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Father Tim Conlan's notes from Rabinal, Guatemala lent 2013

El Mirador Father Tim Conlan Guatemala La Danta Mayan Nakbe Rabinal

Father Tim Conlan used to live in Seattle, was a parish priest in a North End Seattle Church that my friend's, the Hurleys went to.  The Hurley's had lots of kids, like the Catholics used to be known for in the old days, and one day, they had to baptize their baby daughter Jennifer, and they had run out of good choices and so they chose me to be her Godfather,  I have traveled to Guatemala twice, the first time I took a hike in the Petain for over 100 miles into the Petain to see El Mirador, a mayan temple complex with the largest pyramid in the world.  Not the highest, but the largest in terms of man made structure.  While on this Trip, we also took an extra day to visit Nakbe and La Dante, and ran into the archeologist who has been responsible for most of the activity in this region.  He also gave me the recipe for curing crotch rot, which I will share with you.  

 

And here is the cure, as he described it to me.  First you get a small stick and some mosquito repellent.  You put the stick between your teeth to have something to bear down on when enduring the pain.  then you rub the mosquito repellent on the affected area.  The next day you will be cured.  It works, but the pain was not so bad as he describes , either that or I have a numb butt.

I haven't yet gone to the area of Guatemala where Father Conlan resides, but from reading his letters, which I warn you are very long, I am convince he is a living saint among us.

If you ever go to Guatemala, you will find it is a country of immense beauty, extreme poverty, a tinge of lawlessness (the murder rate is twice Mexico's) and wonderful Mayan ruins.  The last time I was down there, I also visited Copan, in Honduras, then took a jungle trip down a river for a few days, hiked into the jungle to see some ruins, then spent some time around Flores, which is an Island in Lake Petan Itza.  It is hot and humid down there in February and I don't know if I am really able to stand the heat and humidity any more, so I may find a different time to visit, when it is not so hot. 

 

Incidentally, while on my last trip, I visited a couple of little towns to the North of Flores, going by Tuk Tuk to get there and returning via the informal service they have there which is like a "Ride Share" system, but completely privately organized.  On=e of these little towns, I later foound out on my return to the states, had about 25 peasants, beheaded, about the time I was visiting the darn village.  Luckily, they weren't into beheading Gringo's that day.

 

In any case, herein are Father Tim's notes.

Notes from Guatemala at  Lent  2013  Mardi Gras Night

 

30 million Hindus will bath in the muddy waters of the Ganges

This February and March in the annual ritual

To cleanse their sins, and hopefully refresh their bodies,

A wonderful sign of intent to purify the muddy waters of the soul.

 

Catholics will put on their foreheads the ashes of penance

To remind them to lay aside the dead works of sin

And be transformed in the furnace of suffering that is the lot

Of those who seek to conform to the image of the Cross.

 

Over a hundred Buddhists have immolated themselves in fire

In Tibet in the last year, their protest for freedom of spirit,

Freedom from earthly kingdoms and longing for happiness,

In the world that promises no suffering, the eternal life.

 

Every day the sun stretches out its wide arms to embrace the world.

It rises from sleep to journey the whole day to the farthest reaches.

It burns itself up in immolation as a way to give life and warmth

As a sign of the true Sun that rose from the cold of death to ignite

The hearts of all who long for the true happiness of life immortal.

 

Melt away all desire for the pleasures that hold us bound to earth

Soar to the heights on the funereal drum beats of Lenten processions,

Raise your eyes to the majestic figure of the Lord, bent under the cross,

Clothed in a purple robe, brocaded in gold, as befits Heaven’s King,

Bent to deal a mortal blow to the Tempter, lurking in the back alleys

Of our hidden desires for glory, power and wealth at any cost.

 

The blood of countless innocent victims runs in the streets of the world,

Innocent of all but their bold resistance to the attack upon their dignity,

The unborn, the discriminated, the orphans and widows, the abused, the incapacitated, the mentally and physically infirm, the ignorant,

These who I see but do not think are my brothers, sisters, mother, father,

They die and I do not mourn. They live and I do not pick up their cross, But One who did, is summoning me to follow him in the Lenten processions,

To believe he is walking with me as Lord of Light and Grace.

