People always ask me what we “do” when we go to Guatemala. My Baptist brethren might be surprised to know that we don’t go to convert the heathens to Christianity. We visit people who are already in the Presbyterian churches, who for the most part are better Christians than I am. After about five years of painting churches we started running out of stuff to paint so we decided to just “Be”-- As in “be” in a relationship with our sister churches and our brothers and sisters in Christ. And it turns out you can stay surprisingly busy just "being."
This year we had another bi-lingual study with the men and women of Presbiterio del Norte. Clay Brantley, the minister of Whitesboro Presbyterien and former Parish Associate at my church, led the study as part of a requirement to earn his Doctor of Ministry degree. I love a good bilingual study because you can pick up a lot of Spanish without even trying since you’re hearing the same thing said in both languages. And I also enjoy spending time with my friends in Guatemala.
We stayed in a very nice hotel that had a meeting room set up for us. We had 13 Norte Americanos and about the same number of Guatemaltecos. We did some serious bible study but I have to admit we had a lot of fun, too.
Guillermo Giron had some music for us. And this year Bobby Connell joined us. Bobby is a professional musician. He brought the most interesting instrument called a “melodica”, kind of combination of piano and flute. He let Guillermo start the song and he would watch Guillermo’s hands finger the accordion then imitate it on his melodica. One day we visited a church that had a keyboard and Bobby played for over an hour during lunch. We have always been pathetically lacking as musicians and people love when you sing for them. This year we did a little better.
On our first morning Clay assigned Rob Leischner to count laughs during the day and submit a report that evening. Rob hammed it up with a faux-notebook and giving a totally serious report. On the third morning Clay assigned me the laugh-counting job. I went far beyond the assignment and assembled an analysis of laughs per minute and then a comparison of laughter on the white bus versus the gray bus. But then, I explained, I got ice cream on my notes. And still later in the day pineapple juice on top of that so I had to abandon my analysis.
But it started me thinking about laughter and exactly what laughter is. It’s not a song or a hiccup. But it's still kind of a combination of the two. The air just forces itself out of your mouth and makes a noise. If you are in church and it’s in the middle of the pastoral prayer this is bad. It’s OK if it’s a birthday party. You can make yourself laugh but the best laughter just happens. You can laugh louder at a party or soften it a bit in polite company. I personally favor a huge horse laugh but it takes special circumstances to bring the big horse laugh. When one comes, though, I don’t try to soften it. Instead, I try to revel in it, nourish it with more oxygen and let it roll. Surprisingly, no one has ever complimented me on my laugh. In fact, Beaven has told me at times that I laugh too loud. But I ignore him.
Clay encouraged us to laugh a lot this week so we did. We just started having fun and forgot to stop.
Right in the middle of all this we visited the Children’s Nutrition Project. This is a program that is our pride and joy. It was conceived in 2003 after a visit when we noticed how sickly the kids looked. It’s a year-long program that finds malnourished kids and gets them healthy again. It’s a totally wonderful program and the best part of our week is always having lunch with the kids.
They outdid themselves this year with all the kids lined up for songs and a program welcoming us. Afterwards we played with them. And that’s when I met Joselena.
When they introduced us to her they said she is deaf and mute. She is 15 but has never gone to school. They have included her in the Nutrition Program because it is the only social interaction she gets.
The hopelessness of her situation hits you immediately. Without knowing how to read and write her isolation is made even deeper. Living in Guatemala means she has no money for medical intervention that might help. She has no opportunity for learning to read and write or even learn sign language. I’m such a chronic communicator this sounded a little like hell to me. What could I do to communicate with her? I took her picture and showed it to her.
Then I had an idea. I gave her the camera and showed her what button to push and had her take my picture.
Then I sent her off to take pictures around the room. As I did that, it occurred that I might not ever see the camera again, that she might drop it or break it, but as soon as the thought hit my mind I answered it with the wild and reckless realization that I didn’t care. Just hearing her laugh was worth anything the camera might cost.
It is a rare treat to discover something straight from God. Something that circumstances or willfulness hasn’t altered. Joselena’s laugh is like that. I hope to see her next year and in the meantime, she has taken Marvin Peñeda’s place on my prayer list. I’m not sure what I’m praying for, whether it’s for healing or hope or help. But God knows and that’s all that matters.