From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Murdered Sister connected Spokane with Guatemala’s poor

by Jerry and Clara Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the May 24, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)

She was an engineer to communities without a water system, a healer to sick and malnourished families, and a therapist to countless widows. She was the madre (“mother”) who shared the distress of the poor and the pain of those who were traumatized by the violence of civil war.

Sister Barbara “Bobbie” Ford, the Sister of Charity who was shot and killed in Guatemala City on May 5, devoted her life to bringing peace and justice to those who were in most need of it. And the Indian people of Quiché that she served loved her deeply.

Many a native benefited from Sister Bobbie’s healing touch. But, like so many of those she consoled, she herself ultimately became a victim of the violence she encountered on a daily basis. On the window of the pickup truck that bore her body was a hand-scrawled sign that read, “All of Quiché is Hurting.”

Spokane is hurting, too. Sister Bobbie was special to Spokane. As a registered nurse, she worked with Sister Immaculata in the early 1980s to develop the health clinics in the Spokane Mission area of Northern Guatemala. However, their approach was not simply to cure the ill and send them on their way until they needed help again. Instead, they trained the native people so that they could help in the clinics and take responsibility to do selected medical procedures on their own. Within a few years their “health promoters” were taking their skills into remote areas that never before had any medical care.

Sister Bobbie’s emphasis on self-sufficiency and her penchant for training soon took root in another program that has since grown into a major source of economic assistance of the Diocese of Spokane in Guatemala.

In the mid-1980s Sister Bobbie was asked to guide a program that would help the Mayan people learn skills that would enable them to break the vicious cycle of their poverty. She responded enthusiastically, and the Adopt-A-Family (AAF) program took root.

Under her leadership, the AAF program got underway with policies that stressed independence and self-sufficiency. The initial plan was to select about 30 of the most needy families in the area and match them with a sponsoring family in Spokane.

The sponsoring family, after getting a photo and history, would help out with $20 or $30 per month. The Guatemalan family, in turn, would use part of the funds for food and medicine or clothing, but some would have to go for seed, weaving materials, a cow, training of some kind, or saving for a major improvement.

But this was not a subsistence program; no family could remain on longer than two or three years.

Sister Bobbie visited Spokane in November 1985, a few months after getting the program underway. She reported that some families had already saved enough to do major (roof) improvements on their huts and that the self-development projects were going well. The March 1986 AAF Newsletter reported that 50 families were already on the program and Sister Bobbie felt it was having a very encouraging impact on the lives of the families:

“The very poor are finding that some real people here care for them by helping with corn seed, a roof, medicine, or clothing for their children. It means a lot to them.”

Although the program that Sister Bobbie began has expanded beyond the limited family-to-family dimension, it still adheres to the guiding principles she established. To her credit, over 400 individual families have now completed the three-year program, nearly 350 new houses have been built, and hundreds of families have chimneys and latrines they would not otherwise have had. In addition, countless women have benefited from embroidery, weaving, nutrition, health, and cooking classes. And hundreds of other families now earn a living because of sewing, tailoring, carpentry, reforestation, trout raising, and other income-producing skills they have acquired through the AAF program.

Sister Bobbie’s legacy will live on through the thousands of people that she has helped both economically and spiritually. She always seemed to know when people were ready to move out on their own, whether she was helping them with an income-producing skill or sharing tears over a lost relative.

As we bid her goodbye, our thoughts cannot help but return to the danger she faced in recent years as she assisted in the exhuming of bodies interred in mass graves and the reporting of her findings. Why did she continue with the work that put her in danger of bringing violence upon herself?

Only Sister Bobbie could say. But it is evident that she had a compelling love for the poor who were faced with either physical or emotional suffering. Moreover, while she was quick to encourage others to move on to independence and to a better life, her heart would never allow her to abandon those same people when they needed her.

Now they will miss her. And so will we.

(Jerry and Clara Monks coordinate the Guatemala Mission effort for the Diocese of Spokane.)

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