Sr. Judith Noone, MM, reflects on this week's scriptures in light of her mission work in Guatemala during the pandemic.
It seems like a lifetime ago when I was invited by the Maryknoll Office of Global Concerns to reflect on one of several possible readings. After reading them over I chose today’s Gospel reading because it spoke so precisely to a problem we were having in our rural neighborhood on the edge of the bustling market town of San Pedro Sacatepéquez in the high valley of the department of San Marcos, Guatemala, close to the Mexican border.
About two years ago someone who grew up in a modest family here returned with his medical degree, his wife, also a doctor, and their two little children. They built a huge house far out of proportion to the rest, and also brought – to the amazement of all – no fewer than four cars. That was fine, until he hired a neighbor to wash his cars each morning with the community’s ever dearer water supply.
All of our neighbors were considering how to deal with the situation, how to approach him, when the pandemic turned our world upside down and our relationships inside out. We didn’t have to knock on his door with witnesses, as today’s Gospel says. The car washing simply stopped.
In this new “normal” world of ours, I feel that I am the one who needs to be challenged. How can I be an engaged and compassionate neighbor by “staying safely at home.” How can I share and spread joy with my smile hidden under the face mask? How can I express affection when the most intimate permitted gesture is slightly touching elbow to elbow?
As in all parts of the world in crisis, more and more people here in Guatemala are without work, hungry and frightened for the future. Many if not most people have family members who have migrated to the U.S. and who have sent remittances each month, but with the global economic crisis, now that source of income has dried up.
We live close to the bustling market town which has been a commercial center for as long as anyone can remember. But the market days and hours have been drastically cut. There is no public transportation and so going into town to shop is difficult. Some of our neighbors wanted to bring fruit, vegetables and other staples from San Pedro to set up a mini-market here but did not have the capital to invest. Thanks to our sponsors and friends, we were able to help them with what turns out to be a relatively modest amount, so now we have our own little market of essentials on our street! And, like all market places throughout history, it is the place to greet friends and share news.
The poorest of our neighbors, of which there are several families, used to come to our gate asking if we might have some “extra” sugar, rice, pasta, soap, etc. to share with them. We were so pained by their embarrassment at having to beg that we went to talk with our neighbor, Dora, who has a small one room store that is well-stocked with the basics. She knows everyone who is truly in need and agreed to manage a small amount that we give her each month so as to save the poorest from the shame of begging.
We have always enjoyed cooking and sharing meals with neighbors in their homes for special occasions. We of course can no longer enjoy a meal in others’ homes during this pandemic, though we continue cooking from time to time and offer home delivery or ask the families’ kids to come pick up the food. An increasing number of neighbors have begun cooking and sending dishes to other families. We never know when someone might come to our gate with a plate of tamales or a bowl of chicken soup or beans and tortillas, but come they do! Though for the time being we can’t sit down at a table together, we can live our friendship by sharing our food. Our dilemma, though delightful, is trying to sort out the odd collection of dishes in our house which are not ours!
My wonderful companion here is Flor de Maria Morales Solares, expert in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Physiotherapy. She came from Spain about 8 years ago as a volunteer to serve in a natural health clinic on the edge of our town. She returned to Spain for a few months but then called to ask if she could return to live and work with me in our Diocesan Women’s Pastoral Program. I was thrilled and of course said yes! Over the past six years Flor has given three, two-year long courses in Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture, herbal medicine. Resulting from those three courses her students have established three small clinics: two in distant towns farther out in the highlands and another in a little town, Palo Gordo, just 15 minutes from our home. Flor has always insisted that the clinics are first and foremost for patients without recourse to other health care. If someone can pay, that’s fine, if they can’t that’s just as fine.
We became aware of a small impoverished and persecuted community, Los Andes, which is located five hours away traveling on an indescribable “road.” They are persecuted because of their years-long resistance to the construction of a hydroelectric plant close to their homes. Some are in jail. The women’s pastoral group of our nearby town of Palo Gordo and the women who run the clinic there have taken it upon themselves to gather rice, sugar, cooking oil, etc. to make the rough journey to deliver to those folks every few weeks and to stay a while to listen to and share their pains, fears, and dreams.
And so life does continue, though suddenly changed from the old normal and the known. To all: please be safe, be well, and be thankful for friendships and all the challenges and joys life brings!
Photo: Mini-market near Sr. Judith's home, courtesy of Sr. Judith.