Guided by their spiritual leader, Jesuit priest Jon Cortina, the leaders who returned on this day committed to building dignified housing for each family before the community would build other buildings, like a church.
I first visited this community in the spring of 2000 as a member of our church's delegation. Guided by the Sister Parish organization, we went neither to build nor to teach, but to listen and to learn as we began to build relationships.
The homes in this community were simple, built of concrete blocks, with an outdoor pila where the water that ran a couple of times a week was stored for cooking, drinking, and bathing. (I hear things have changed, and there is now a lovely church and indoor plumbing in many of the homes.)
Ann and I loved the family who hosted us, Aparicio and Maria and their children and other relatives. We have so many memories from our days there: our first morning when we heard the piglet screaming so much that we feared they had butchered it (They hadn't: Ernesto had simply run it around the house three times so that it would forget where its mother was and wouldn't run away.); waking each morning to the children watching us, wanting Ann to do her tricks (put in her contacts and use her inhalers); sitting under the ledge as the season's first rain pounded on the tin roof and knocked mangoes to the ground (young Lupe running as fast as she could to collect the mangoes in her dress); talking with Aparicio about health care (he couldn't believe that there are people in the wealthy U.S. who didn't have health care and kept rephrasing his questions, thinking that my Spanish must have been wrong because surely the citizens of such a wealthy country would have health care.)
I remember a day with the community on the Sumpul River, the site of a massacre during the war but now a lovely place for a picnic, playing in the water, and sharing more stories. (I remember watching teenagers Graham, who spoke no Spanish, and Marvin, who spoke no English, as they sat on a boulder in the river talking together for hours. Tom, who is my age, and I marveled at them, and Tom said, "What do you suppose they are talking about for so long? They don't speak each others' languages!"
In 2004, I returned with a youth-focused delegation and was again amazed by the hospitality and by the stories I heard. On that delegation, I remember that wherever we went, small children would yell out for teenager Clare: "Clarita! Clarita!" As one boy jumped into her arms, she laughed over his shoulder and said to me, "I have no idea who this is."
In 2007, I was diagnosed with my first brain tumor, and I learned later that the community held a prayer vigil for me. (My chest still wells with gratitude when I think of that.)
I will not visit Guarjila again. My disabilities would make getting around this community, with its rough terrain and elevated latrines, too difficult.
Though there have been gifts, incredible gifts, with these brain tumors, and I live in a state of gratitude, there have been losses, too, and with these losses a grieving for what is gone.
Though I will not go to Guarjila again, three times members of that community have come to visit us. Sixteen months ago, three members of the community, Rosaly, Maria Jesus, and Armando, came to visit, and Ann and I got to host a community nurse, Rosaly, in our home for a few days.
Rosaly is lovely, one of those people who is kind and generous in a way that transcends translation. Each morning, she would notice that Ann put out my pills for breakfast: "Los pastilles," she would say, recognizing the sweetness of this daily gesture.
At a church retreat, we wove a basket together, and I imagine that she has it still in her home.
We were sad to say good-bye to Armando, Maria Jesus, and Rosaly. I know that I may never see them again. Rosaly, who is raising two girls, may be as unlikely to travel here again as I am to travel there.
When they left, we gave them as a travelling home gift our church's birthright blessing, said at baptism:
Adapted by Rev. Kathlyn James