Serving the underserved in Guatemala

by Margaret Allee

And so the adventure begins…

“This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow.” Archbishop Oscar Romero.

As our 2014 Wells 390 Village Team prepares for departure tomorrow, I am reminded of the profound teaching of slain Archbishop Oscar Romero. Our team of 40 healthcare and dental providers from around the country, but the majority from the Portland area, will depart on Friday, March 7th to serve the people of Guatemala.

Faith in Practice was born out of a calling to serve the poor and vulnerable. In 1991, Rev. Todd Collier was traveling in Guatemala and identified a significant need at the Obras Sociales del Santo Hermano Pedro, a 500 year-old Franciscan hospital and home for incapacitated and abandoned children and adults located in Antigua, Guatemala. The Franciscan friars who ran the facility had few resources to help their residents or the injured and sick who came daily for help. Rev. Collier returned to Houston and organized the first surgical team to go to Antigua in 1993.

The mission of Faith in Practice is to improve the physical, spiritual and economic conditions of the poor in Guatemala through short-term surgical, medical and dental mission trips and health-related educational programs. The mission is based on an ecumenical understanding that we are called to demonstrate love and compassion to “the least of these.” Faith in Practice was incorporated as a non-profit in 1994, and, that year, sent two surgical teams to the Obras. Since that time, the surgical program has expanded to accommodate surgical teams from throughout the United States and the world.

In 2003, the guest house Casa de Fe was opened, which is a safe haven for patients and family as they await and recover from surgery in Antigua. Faith in Practice has also established public health initiatives that include the development of the VIA/Cryo Cervical Cancer Screening Program, designed to train Guatemalans to identify and treat pre-cancerous cervical cells. Faith in Practice has also developed and implemented a preventative and restorative dental program, a hearing program and a pediatric orthopedic program.

Over the years, Faith in Practice has also expanded to provide continuity of medical care to the poorest of Guatemala. In 1997, the Village Team program was developed, through which teams from across the United States travel to the most remote and poorest parts of Guatemala, setting up temporary medical and dental clinics in the rural villages.

The team I travel on is one of the Village teams, and has been in existence for about ten years. This is my second year with the team. The first year I traveled as the photojournalist, and this year I was asked to serve as the team administrator, which at times seems like a daunting task; but, in the end, holds great reward and blessing.

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Guatemala has one of the highest poverty rates in Latin America, and its income distribution is among the most unequal in the world. More than half of the 14 million Guatemalan people live in poverty, defined as less than $2 per day. In addition, Guatemala is home to 23 indigenous Mayan groups, each with their own language. Poverty weighs even more heavily in this group, many of whom are served in the Faith in Practice clinics. Of these people, close to 75% live in poverty, with 25% of these living in extreme poverty of less than $1 per day. The vast majority of Guatemalan people have not access to any form of basic healthcare.

When we arrive we will encounter a line of patients waiting outside the clinic area — patients, young and old, all waiting to be cared for. In a community where 90% of the population has virtually no access to healthcare, the demand is tremendous. We will see the faces of innocence among the children, the faces of hard lives in the adults, rugged with character, male and female. They are also faces of gratitude, hope and appreciation for the care they are receiving.

And yet, we each know, as Archbishop Oscar Romero noted, we are barely touching the surface of the need that exists, as he cites in his prayer The Long View:

We lay the foundation that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It maybe incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

As we wind down to the last days before departure, all of the members of our team face the common realities of needing to pack, calling credit card companies, picking up currency, preparing the family for the next two weeks, wrapping up work projects, paying bills and asking neighbors to keep an eye on things for the coming days.

Time for a new adventure, for long hours of hard work. Today as we prepare, we are facing a new aspect of the adventure with the volcanic eruption of the Pacaya volcano, located just 24 miles outside of Antigua, where the trip will originate.

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And so the journey begins….

And as it begins, I find myself returning to the first words in our volunteer handbook, contained within the letter from Rev. Linda McCarthy, CEO of Faith in Practice, and I am struck by both the power and meaning of these words. In this letter, Rev. McCarthy cites the words of Guatemalan poet, Julia Esquivel, which reads:

When it is necessary to drink so much pain, when a river of anguish drowns us, when we have wept many tears and they flow like rivers from our sad eyes, only then does the deep hidden sigh of our neighbor become our own.

As I read this, I am reminded of the gravity of the work that lies ahead of us and of the lives we will touch in the coming days. I find myself praying for the members of our team and that we will each have the capacity to fulfill the mission that lies before us; that we will each have the strength of purpose and the capacity of offering healing love for those we will serve; and that we will fulfill this mission with humility, grace and dignity.

Follow Margaret’s trip at her group’s blog.

Photo credit: Margaret Allee

Margaret Allee, JD, is a nurse, attorney and ethicist who has worked in the health care and insurance industries for more than 35 years, including more than 25 years of serving in health care leadership positions. She currently consults in the area of ethics and end-of-life care, and she teaches for the School of Business at Marylhurst University.