Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
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Inland Northwest teens make summer mission journey to Mexico
by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Oct. 4, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)
Teens and their chaperones take a break from their work on behalf of the Los Embajadores program in Mexico. (IR photo courtesy of Dan Glatt)
In June, 36 Catholic youth, about equally divided between boys and girls, from several parishes in the Diocese of Spokane, boarded a bus which carried them and their adult chaperones first to Sacramento, Calif., then south to near the U.S.-Mexico border. There the group divided into two 18-member groups, transferred to rented vans, and each sub-group traveled to a different Mexican town where everyone pitched in to help with various projects, play with local children, visit the homes of local families, and to learn by experiencing a culture different from their own.
One group went to Vicente Guerrera, about 180 miles south of Tijuana, while the other group motored to Laperaz, about a half-hour’s drive from Tijuana. Dan Glatt, youth minister at Spokane’s Our Lady of Fatima Parish, led the former group, while Deacon Kelly Stewart, youth minister from Assumption Parish in Spokane, led the latter group.
In addition to teens from Fatima and Assumption Parishes, others joined from St. Joseph Parish in Colbert, St. John Vianney and St. Mary Parishes in Spokane Valley, St. Thomas More Parish, Spokane, Sacred Heart Parish, Tekoa, St. Patrick Parish in Pasco, and St. Stanislaus Parish in Lewiston, Idaho, in the Diocese of Boise.
The adult chaperones were Craig and Cindy Bloomgren, Mike and Sandy Povich, Mari-anne Scanlon, Tony and Joan Ursich, Sarah Little, Mille Harding, Cindy Barnes, and Chuck and Mavis Ircink, all from Spokane’s Assumption Parish; George Garza, from St. Patrick Parish, Spokane; Brad and Terah Hansen, from St. Patrick Parish, Colfax; Michaela Kearns from St. Joseph Parish, Colbert, and Bill McMillan, from St. Mary Parish, Spokane Valley.
It’s noteworthy that six of the adult chaperones were over 70 years of age.
“They were truly inspirational to the kids, and they didn’t slow down at all, didn’t miss a beat,” said Deacon Stewart.
The name of the program in Mexico that the group from Spokane associated with is Los Embajadores (The Ambassadors). “It’s a nonprofit organization that was started by the Archdiocese of Portland,” said Glatt. “It used to be in their Office of Youth Ministry. Then as they went through a similar bankruptcy process as happened here, (it was evident that) if the program was going to keep going it would either have to go on its own or it would die. So it ended up becoming a nonprofit organization. It’s one of only two Catholic-based mission programs (for youth) in the whole country. The idea is to give teens direct experience of some of the social teachings of the church.”
Glatt’s Vicente Guerrera group worked on parking lot leveling and an outdoor basketball court for an elementary school, and they installed cement fence posts. “They were 8 inches by 8 inches, 8-foot-long posts, and they probably weighed 300 pounds each,” Glatt said. “We were digging the holes and setting these all around one of their chapels so they could begin to put the walls up and there would be a fenced area around the chapel. We also mixed cement by hand – everything is by hand – for cement patio areas.” The Vicente Guerrera group spent nights on the concrete floor of a classroom.
Deacon Stewart’s group, in Laperaz, worked long hours mixing cement by hand for slab foundations for future school buildings. “Like the other group, we also slept in a concrete classroom on tile floors,” said Deacon Stewart. “Our bathroom facility consisted of a nozzle coming out of the ceiling with a hose hooked up to it for a shower. We were fortunate enough to have bathrooms this year, concrete bathrooms that the school used. When we were on the school site our meals were cooked by the local community there. People came in every morning with propane cookers, and they cooked our food for us, which consisted of what they normally have, hot dogs and eggs for breakfast, and tortillas and beans for lunch. They never waste any food, so whatever you had for supper, the leftovers would be what you would have for breakfast the next morning.”
The mission trip was based not only on giving youth an experience of another culture. It also had specific goals, five principles “we’re trying to get the kids to focus on,” said Deacon Stewart: the simple lifestyle, social justice, direct service, spirituality, and community.