He waits for me to pass through the death to sin with Him and

Rise to sing the triumphant hymn of Easter Hope, Alleluia.

 

Speaking about struggle and hope leads me to share this report.

 

I suppose most of you who send in donations to a missionary group such as our Dominican Mission Foundation are hoping that the money is well spent, but each of us may have a different idea of what the most important needs are or should be.  Some of you may want people to eat enough since children who are mal nourished cannot really advance to their full potential and we don’t like to think that any child goes to bed hungry.  Guatemala has the highest incidence of mal nutrition in all of Latin America.  Others feel that after a good diet the most important thing is to get an education since even if someone is poor, once he has an education he can find work. Guatemala has a lowest rate of children in school and the highest of illiteracy in Latin America. Others want people to believe in themselves and have a spiritual hope in a better future with God since in this world at times we do not find perfect justice and must accept a lot of suffering.  In Guatemala we have more missionaries from more religions than any place in Latin America.  Others would like to see a structural change in development and in the legal system and the distribution of wealth, that is, social reform.  After a 36 year civil conflict to get rid of the military dictatorships and sign peace accords, progress in democracy and justice is still at a slow pace.

All of these are good reasons to give to a mission society such as our Dominican Missions.  However, often times we are thinking of programs that treat large numbers of people, in order to solve these serious and deep problems, yet for that very reason at times we can look right past the individuals in their needs.  For example, one day this December I was in the office after the secretary had gone home and there was a knock at the door.  We had been working for weeks in promoting various opportunities for scholarships and we were in the last stages of deciding on a few candidates of our own in various careers.  At the door was a young woman, 18 years old.  She appeared frail with deep inset eyes and sort of straggly hair, in unkempt and ill fitting clothes, with a bit of a lost look on her face. She very tentatively asked if we could help her to study.  Of course, that is one of the main programs of our office, but we were in late January and it was really late in the year to be looking for help since almost all the dates for application had terminated by November and the funds that would support students had been assigned for the year.  It would have been so easy to say that it was after hours, and there were no real opportunities left, but it just seemed to me that here was a case that required a little more attention, so I invited her in and sat her down to tell me what she hoped to study.  It turned out she wanted to be a nurse.

I probably could have guessed the rest of the details of her life because it would be so typical here in Rabinal.  Her parents lived in a village about 25 miles from town, up a mountain road, where there is no electricity nor roads in to the village.  Her parents sent her to live with her grandmother in the town since she was 5 years old. Her grandmother lost her husband in the violence in the 1980’s, and since then sells a corn drink in the town square for 10 cents a bowl.  At times the girl helps her aunt sell refreshments in front of the grammar school during the school year. Occasionally she finds a job as a maid in a home.  She recently is working for a woman in a store cleaning the merchandize and still does not know how much she will be paid, but it will not be more than $3.00 a day for 10 hours.  Just to give you an idea of what that will buy.  A modest lunch eaten at a local restaurant, of which there are about three barely acceptable, would cost $2.00, but someone could eat a similar meal in the plaza in a somewhat less hygienic ambience for $1.00. However my electric lights at the office are costing me $50.00 a month and the telephone and internet is costing another $50.00.  So you can see that if she made $18.00 a week, she could not pay my lights and telephone, let alone provide food for her or help her grandmother.

She had paid for her education during three years in a high school on Saturdays which costs roughly $15.00 a month. And in our conversation it turned out she had saved about $200.00.  Now the only programs currently available for nursing are out of town, and they would cost about Q2, 000.00 a year.  However, it was too late to apply for the schools that are official, and that I value.  She thought maybe a new program in the next town in a private school would work for her, but I explained that they give false promises and cannot guarantee a job afterward.

In the end I advised her to save her money this year and wait one year, but in the meantime I would offer her a course in computer, which would cost us about $150.00 for the year, but then it occurred to me that she had another problem besides being too frail and looking anemic, which was that when she opened her mouth it appeared that her teeth were all decayed and some were missing or broken or badly repaired.  So I examined a bit and decided that before she could be a nurse she needed to take care of her own health.  So I started a process to take her on as a candidate this year and hopefully for the future.  We have since visited where she lives and had interviews with her grandmother, and we visited a dentist who gave us the shock that she wanted to pull out 12 teeth and fill 11 others, plus make two permanent plates and the bill would be $1,000.

