You’ve heard the axiom, “Don’t drink the water,” when visiting foreign countries. I have another one: “Don’t brush your teeth with shower gel.”
That's what my roommate did on our second morning in Zacapa, Guatemala, last month. "It foamed real good," she says, "but it tasted like soapy yuk.” To add insult to injury, she rinsed the toothbrush under the faucet water. Fortunately, she had brought a pack of six.
It's easy to become discombobulated on a mission trip. Your "stuff" isn't where it's supposed to be, especially in a hotel room that has no towel bars and few shelves. This was her second trip to Zacapa, my seventh, but I still came home with a list of a dozen items to take next time in order to make the stay more comfortable, like those temporary plastic hooks you can stick up anywhere.
We were there as part of a team of 18 from several Baptist churches in Alabama and one in North Carolina. “Real Love,” based on 1 John 3:16-18, is the name of our ongoing ministry to improve the spiritual and physical lives of people in the impoverished Zacapa village of Conevisa. Our primary purpose on these trips is to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But even Jesus recognized that the sounds of growling stomachs can drown out the voice of the messenger.
Although recently incorporated as a non-profit, Real Love dates back to 2009. That’s when mission teams from three Baptist churches in Alabama started knocking on doors and inviting folks to Shalom Baptist Mission in Zacapa. But it’s a long, arduous walk from Conevisa to Zacapa. So the First Baptist churches of Ashville and Moody, along with Thomasville Baptist Church, furnished the funds to buy a piece of land to build Shalom Jireh Baptist Church in Conevisa. Seven churches contributed money and labor for the actual construction. Many of the men and boys from the village provided the labor, along with some Americans.
The church is strategically located next to Conevisa Elementary School. We started a breakfast program that feeds school children cereal and milk at the church weekday mornings. Last month, our team gave out 132 Blessings Bags filled with commodities such as corn, black beans (a Guatemalan staple) and rice. The men built 30 raised vegetable-garden containers. (See photo.) We left money with the church in Conevisa to buy dirt and seeds for those planters, which have now been distributed throughout the village.
While the men were building the planters and a one-room cinderblock house for a local family, several of us women accompanied a missionary couple on their weekly trip to the town dump. There we gave out more rice, beans and corn. Some people earn their meager living combing through that dump for recyclables to sell, a dangerous occupation considering the filth, broken glass and used hypodermic needles dumped by local medical clinics. We also had a couple of Spa Days, where we painted fingernails and cut hair. Each of us hugged children and encouraged hurting adults.
But the area where we’re making the biggest physical difference is in education. In Guatemala, public school ends with the 6th grade. Only 20% of the children actually make it that far. They drop out to take care of younger siblings, work in the fields or sell items in the market. So we established a partnership between the church, the elementary school and Elim Christian School in a neighboring village to provide scholarships for students who graduate from the 6th grade with at least a “C” average. Fifteen students attended Elim under this program in 2011. We now have 48 students, each with a U.S. sponsor who has pledged $600 per year through the 12th grade. This covers tuition, books, supplies, three uniforms and transportation.
Some folks wonder why we bother with one little village, when the needs are so great throughout the country. We believe in doing what we can where we can, regardless of how small the contribution. Jesus said in Matthew 25:40: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”