Everyone has a story. All have sadness, all have happiness and none have just one of those. Mine is one of sickness, hunger and poverty. Not my own, but that of people around me But it is also one of smiles, relief and color. A story that started when I was seven years old and will continue until the day I die. A story that gave me more life lessons than a child in grade school would recognize. A story that I hold very dear. The experience lasted three years, but I carry it with me everywhere. I left a piece of my heart in the bright, colorful land of Guatemala.
It was July 2004. Our plane touched down in San Diego. We disembarked and felt the rush of heat that Washingtonians are not used to. We spent a few days there, going to Sea World, visiting the zoo. Nine months prior to this, my parents had gone to a conference where a man from Guatemala City was speaking. They began to feel called to serve as missionaries in Guatemala. After much prayer and deliberation, they knew we were meant to go there. I said goodbye to my friends. We packed up our lives, rented out our house and flew standby to a country we knew nothing about, a country I didn’t know existed. Our first month was an extreme adventure: the church we were supposed to work with fell through, we got lost at night in the labyrinth that is Guatemala City, we moved…a lot. We lived on faith and hope that God had a plan for our family. The first time we moved, we left the loud Ciudad de Guatemala for the old capital, Antigua. It is a beautiful old town with large cobblestone streets and brightly painted buildings. We began attending a language school that took field trips. It was the first time I saw the hills of Guatemala. They are like a giant patchwork quilt, stretched over the country, sewn together by the diligent hands of the indigenous people, each patch containing a story unlike any other. And many of these stories I got to hear.
We worked in villages where kids walked miles and miles on hilly dirt roads to attend school. Villages where there was no medical assistance, no plumbing, no electricity. The people had nothing, but in a way they had everything. They were generous beyond belief. They understood more than anyone living in a first world nation that things in the physical, are temporary. Their people have been oppressed by Europeans since Pizarro landed in Mexico, but they welcomed us with open arms, sharing their food, their lives, their homes. People often commented on how we must have helped them, bringing medical supplies, helping build houses, planting schools; but it was us who were the ones truly affected by them. While working in orphanages, the kids just wanted to be played with. They wanted someone to spend time with them. They wanted love. The babies would reach up for you to hold them and cling to you if you tried to set them down. These were children who didn’t know why they needed people, but they needed them badly. My heart broke to see these little ones who didn’t have families. I was young myself, but the memories are forever in my brain. The smiles on their faces were inspiring reminders that owning things is not where happiness comes from.
God’s plan for me was greater than a seven-year old could ever imagine. I was able to make friends with my broken Spanish and we played for hours while the adults did the jobs only adults could do. They taught me how to love unconditionally. Seeing the true generous spirit in their eyes as they shared everything, even if they had no idea how they would replace it, affected me. It caused me to look in the mirror. These people had little shacks made from corrugated metal and dirt floors and they were able to showing more generosity than the richest man on earth, simply because they gave ALL of themselves. I think oftentimes as a person living in the United States, I give a little, but I never give until it hurts. These people needed what they had so much more than I need what I have, but I’m often blinded by the shininess of the material world. God used them to teach me to be open-minded and forgiving.
Each and every experience in our life has a purpose and God can use it for good. There are certain things that trigger a strong memory from Guatemala. Smells, words, fabric. I carry bits a pieces of Guatemala with me, hand-woven bracelets, scarves, the little Spanish I can still use. I was given an opportunity that most people don’t get, and I refuse to take it for granted. Although I didn’t see all the things I was learning at the time, older me has been able to evaluate my time there and see how it shaped me. Important lessons of empathy, understanding, opening my eyes to the fact that everyone comes from a different background that has shaped them a little differently than everyone else. You could never know just by looking at me that I lived in a third-world country, but once you find out, that could begin to explain some of my views on the world and the way I treat other people.
Remember that our lives aren’t made up of a single event, they’re made up of millions of moments. As they are strung together, our quilts get bigger. Some squares are brighter than others, some aren’t even square, but if you were to pull one of those experiences out, your quilt would have a hole in it. Everything we go through is shaping and molding us into a new person. We have the opportunity to learn and grow with the quilt, or let the rough patches tear us down. When you aren’t sure how something fits in, ask for help. We aren’t meant to sew it alone, this is why we need relationships and guidance.
This was just one section of my quilt, but it was a big one. Although certain specific events will fade in my memory, the overarching lessons and colors will always be there.