Now you ask why would I be spending money on someone who obviously does not have the intelligence to take care of her own health? But this is where one must put oneself in the shoes of another. Actually, her grades from her high school indicate that she is a good student.  Her grandmother explains the dental problems by saying she always liked candy so that is why her teeth are falling out, but I suspect that part of the fault is that they live so poorly that she never had a good diet. Rather, she drank a lot of corn gruel without essential vitamins.  She did go to a dentist here in Rabinal a couple of years ago and he put a partial gold cap on one front tooth and said nothing about all the rest of her mouth, so I suppose he knew she could not pay for much else.  That gold cap is now surrounded by a decaying tooth.

The young woman did not like to hear that she would lose 12 teeth, as you can imagine, nor did I, so we decided to visit two more dentists in the next town to see what their analysis would be.

And if you think this young woman is the exception, the young woman who is my secretary and who was on scholarship with us for three years until she graduated this last year and is now enrolling in the university has never been to the dentist and will go with me and this young woman to get her own teeth repaired. And the secretary has a sister who is three years younger, who also had never been to a dentist. My guess is that 90% of people here have never been to a dentist until their teeth literally are falling out.

Someone might ask, aren’t there thousands of people who might be a better risk on which to spend hard earned money.  Yeh, you’re right, it just so happens that this is the one God sent me today, and who I am to say she is any less important than any of the others.  It is a long shot, but when I look back at my own history at the moments when I was trying to see toward a future for myself, there were many people who offered a kind word or a gracious acceptance of my very awkward and unclear grasp of what life was about.

So I made her a deal.  If she is willing to spend $200, I will spend $800. The result would be that she will lose her savings but I wanted her to really appreciate the value of having healthy teeth, in order that she will work to keep them that way. She has heard my lectures about how she can’t expect me to believe she can care for the health of others if she doesn’t take care of her own health.

So we did go to another dentist in the next town and she confirmed that 10 teeth would have to come out, 10 to be filled, and two more reconstructed in the front, instead of yanking them, plus construct two movable plates.  The cost is somewhat less, but I expect it will gradually be going up.  The dentist was a friend of a friend and she gave me a discount.  When I questioned why the teeth had to come out, she said, “Look in there. There are no teeth and the roots  are decayed and will continue to be”.  Now I know most of you would probably not believe someone could live with that type of problem, but here generally dentists do not repair teeth, they pull them.  There were no dentists in town until maybe 8 years ago. No one went to the dentist and various people like teachers or anyone with a set of pliers could pull teeth and did.  The tool kit of a dentist was like a small fanny pack with a couple of pliers.

But let me tell you that it is a delight to know this young woman. She is like  a deer in headlights, a simple creature, who will hopefully find a job or a future of whatever kind that makes use of her God-given talents.  That we will have to discover, but at least after this year she will learn not be afraid of the computer world and that will be a way to begin entering a world of work with some advantages.

So do you think it is money well spent?  Well maybe some do, others would like me to found a medical coop to check on the health of all the babies so this sort of thing does not happen.  However, others are doing that as we speak, but there are always the cases that fall through the cracks.  That is where you and I come in.  Our motto is “be prepared to catch those who fall through the safety net”.

Let me give you a couple more examples of my candidates this year. The other day the head of a Catholic social agency brought me a man who needed some help for the education of his daughter. They live about 85 miles from Rabinal, and 7 hours of walking and two hours in car to get to a highway. They speak little Spanish, but this agency had set up a program to teach some Spanish over the last few years. Their mayan language is Poq’om, which is very different from the language here called Achi.  His daughter wants to study to be a teacher. She came and was so bashful and shy he had to coax her to look at me. I guess a red face protruding from a white beard would frighten most people in these parts who had not seen such things on a daily basis.

