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Travelogue: GUATEMALA

‘A week that will never be forgotten’ in a beautiful, broken country


IMMANUEL volunteers worked for a week to bring hope to a village in Guatemala where poverty persists. Above, Pastor Jeff Mueller presents Santiago and Carla with keys to the new home, in an emotional ceremony capping the project.

Photos by Jeff Mueller
IMMANUEL volunteers worked for a week to bring hope to a village in Guatemala where poverty persists. Above, Pastor Jeff Mueller presents Santiago and Carla with keys to the new home, in an emotional ceremony capping the project.

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Faith Smith of Hood River makes a friend.

“A week that will never be forgotten.” — Nicole Ogden

As we touched down with two pronounced bumps on the puddled runway at Guatemala City International airport, I took one more big breath, whispered a prayer, and prepared for the unknown week of hard work waiting for us in this incredible country. Twenty-eight red-eyed members and friends of Immanuel Lutheran Church stretched, yawned, and rose from the long overnight flight from Los Angeles, grabbing their carryon bags as they slowly shuffled out of the plane towards an adventure that would change many of them forever. This was the first organized mission trip to Guatemala for Immanuel Church (Ninth and State streets), but this beautiful yet broken country had become very familiar to me over the last four years.

“This trip was amazing! I am at a loss for words thinking about how God has allowed me to experience this.” — Brooke Jobanek, age 16

I still sometimes shake my head in wonder at how our little church was led to start an orphanage and short-term mission team agency in a country we had never been to or ever thought of, let alone spoke the language or understood the culture. And yet here we were, four years later, amazed at what God has brought about with a bunch of totally inexperienced but deeply concerned Oregon Christians about the deadly plight of orphans in this incredibly beautiful land filled with desperately poor but equally beautiful people.

The journey thus far has been filled with challenges, setbacks, advancements and victories. We have come a long way in four years. But we are truly just getting started. This mission trip was the first crucial step of the next exciting leg of our expanding Guatemala adventure.

“Forever changed! I’m overwhelmed with joy from experiencing this humbling Guatemala adventure.”

— Sharie Lefor

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Village girl.

There were several important objectives we had planned to fulfill while here for the next five days. We had raised money to build a brand-new house for a family in deep poverty, as well as nine cook stoves and an equal number of water purifiers for other struggling families. We looked forward to playing with all the beautiful, happy children in the dirt-poor village where we would work all week. We would also tour our new mission team house, where future groups of Americans would stay as a base of operations for their own work among the poverty-stricken villages of Guatemala. And of course we were going to spend lots of time at our orphanage that we started exactly one year ago in the hills of San Cristobal, overlooking vast and crowded Guatemala City. We could not wait to play with our 22 orphaned children, all of whom had been neglected, abused or abandoned. Each precious child had a horrendous story of hopelessness, hunger and hurt, but now were being lifted up to a new life of hope, health, and wholeness. Guatemala is one of the most impoverished, desperate and dangerous places on earth for innocent young children, but for our 22, life would now be totally secure, loving and peaceful.

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People from the village worked with volunteers during the week.

As our team gathered up all the large suitcases filled with children’s clothes and shoes for our orphanage circling the baggage carousel, smoothly cleared customs, and started loading onto the large bus that would take us to our mission team base of operations, I reflected on the marvelous diversity of our 28 team members. They ranged in age from 9 to 75 — 15 females and 13 males, some with multiple-stamped passports and a few experiencing their first plane ride ever. There were many students representing most of the schools in Hood River County, and a handful of retired folks with time to serve on their hands. We had teachers, business owners, secretaries, corporate managers, and of course, the token pastor or two. I realized at that moment that almost anyone could come down to Guatemala and make a big difference. All it takes is a humble servant heart and a little effort. And so, we headed off to rest a bit from the long overnight flight. Tomorrow was our first big day in Guatemala!

“I was so touched by how everyone there was so full of joy.” — Hannah Kaske, age 17

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Lorraine Smith of Immanuel, along with orphanage staff, plays with village children.

As the rising sun coaxed steam off the wet concrete from an early morning cloudburst, we boarded the large bus that would take us through the crowded, bustling city streets into the countryside an hour away. We arrived filled with anticipation for what this first day of work would hold for us. Our mission was to build a 20-foot by 20-foot, two bedroom wooden house for a young family of four. This little village was once an abandoned chicken farm that was taken over by squatting families seeking security and shelter, and eventually incorporated as a village of 54 properties, all with exactly the same lot size — 40-by-40 foot. This house was the 28th to be built in this village and we loved it that there were 28 of us to get the job done.

