What a day it was!

The CFCA Center was abuzz with preparations for the big event that evening.  We had a lovely morning prayer let by the San Hermano Pedro staff.  We sang a beautiful song about giving our day over to God – if only I could do that.  My intentions are good but I always try to grab back control!

Then we loaded onto the bus for breakfast.  Since the kitchen was busy preparing for dinner for 200, we ate at the Hotel Toliman

Ever faithful Chico and Manuel at breakfast. Photo by Natalie.

in San Lucas.  There was a beautiful view of the lake.  On the way in, we met a group from Shreveport Louisiana that had been on a mission trip staying in the hotel.  They had created an evangelical drama they were performing in towns around the lake.   It was interesting sharing notes.  And the breakfast was delicious!

It began to rain as we left breakfast.  We drove by the CFCA Center to pick up jackets and headed to Santiago Atitlan.  This is the project our first sponsored child, Jacoba, lives in.  I realized that as I noticed the the traditional clothes Jacoba wears match those of the villagers.

We were greeted at the CFCA Center by the project director and families that would be part of the celebration later that day.  I found out later there are 13 or 14 thousand sponsored families in this area,, and the project is lead by Father John of the San Lucas Mission who led mass that evening.  It was also great to see the translator who brought Jacoba to us on Sponsor Day!

We went into the village to a small house on one of the main streets.  We squeezed into the small house and heard the story of the small boy, Jacobo that lived there.  He is being raised by a single mom with the help of a grandmother and uncles.  After telling the story, Brenda asked if we knew who the sponsor is.  Of course we did not, but she quickly replied it’s Russell.

Russell meets Jacobo, his new sponsored child. Photo by Natalie.

(That morning, Russell had asked to meet a child to adopt).  It was a magical, unexpected moment.  Russell’s face lit up.  Both he and Jacobo were unsure what to do, but we encouraged them to hug and the tension eased.  The uncle and grandmother beamed (Jacobo’s mother was at church – I wonder when she found out?).  His uncle dug around to find woven bracelets to give each of us, and a beautiful beaded bracelet for Russell.  We were all emotional and tears flowed.  Jim’s camera clicked away at a dizzying pace.  Broken Spanish was spoken all around with beams of happiness.

As we left, Russell and I promised to come see Jacobo in three years.  By this time it was crystal clear to me that this tradition needed to be continued.  I had promised Emmie and the freshmen that I would organize a trip back to Guatemala in 2014.  I hope that Alex, Lee, and Russell will each be with me!

We visited another house in what Brenda referred to as a “suburb”.  Tucked in a rural area, we found several houses.

Chelsea speaks the universal language of bubbles. Photo by Jim.

We walked along a muddy path to a home tucked under a tree.  We were greeted by a mother and two daughters.  We could see a man bathing nearby and realized when he came around the house that was the father!  We pulled out a bag of bubbles from my backpack and Chelsea shared them with a cluster of neighborhood children as we chatted with the family.  We left those bubbles with the sponsored children who were excited!

We went to lunch at a beautiful restaurant/hotel on the lake, Posada de Santiago.

This sign clearly reflected an "American" sensibility. Photo by Natalie.

The building was made of wood and stone with great lake views.  We were served a delicious family style meal of chicken, beef, guacamole, vegetables, rice, beans, tortillas and cheese with a delicious hibiscus tea.  While we had had plenty to eat all week, the Mayan people are considerably smaller than Americans, and portions were generally smaller as well.  This was a huge American sized portion meal.  After gorging ourselves on the first course, we were startled to see dessert served.  We had only seen dessert at one meal – a cake served to honor Brenda’s birthday.  But someone most of us found room for the brownie and peach ice cream!  The place had the most ‘American’ feel of any place we had seen, and we did have the chance to meet the owner, David Glanville, who built it with his mother 21 years ago.

After lunch, we went to the church in the center of town.  It was the day of Corpus Christi.  As Protestants, we were unfamiliar with this, and I made the mistake of confusing it with Christopher Columbus – a rather different event for Central America!

The Corpus Christi parade. Photo by Jim.

Instead, Corpus Christi celebrates the body of Christ.  In the bus we were caught by the parade through town.  It appeared the entire town was part of the parade.  The priest and altar boys carried the elements under a gold canopy through town.  We waited maybe 15 minutes in the bus blocked by the parade.  As it passed by, Manuel found a way to manuever through town to the church.

Beautiful flowers decorated the church in Santiago Atitlan for Corpus Christi. Photo by Natalie.

We walked through the beautiful church, which was decorated with beautiful flowers as part of the holiday.  Then we entered a courtyard next door.  In one corner was the room where the priest Stanley Francis Rother was killed by the Guatemalan army as part of the civil war in the 1980s. Brenda told us the story of his ministry and death.   I was appalled how little I knew about this war that happened not only in my life but in my adulthood.  As we left the courtyard, the priests and white canopy were entering the church.  What a beautiful sight to see!

We visited one more home.  As the rain fell, we walked up a street too narrow for the bus and turned down an even narrower path.  We arrived at a small house with two girls and a young boy.  After hearing their story, Jim asked them if they had any bracelets to sell (that was their primary form of income).  The mother whipped out her loom and inventory of bracelets.

A sponsored family who let us visit their home. Photo by Nicky.

