I raise my eyes to the mountains

Aug. 3-16, 2006
I raise my eyes to the mountains
By Deacon Michael Galuppi/ SUN contributing writer
SUN photo(s) submitted
Catholic social teaching in action in Guatemala

Up, up, through the clouds, on a one-lane, hand-laid stone road with a 1,000 foot drop to the right, and a 1,000 foot climb to the left. High-adventure vacation? No, just a group of Catholic seminarians and priests visiting a Free Trade Coffee cooperative high in the mountains of Guatemala to witness first-hand what Catholic Relief Services is doing to help secure a living-wage, to safeguard workers’ rights and human dignity. Slowly we wound our way up through the jungle, one and a half miles above sea-level. On this two-hour-long bumpy ride to the Puebla Nueva Coffee headquarters — a modest three room shack that contains no more than a desk, a wood-fired coffee roaster and four hand-operated coffee-bean grinders —
I remarked that I would never take a cup of coffee for granted again, after seeing the natural obstacles and physical labor that go into producing a cup of the morning joe.

But the trip up the mountain was much more than that. We were witnessing the Gospel in action. Suddenly fancy terms like “living wage,” “subsidiarity,” “solidarity,” “integral development,” and “human dignity” — terms that come directly from the social encyclicals from Leo XIII all the way to Benedict XVI which constitute the pillars of our Catholic Social Teaching — were no longer theoretical notions or lofty ideas. They were, as they were intended to be, living guides for putting the Gospel into action.

Catholic Relief Services (CRS), a development agency founded by the Catholic bishops of the U.S., was established in 1943 and now sponsors projects in 99 countries. It lives by the principles of Catholic social teaching, all of which exist to preserve, promote, and protect the innate dignity of every human person as created in the image and likeness of God. Their “Global Fellows Program” brings priests and seminarians to sites worldwide to experience first-hand the work they are doing. Past trips brought groups to India and Madagascar. This year’s trip was to Guatemala, June 1-10 and consisted of three priests, three seminarians, and one lay youth minister. The goal of the Global Fellows Program is that we, as priests and future priests, might become witnesses of the social Gospel in action, as seen through the efforts of CRS, to better educate and motivate those we serve and to help them to respond in meaningful ways.

Other programs we visited were a number of water projects designed to restore access to clean drinking water for those devastated by last year’s hurricanes; a house for migrants making their way north, with hopes of reaching the U.S., in search of jobs to support their families and safeguard their quality of life; and an HIV/AIDS clinic and hospice, a first-of-its-kind in Guatemala, responding to this disease by educating clergy and lay people, providing medical assistance, and offering counseling.

Each of these projects follows a similar model of implementation. First, they develop from a need voiced by ordinary people at the local level. It is, after all, they who are best able to assess their own needs accurately. Through the local church and the local Catholic Charities, CRS is contacted. CRS assesses the projects and responds by providing technical support in the form of engineers, doctors, nurses, or educators, depending on the need, and CRS also provides materials and equipment such as cement, piping, water purification tablets, building materials, or teaching aids. The work, for the most part, is done by locals who are then empowered to provide for themselves in the long-run. This is the Catholic principle of “subsidiarity” in action, a principle which states that no larger body or group ought to do for people what they, by their own ingenuity and will, can do for themselves. It both promotes and preserves human dignity by freeing individuals from the shackles of poverty that otherwise interfere with their ability to chart their own course in life.

My experience of this trip was very humbling. In our rides through the countryside I experienced a way of life that I could never have imagined. Living conditions are very basic. One or two rooms are sufficient for a whole family, all their possessions, and their livestock. Running water is unheard of. Natural springs and wells supply their water. Electricity is unpredictable. Every family grows its own food on every usable piece of land, regardless of the slope. Children walk miles through the mountains to attend school. For most people, access to the sacraments is limited to once per month because of their rural location and the shortage of priests. Yet, despite the obvious difficulties they face just to survive, they were happy, hospitable and warm. Children laughed and played. Women carrying heavy loads uphill stopped to wave and greet us as we passed them on the road. Men still took pride in providing for their families, and there was an unspoken sense of joy emanating from those we met.

One story from the trip demonstrates this well. We were in the coastal plains of Ocòs, near the Pacific Coast and the border with Mexico. The temperature was well into the 90s and the humidity was near 100%. One of the simple houses we visited was occupied by a family with four young boys and their grandmother. They lived in two simple one-room buildings — only one of which had a cement floor — which sat tucked beneath a canopy of acacia trees and was surrounded on all sides by banana fields. Their chickens, pigs, wild dogs and goats roamed freely around the property which was lent to them by the landlord who owned the banana plantation. The daily wage their father earned for picking bananas was $4.

We were there to see their well, which had silted over when Hurricane Stan flooded their home under five feet of water last fall. CRS had re-dredged and re-purified the well which was their only source of drinking water and, therefore, life. It was the center of their simple abode and their existence. Never again can I read in the Scriptures about “living water” and “the waters of life” without calling to mind the well that kept this family alive, in more ways than one.

But what was most striking about this family was their sense of pride. We asked the mother if we could take pictures of her kids, aged 2 to 7 years. She responded affirmatively but remarked that they needed to wash and put on clean clothes first. Cleanliness was not the word that came to mind as I stood in the mud of their rustic abode, sweating. Yet, her sons snapped a branch out of a tree and used it to fish some clean clothes off the line, tattered though they were. They then drew water from their well, and with buckets, scrubbed themselves clean, having a grand ol’ time, as though they were playing at the beach. When the time came to snap the pictures, their mother was beaming with pride.

The number and degree of differences which separated our way of life, our struggles, and our difficulties from theirs are too many to count. But the human similarities liking us to them are striking: dignity, pride in one’s children, the love of a mother, hospitality. These are just some of the deeper, more binding cords linking every human person to each other the world over, and from which the church’s social teaching derives its wisdom. Subsidiarity, solidarity, the common good? They are all fancy words for expressing one thing: “Love one another as I have loved you, for as often as you do unto others, you do unto Me.”

The author is a transitional deacon studying for the priesthood in the Diocese of Syracuse. Currently he is assigned to St. James in Johnson City, and studies at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, Md. His home parish is St. Vincent de Paul, Syracuse. He was ordained to the transitional deaconate on April 1, 2006 by Bishop Moynihan and anticipates ordination to the priesthood in June 2007.

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