We were introduced to Carla, the young mother, and her two sons, Santiago Jr., age 4, and baby Daniel. Carla’s husband, Santiago Sr., was already at work as a day laborer, struggling to care for his beloved little family. We immediately went to work with the Guatemalan project foreman giving us directions through our interpreter. Ten of us quickly volunteered to begin work on the house in the tight space on the small lot while the rest of the team split up into teams of six and were led to other homes to start building cook stoves.

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Immanuel volunteers work with villagers.

We had raised enough funds to build the house and nine cook stoves and nine water purifiers. The stoves are a true game-changer for a family who previous used a 55-gallon barrel filled with firewood and a grate on top. It is like cooking over a smoky campfire for every meal, often with a baby strapped to the mother’s chest. Pulmonary disease is a common killer of Guatemalan women, so these new stoves with pipes taking the smoke out the roof are saving lives and preventing illness. These stoves are also 75 percent more efficient in burning wood. There is no running water or sewer system in this village, so the water purifiers prevent 99 percent of all pollutants that in turn prevent young children from getting sick.

And so we spent the next four hot and humid days constructing the house, one nail at a time, mixing mortar as we built nine cook stoves, presenting the water purifiers to each family who got a stove, and playing with the laughing, loving children who were so happy to make new friends with the “gringos.” And to top off each day, we spent a few hours playing with and holding all our own precious children at our orphanage before heading back to the mission base for a hearty dinner and hot showers. Each day was filled with special moments, hard work, and acts of love — lots and lots of love!

“It truly is a blessing to have seen all this.” — Logan Smith, age 16

As I reflect back on our incredible week in the land of the “Eternal Spring” and all the beauty of the volcanoes, jungles, lakes and rivers, and as I reviewed what I learned of the rich and vast history and ruins of the great Mayan civilization and the dramatic impact on it with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, and as I recalled walking through all the cavernous cathedrals and colonial-style architecture of the ancient city of Antigua, it all paled in comparison with the beautiful faces of our precious orphans and the broad smiles and innocent laughter of the children of the village we had worked in all week and fell in love with. It was the Guatemalan people, young and old, poor and poorer, healthy and sick, that I hold warmly in my mind and closely to my heart. I know all 28 mission team members feel the very same way. We are all changed for the better!

And for me, the greatest moment of all, the grand finale of my entire experience on this trip, was looking into the tear-filled eyes of Santiago, a proud but grateful young husband and father, as I placed the keys to his brand-new house into his slightly-shaking, outstretched hand. And as the surrounding crowd of team members and neighbors erupted with joyful applause, I embraced him firmly as the interpreter translated the words I spoke softly into his ears, “God loves you so much, Santiago. This house is a gift from His hand, not mine. We have to go back to America now, but He will always be with you to help you be the best husband and father you could ever be.”

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Installing a stove.

As we let go of each other, he placed his head in his hands and shook with emotions only he could know. It was one of the most incredibly humble and moving moments of my life. I thank God that it will forever be etched in my mind that this is why we have spent so much time, money, and effort to go to a place far from Hood River, with vastly different cultures, economies and languages — to lift orphans, widows and struggling families to a new life of hope. The greatest joy in life is to give it away in service to others!

BACKGROUNDER

Child Beyond International, Hood River’s only 501c3 international children’s charity, was founded by Immanuel Lutheran Church (Ninth and State streets) in 2016 after three years of research and planning, including traveling to orphanages in Tijuana and Juarez, Mexico, San Salvador, El Salvador, and Guatemala City, to learn how to birth and grow an orphanage with the best standards of excellence possible.

In July 2016, Child Beyond International (CBI) officially opened its new orphanage in San Cristobal, Guatemala, and has warmly and tenderly welcomed over 50 Guatemalan children ages 5 and under into the loving arms of its highly-trained and compassionate staff in the last 12 months. Each child was removed from their home due to abuse or neglect or because they lost their parents to abandonment, prison or death. The orphanage (“hogar de ninos”) has a large staff of nannies, cook, housekeeper, gardener, doctor, psychologist, social worker, director and assistant director. The orphanage currently has 22 beautiful children in its care today.

Child Beyond International’s next phase of compassion for the people of Guatemala is a brand new short-term mission team ministry. Teams of caring Americans will come down to CBI’s new mission team compound for a week at a time to build houses and cook stoves, provide water purifiers, organize sports camps, medical clinics or Vacation Bible School programs, and to love the beautiful Guatemalan people in practical and life-changing ways.

If you would like more information about a mission team opportunity or would like to get involved in supporting the children in the orphanage, go to Childbeyond.org or contact Pastor Jeff Mueller at 541-645-0191 or pastorjmueller@gmail.com. On Facebook, visit Facebook.com/Childbeyond.

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