Tag Archives: missionary service

Facing the World outside Polochic

Young woman wearing the skirt and typical hand-embroidered blouse of her region.

Young woman wearing the skirt and typical hand-embroidered blouse of her region.

You can see apprehension in her eyes—fear, perhaps, of what she might find or feel in the world beyond the mountains where she has grown up. But you can see determination in the fact that she is here, and in her willingness to meet new experiences.

She will be the first woman from her area to serve an LDS mission. Even though she lives in a Spanish-speaking country, Spanish is fairly new to her. Her native tongue is the Mayan language spoken in her home area—Guatemala’s Polochic region. In front of a video camera, asked to talk about her reasons for being in this place far from her home, her limited Spanish fails her, and she needs an interpreter to explain.

Never in her 19 years has she seen a dentist. There are none available to her in the Polochic. She is visiting this free clinic, staffed by dentists who are LDS missionaries, to have the dental work completed that she will need to submit her application to be a missionary.

The dentists have brought their portable clinic to eastern Guatemala to treat prospective missionaries who otherwise might not be able to have their dental work done. After they treat the future missionaries, they will treat other members, and friends of members, from the community who are in need. Dental care is not something that can be so easily found here as it is in the United States. In the U.S., there may be one dentist for every 1,100-1,200 people.  In Guatemala, it is one for every 11,000, and while excellent dental care is available here, the level of training among dental practitioners in outlying areas may not be high—if a dentist can be found.

I have to admire the spirit of the young woman who left from her area at 4:00 in the morning, with a group brought by her spiritual leader, so they could arrive at this clinic by 9:00, receive treatment, and return home the same day.

Not so long ago, it was common that women in her area might never learn Spanish, since it would be the significant males in her life—father, husband—who would interact with the dominant culture. But times have changed. A missionary tells me this young woman is learning Spanish to prepare for her mission, and studying the required missionary materials. I cannot help but admire that kind of spirit and determination. Her height is perhaps around four feet, ten inches—but she stands tall in my eyes.

A generation or two ago, the indigenous population here was treated much as Native Americans have been treated in my own country—abused, reviled, ignored, punished if they dared to try to move out of their “place.” But much has changed here since the 1960s, when I was a missionary in Central America. The descendants of the Maya have claimed their right to education, they have gained political power, some have successfully moved into business. The world has begun to open up to them as they have opened up to its possibilities.

Last night at the LDS temple in Guatemala city, I met a handsome young man with a Mayan surname. He seemed educated, knowledgeable, self-confident enough to live in and deal with the larger world. I do not know where he lives or what he does. But he seems to have blossomed as he sought to serve and learn.

That is what I wish for the young sister from Polochic.



Mom, Thanks Again

Agua volcano, from Guatemala City, November 3, 2012.

Dear Mom,

I’m back in Guatemala again. I wish you could see me now.

You came here once and enjoyed this place, when you picked me up at the end of my mission in 1966. Because you liked working with people, you enjoyed the people here.

I’m trying to enjoy them too. I think I’ve grown up a lot since my first time here. I enjoy people more, even when they don’t see things my way in discussions about religion and faith. There are so many good people here, all of them sons and daughters of God.

I wish I could tell you thanks again for what you did when you supported me as a missionary. Do we ever really understand when we’re young—15, or 18, or 20—what our parents are doing for us? I see now that it must have been tougher for you, a widow and a single mother, than  I understood at the time. It was years later when I learned that you devoted a third of your income each month to supporting me as a missionary. It was years before I knew that we had been living below the official poverty line for President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs. Heavenly Father blessed us so much that we never knew we could officially be considered poor.

Mom, when I wrote you every week, I used to tell you about what I had been doing. I tried to make my time effective. I wanted to do what Heavenly Father wanted me to do, and I tried to respect your sacrifice in supporting me.

Shopping in the central market.

I’m still trying to do the same thing. I’m grateful that my companion of 44 years is here to help me. We’re feeling our way in a new situation. For me, it’s the way it was when I served out in that small Guatemalan town in the fall of 1965, far from official direction. We’re close to official direction now, but in a way no one knows exactly what we’re doing because it hasn’t been done here before. In a way, we’re breaking new ground.

We want to do as a team what our Heavenly Father wants us to do, and we both want to respect the sacrifices that have been made—by ourselves and by others—to allow us to be here. Sunday, November 4, marks exactly 48 years since I arrived in Guatemala the first time to serve as a missionary, and I believe—I hope—that I understand better now what a privilege it is to be here.

Mom, if I could write you a weekly letter, I would tell you I’m still trying to do my best.

I wish you could see me now.

But perhaps you can.

House in Guatemala City where I lived in the spring of 1965.The front patio was open then, with no steel gate, and the street was not paved.