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Guatemala mission gives and gives back

By Danielle Phillips and Dr. Shawn Bowers

As our group walked around the busy streets of Guatemala City, the reality still hadn't sunk in that I was actually here, in this place. We had been reading about this country for months, but seeing the faces and encountering the people that make Guatemala unique wasn't something that could be conveyed in the essays and stories we read.  I realized I was part of a legacy that started twelve years ago.  Each year, Chaplain, Dr. Diane Mowrey has taken groups of students to Guatemala to work and learn alongside the indigenous Maya population.  This year, I was part of a sixteen-person team that furthered the bond Queens has created with Guatemala's poor.  Whatever misconceptions we might have held regarding poverty and sadness was quickly erased as we laughed and played with the children of our homestay families.  Theirs was a joy I had not encountered before, a joy fed by their blind faith in God, a joy that couldn't be squelched despite the fact that they had lost loved ones to a recent civil war (so bloody, it was labeled a genocide). 

Amidst this joy, we also shared in their sorrow.  The civil war, called La Violencia, left a gaping wound that forensic anthropologists of the FAFG --  are currently trying to in part heal through their work to identify the bodies of vicitims found in a mass grave. Over 18,000 bodies were found near the back of a cemetery. It was sobering to look over the deep crater where bodies are still being exhumed.  As I peered wearily over the edge, I felt as if I was on a movie set.  The bones, some with hair and clothing still attached, is an image that is seared in my mind forever. Most people will never see something like this in their lives.  Despite it being a place of intense sorrow and suffering, the scientists and volunteers shared with us a contagious hope about the vital importance of their work -- they are restoring dignity to those whose lives were lost in the bloodshed.  To be a witness to this process is an honor and blessing I hold onto tightly.

As a result of this trip, my heart obviously broke for injustice around me, and I had big questions swimming in my head throughout the trip like "How did God let it get this bad?" and "When will there finally be peace and resolution?" But I also had some bigger revelations. My spirit was restored to a new level of faith in God's love and hope for the world. I have a newfound passion to love others more deeply and to walk alongside those who are suffering. I am overwhelmingly thankful that God broke my heart in Guatemala because it has propelled me to live my faith out in action, share with others the hope that the Guatemalans have, and try to love others the way God does.

There are other experiences, like meeting with ex-gang members and playing soccer with children, that were just as impactful. It's an experience I still can't quite articulate fully, and I'd be here forever if I cataloged all of the wonderful moments I encountered in Guatemala.  Overall, our group learned that Guatemala is a placed filled with glorious hope, and our greatest tool against injustice is knowledge -- we learned so much, and by sharing our experiences with people back home, we're able to lend a voice to our Guatemalan brothers and sisters. A candle was lit in Guatemala, and part of our collective mission is to keep that flame burning.  We learned how to better love people, and we better understand the concept of sacrificial compassion.  We're more globally connected, and we truly do see ourselves as citizens of the world. 

Each of us took away a unique perspective from Guatemala, and while our stories all share the same ideas, we have come back with different ways to apply the lessons learned into the daily rhythms of our lives.  In short, we've learned what it means to walk with others.  It's not lost on me that my Spring Break is far from typical. But Queens is far from typical. We are a community that is invested in the lives of others, no matter where those others might be.  I wouldn't trade this Spring Break for anything in the world. 

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