The young, barefoot mother with her 5-month-old child sleeping in a red sling on her back watched us tighten the remaining bolts on her new wood-burning stove.
Quietly, the woman reached to touch the stove she’ll use for cooking and heating her small hut in the mountains of Guatemala where she lives with her husband and three children.
“Gracias,” she said softly.
Seventy families in this mountain village of 600 with no electricity or running water received a stove. They’ll no longer have to cook and heat by an open fire in their dirt-floor homes.
I was part of a nine-person, 10-day outreach for Hands for Peacemaking Foundation, an Everett-based Christian missions group that focuses on helping Guatemalans. Paul Means, a high school friend who now works for Weyerhaeuser and lives in Puyallup, led the group that included a pastor, a business owner, a computer programmer, a teacher and an aerospace engineer.
“We’ve been blessed with so many things. Others have so little,” he said. “I feel it’s a way of making a difference .... We’re not going to change the world, but maybe we can help a family or a village.”
A JOURNEY BEGINS
At midnight July 2, my first journey abroad began, giving me an up-close look at poverty and at a small community’s resilience. After flying all night from Seattle to Houston to Guatemala, we landed in Guatemala City at 11 a.m.
The next day, we flew another two hours in a four-seat Cessna, landing on a rocky airstrip on a steep hillside just outside of Santa Cruz Barillas, a lively town of 2,000 people with electricity and a busy open market. The third leg of our trip was a bumpy, 21/2-hour ride on dirt roads filled with chuckholes. We averaged about 10 mph for the 27-mile trip.
As our trucks labored up the hill to our destination, Nuevo Santiago, the village of Mayan descendents launched bottle rockets to welcome us. The adults speak a Mayan dialect. The 90 children in the village are learning how to read in Spanish.
The village was cut out of a forest of tropical trees. Small corn patches next to the huts on the steep hillside are a primary source of food, though they also grow bananas, beans and tree tomatoes. There are only two trucks in the village. None of the children have ever been outside the village. Only a few of the men have made the trek to Santa Cruz. No one had been to Guatemala City.
The village welcomed our arrival. We shook hands, slapped high fives, tossed Frisbees and slapped a tetherball. We were the second of two groups to visit from Hands for Peacemaking this year. As we unloaded bags of school supplies and Bibles, we stepped into a world where daily needs of food and shelter are priorities. Since there are few opportunities to make money, some villagers go to Mexico to work on the farms. Their crudely built huts are sparse, usually having only a mattress with handmade bed frame and a handmade shelf with a few pots and dishes. Corn often hangs across the ceiling to dry.
In our short introduction, each of us spoke into a microphone powered by a generator. Jim Garland, the comedian of our group, said in Spanish that his name was “Jimito,” which is Spanish for little Jim and is pronounced “Hi-me-toe.” The villagers laughed and applauded.
Over our four-day stay, Garland became a magnet for the children, always asking in English, “What’s up?” The children would repeat, “What’s up?”
“The memory of the last few days will be permanently etched into who I am,” he said.
By 8 a.m. each day, we were in a villager’s hut, installing a stove. We worked in three groups of three and had a villager working with us, finishing up by 6:30 p.m. It took about an hour to put together the 170-pound steel stove, which included cutting a hole for the chimney in the side of each home. At every stop, one of us played with the family’s children, tossing a Frisbee and reading a children’s Bible with them.
My Spanish was limited to a simple greeting, but a handshake and a smile went a long way. For Alan Billingsley of Lakewood, it was his 12th short mission. Sometimes, he can’t decide who the giver is.
“You can never do something nice for someone and not get something back somehow,” he said.
The last day, a father of four shook our hands and thanked us in English. He wore a New England Patriots T-shirt and jeans. When asked about the Patriots, he didn’t know much. It was a shirt, not fan support.
“Thank you for the stoves. Thank you for coming,” he said. “We love you. God bless you.”
Hands for Peacemaking was started in 1985 by Leeon Aller and his wife, Virginia. In 1999, Pete Kinch, a former mayor of Everett, became the volunteer director, fund- raising and planning trips.
Marco Maldonado, who grew up in Guatemala and met Kinch while attending Everett Community College, is the field director. His mission plan is a blend of helping hand and sharing the message of Jesus.
“We want to teach them how to fish,” Maldonado said. “We don’t want to just give them fish. Our goal is to help them become self-sufficient.”
In June, a Rotary group from Burlington nailed corrugated aluminum roofs onto the village huts, replacing blue tarps and broad-leaf branches. Next year, building latrines and installing more water barrels is the plan.
The 14-hour return trip from Santa Cruz to Antigua included memorable scenes: Two women cutting each other’s hair to sell; a man wearing a white cowboy hat loading his burro with chopped wood; two women washing clothes; smiling children waving as we passed.
It was an amazing look into a developing country, both widening my scope and making me more appreciative of the things I have.
To learn more
To contact Hands for Peacemaking, go to www.handsforpeacemaking.org or call 425-348-3030.