiritual center for the Mayan Orthodox Church. Since returning I’ve felt compelled to share my experience of this place and to return again. So why should anyone be interested in a small mountain town called Aguacate, where farmers grow corn on the hills, women make tortillas, children haul water and play with stray dogs and firecrackers, and almost everyone will live their lives without ever being mentioned in the world news?
A chance to imagine life from inside a different skin.
had a chance to see something of the lives of these people as I watched them work, visited their houses, and talked with them about their health. The story of poverty written on their bodies. They have parasites and chronic gastrointestinal problems from a contaminated water supply. They have persistent respiratory illnesses from indoor wood burning stoves. Adults starting in their 30s have musculoskeletal pain, pinched nerves, arthritic joints, and migraines from manual labor, bending over crops and stoves, carrying children on their backs, and sleeping on straw mats. Most people have chronic toothaches and cavities, fungal infections on their feet, scalps, and groins, bedbugs, and lice. Most children don’t have shoes that fit. Poor people are almost never comfortable, and I wonder: what does life in constant discomfort really feel like?
Travelling to Aguacate is a chance to see God from a different vantage point.
The Maya seem to have the gift of making beauty in a place that is muddy, foggy, and poor. They fill their churches with color: vestments embroidered in hot pink and turquoise thread, pots sprawling with wildflowers around the icons, the sea of women’s heads crowned with braids woven with ribbons. Many of the women walk to church before the sun comes up, with babies asleep on their backs, praying silently on their knees for an hour before starting their work. I watched them and wondered: What do they know about God, who chose to be poor like them, that we don’t understand?
While there is much to learn, there is also a great hunger for knowledge.
Our team found many people in Aguacate come to the clinic not just to fix a health problem, but hoping to understand a health problem. Research indicates that educating women is one of the most effective ways to affe,ct change in a community. My goal in returning to Aguacate is to provide education to the young women. I observed how quickly the young girls grow up—often married with children by age twenty—they become the mothers of the community and are responsible for the health of the family.
Like most westerners who travel to third world countries, I have plenty of ideas about how to solve the health problems I encounter: water filters, open air cookstoves, education on hygiene, toothbrushes, etc. On previous international trips, I used to be surprised when the people I was trying to educate weren’t more excited by my information, but I’ve come to understand something about the lives of the poor — they can do almost nothing extra. Filtering water is an extra step between the hauling of the water and the cooking, and they’re tired and the sun will be going down soon. Education takes time and mental energy that a person with poor nutrition may not have. And life in Aguacate, including diarrhea and back aches, is just life.
One of the most valuable things I’ve learned about teaching is something I’ve learned from my work as an early intervention occupational therapist. That is, when stepping into the home of a family whose baby has a disability, you don’t simply jump in and try to fix them. First you have to show up and listen. Showing up says to the family that their lives matter, and listening helps you work on the problems the family wants to solve, not the problems you want to solve. Then, you model and teach. And in time, the parents may start to become more empowered — they have words for the things they’re dealing with, they understand the processes affecting their child, and they know where to find answers. Experiencing this process gives me a starting point for teaching: start by listening.
Ultimately, my goal is to show up, get the girls talking, and listen to them. I want to show them that I believe their lives matter, and to hear about their health problems as they understand them. From there I may be able to model and teach healthy practices. It’s a large goal, with a possibility of failure, but it is worth the effort.
I wish that everyone could experience life in a place like Aguacate, but not everyone can. However, we can support organizations like OCMC and their missionaries, whose work builds bridges within the church between places of wealth and poverty. And we all can open our eyes to the second and even third world poverty around us which is never very far away. In our own country there are families living in poverty almost as dire as the circumstances described above. In apartments and mobile homes, run-down parts of town, living out of their cars in the parking lot of the local Walmart—“the least of these” are among us.
If we opened our doors to them, what kind of spiritual gifts might they bring us?