So we helped the father to set up a bank account for her so he could send money in an emergency, even if the bank was a 9 hours walk and ride from his home. And we started some funding. She will live with a professor and his wife in a room all to herself.  We made a contract and put down our conditions to protect her from becoming a servant of the house since she will need a lot of time to study, and we will have one of our new candidates this year who has been the top student in the school where this girl will attend, who will take her on as a help project.  It will be an up hill struggle because she simply does not speak a lot of Spanish. The school is bilingual, that is, Achi and Spanish, but mostly they teach in Spanish.

Another two on scholarship this year are two brothers who are from our farthest village,  Rio Negro,  and they are attending a high school which is an 8 hour trip from their home -- two hours rowing a canoe across the Chixoy dam, and 6 more hours walking which is the only way to get there without taking a very long and costly trip out to a highway and around.  Although they study in a very remote town in the Kiche department of Guatemala, it was a very wise decision by their parents, who had tried with their older siblings to have them study in Rabinal but it did not have positive results. Their parents only see them twice a year, and I only see them once a year. They will receive about $500  each for the year which includes room and board and tuition.

The town of Rio Negro which is the only town on the Chixoy dam only has 12 families and very few have ever gotten beyond 6th grade.  Hopefully these two will make it through high school.  If you want to come and visit Rio Negro they have built a small rustic hotel for back packing types. This is where the 4 massacres occurred that killed over 450 people. It is where I have celebrated the anniversary Mass on March 13 for 7 years at the graveside of the 177 women and children who were murdered on that day in 1982.

 

The list of students on scholarship this year 2013

 

3 who are in the last year of a teaching career.

1 in the second year of teaching career.

2 in the 4th year of  university to be medical doctors.

1 in the 5th year of university for computer science.

1 in the 2nd year of university for computer science.

1 in the final year of law school to finish her thesis and exam.

1 in the career of practical nursing.

1 in the last year of the career of agronomy.

2 in bachelor degree for electronics

1 in the 3 year of bachelor degree in auto mechanics

1 in the first year of bachelor degree in auto mechanics

1 in the last year of a career in community organization.

2 in computer courses

1 in a first year of high school agronomy program in another town.

1 in final year of high school.

20 total

There are 11 females and 9 males.

 

So I hope you agree we helping some people who would have little chance without our help, but  I like to think that the money is just one part of the message, the other most important part is that we invite these young people to reflect on God’s gifts of love from people like yourselves and trust that there are good people in the world who do God’s work and maybe one day they will be able to do the same.

This Sunday we will celebrate the graduation of 9 women who have been studying and preparing to be instructors in the Billings Method of Natural Family Planning, plus 4 nurses who were part of the same course.  We still have 4 nurses and two women who failed on the first try and are preparing to retake the exam.  The group of women are preparing to give their first instruction in a village beginning this next week. The course will last 6 months as we accompany the women during this process.  This is a very exciting attempt to reeducate married women to their rights to remain free of  the very harmful effects on their health of the artificial chemical methods of birth regulation in their fertile years.

         The publication of all the Sunday readings  in Achi is progressing and we are beginning to teach the same readings to 400 high school students and 50 catechists and adults in 20 classes in 11 centers, covering 25 villages.  The course will last 8 months once a week.  The two teachers each have a motorcycle to take them out to these far away places.

         So this year is by far one of my most ambitious programs and I will soon need one more worker to cover the Billings program since there is a great need and we are finding that it takes much more time and attention that we can give to it with just one office worker and myself.  We also really need a bigger space to work in, but it requires more funding. 

         Of course, all of that takes money, lots of it, and that is where all of you come in.  I can tell you that I pray in thanksgiving every day at Mass for all of our donors since without you we could do none of this.  Our program is very small because we do not have a way to gain funds except through the personal donations that come from those who know of our program. I hope you share with your friends our web site, so they can see for themselves what we do, but unfortunately we have not had the time to maintain our information during the last month, but if we get one more worker it will help.  It is in Spanish, but at least give a  look  at  www.jovenesarriba.lasverapaces.com

Any donations can be sent to the Dominican Mission Foundation at 2506 Pine St., SF, CA 94115.  Just tell them it is for our work in Guatemala and all the money will always come to me here. 

   Have a very spiritual Lent and a Joyous Easter.  Peace in the Lord. Fr. Tim Conlan, OP.



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