“For example, we (tell the teens) that you shouldn’t be taking a half-hour shower, you get in and get out,” he said. “At our site there was a water problem. By about 3 o’clock in the afternoon the guys’ shower was out of water. If we didn’t get our showers in by then, we didn’t get a shower. And this is unheated water, too.”
The most important goal, Deacon Stewart said, is not the work that was accomplished but “bridging communities.” The important thing is “our kids meeting the people of Laperaz, and our kids showing them that we’re there to work, but we’re also there to play with the kids. Comments I heard from our kids were about how the kids in Laperaz are so happy, so easy to get along with. They’re so friendly, and they’re never rude or anything like that. That’s a shock to our kids here, who often are worried about whether their mp3 player has all the music they want, and things like that. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with our culture, it’s just a different culture than what the kids are used to. It makes them think outside of themselves. It’s about building the community.”
Also valuable was the teens’ experience of going into a family’s home in Laperaz and getting to know them a little bit, he said. “When you go to somebody’s home in the afternoon, and you sit in their home, and they’ve made a dish for you, and you realize that this is their home, this is where they are 24/7, and we’re here one week, and it gets really hard for us down there after seven days, eight days, because it’s dirty and so forth. It is what it is. The kids begin to understand. I’m just as happy as the kids to be back in the United States after a week, but it’s a gentle reminder all the time that we have a pretty good life here. It helps them to appreciate the fact that they may have five or six pairs of shoes and not take things for granted as much.”
At the beginning of the trip, Deacon Stewart said, they hope that the kids will begin to understand. “And at the end of the week, in our reflection sessions in the evenings, you listen to their responses, and by the end of the week you know that they do understand. It’s been an eye-opening experience. It’s not something you can learn on the internet, you have to be down there, you have to be eye-to-eye, you have to see God in those people’s eyes. You have to wonder how somebody can be so happy with so little, when we’re so unhappy, at times, with so much.”
Deacon Stewart emphasized that it takes the work of the whole parish community to enable youth to have experiences such as this mission trip to Mexico. “Assumption Parish’s fund-raising efforts of the whole community,” he said, “the praying of all the community as we go – it is a small group that actually goes, but in a way it’s the whole parish that goes.”
On this mission trip, the youth were able to add another cultural experience. Glatt’s group visited a tomato packing factory. “It’s an incredibly modern building,” he said, “but it was the first time that our kids came face-to-face with how people in other cultures sometimes live. These people (who are employees) work 12, 14 hours a day, making $10 a day. One of the students asked, ‘Is there a vacation?’ Five brothers own the tomato packing factory, and (the one giving the tour) said, ‘Yeah, you can take a vacation but you don’t get paid. If you’re not there working you don’t get paid.’ That was an eye-opener.”
A group also visited a farm labor camp, Glatt said, where many young children craved simple human contact. “We took the kids out to where the laborers actually live, and there were all these little kids who get no attention because mom and dad and the older kids are all in the fields. All of a sudden these visitors come in, and these kids are grabbing onto you, they’re hanging on you, and they’re hanging on your back, and they want to be swung on the swing. It’s an exhausting hour and-a-half out at the farm labor camp. You are wiped out by the time you’re done out there. But these high school kids come back from that, and they say things like, ‘Man, that was just amazing! Those kids don’t get any attention, only when we’re there.’”
The youth from the Spokane Diocese learned other lessons, too. “The farm owner owns the labor camp,” said Glatt, “and he owns the store, and some of the kids learn that you work in the field, and you have to pay rent on the little shack you have, and you have to buy from the farmer’s grocery store. They start to see the cycle and how you can’t break out, and they see the social justice implications. How do you break out of that cycle? You’re born into the labor camp, and you are going to be expected to go work in the field.”
One of the signs of hope is the school, run by the Franciscans, where one of the two youth teams helped out. “Tuition is required, but they have about 20 scholarships that they offer to go to their school,” Glatt said, “so the Franciscans are helping at least a small group of poor kids every year to break out of that cycle” of poverty.