She quickly sold all her inventory – including two she finished while we waited!  I pulled a jump rope out of my backpack.  We had found earlier in the week that the children didn’t seem to know what to do with a jump rope, but this girl learned quickly!  Even in the narrow confines of their small house where we took shelter from the rain, she managed to jump rope.  I earned a great big hug for a $1 jump rope!

It was still raining as we left the house and went down a very steep, slick “road” (more of a path than a road by American standards).  Katie fell, prompting Jim, Emmie and I to be very cautious.  Brenda even took off her sandals!  Back on the bus, we headed back to our home away from home, the CFCA Center.

We had a few minutes to change clothes into the t-shirts they had given us the night before.  It was still raining hard and we were not sure what to expect.   This was the big event of the week for CFCA.  They were welcoming Bob and Christina Hentzen back to San Lucas.  Bob and Christina had recently completed Walk2gether, a 8,000 mile 1 1/2 year walk to raise awareness of CFCA and increase sponsorships.  But ongoing rain was clearly changing the plans.  Things seemed to be changing so fast that even Brenda didn’t know what to expect.

When Brenda got the word, we loaded onto the bus.  Manuel drove with a purpose we hadn’t seen before.  The road was decorated with balloons, flags, flowers, signs, kites, Mayan paths and more.  Each CFCA Quatemalan region had been responsible for decorating part of the road and one cultural performance representing one of the countries Bob had walked through.

The road was also lined with people in many places, despite the rain.  Many were protected only with sheets of plastic thinner than trash bags.  Many wore the same t-shirt we did, because each sponsored child in San Lucas had been given one (some 12,000 sponsored children).  It was an inspiring sight!

After climbing what seemed like more than 3.1 miles, we arrived at a metal “Butler” building.  There was a precarious awning in front, protecting many people from rain.  Brenda told us Bob was already there.  We stood at the back, but a staff member ushered us through the crowd to the very front.  The seas parted… we were greeted as welcome celebrities with hugs and kisses and manymuchas gracias.  At the front, Bob Hentzen himself greeted each of us individually.  It was totally overwhelming to be greeted by strangers with such love.  As we stood in front, chairs suddenly appeared and we sat on the front row, ahead of staff and sponsored families.

Bob Hentzen greets the crowd. Photo by Jim.

A somewhat (for us) confusing presentation began.  It didn’t help that I was on the far edge against the wall, with a large speaker and flower arrangement blocking my view – along with a clown at the side of the stage holding a sign!  Gifts were given to Bob.  He and his wife spoke.  There were several cultural performances.  The plan was for a performance from each country in reverse order, so it ended with Guatemala (where the trip actually began).  But it was hard to get performers on and off the stage due to the crowd.

This is love.... Photo by Jim.

Four young girls sang for Venezuela.  Since they were crowded near the front, we invited them to sit on our laps and had instant friend.  Their adorable smiles won us over with love.

We had maximum sound and limited visibility.  But the excitement was contagious.  After several dances, songs and a white faced clown on stilts that couldn’t maneuver well on the damp floors, the end came abruptly.  It was getting too late and time for the crowd to move on.

Christina Hentzen, sprinkled with confetti, thanks the crowd. Photo by Jim.

After another round of hugs and thanks from many as we left the building (and had to say good bye to those adorable girls), we climbed back onto the bus.  It was still raining as we headed downhill.  At the major intersection heading into San Lucas, a crowd awaited.  There was a stage and a band.  The caravan stopped, and Bob and Christina waked across another Mayan path.  Bands played and the people cheered.  We moved with the crown until suddenly Brenda appeared and asked us to jump into the bus.  I have no idea how Manuel navigated around the crowds, but the bus appeared on the other side of the intersection!

We started across San Lucas.  The streets were lined with crowds, despite the ongoing rain.  Everyone waved.  Some had flags and signs.  I don’t know if those on the street had any idea who that bus-full of white faced people were, but they waved and smiled at us anyway!  In a few spots, the bus slowed enough that we could “high five” the crowd, which delighted Joy!

Throughout, Manuel honked the horn in a constant beat.  Brenda explained this was traditional for a parade.

Rain did not deter the crowds from greeting our bus! Photo by Jim.

The ten minute ride across town took more like 20 or 30 minutes.  As we climbed the final hill, flags stretched across the street.  WE must have had the tallest vehicle, because they caught on the luggage rack on top.  CFCA staff jumped out to pull down some and slide others over.  A few minutes later, a woman and her son help flags across the streets with bamboo poles.  They lifted them as we passed – a simple and effective solution!

We were just a few vehicles away from the entrance to the CFCA Center and fireworks were erupting when Manuel stopped and Brenda gave us the go ahead to jump out.  We jointed the throng running up the street to the center.  The sky was filled with light and smoke.  There was an energy in the air – a combination of joy, love and celebration.  Later, Emmie described this somewhat chaotic scene as one of her favorite moments of the trip.

The crowd surged to the gym for mass.  The townspeople ringed the stands.  Father John waited at the altar.  Banners strung with twinkle lights arched across the ceiling and yet another Mayan path lead to the altar.  We took seats in the center as we had been instructed, feeling again unworthy of being “special”.  The air had gotten cold, so several of us darted back to our nearby rooms for jackets.

After a few minutes, the CFCA staff filled the seats around us.  And Bob, Christina and their son Jacob entered. Mass began.

The crowd entered to celebrate mass. Photo by Jim.

Despite Father John’s efforts to “clue us in”, it was hard to follow the service, as we are unfamiliar with both Catholic worship style and couldn’t follow the language well.  (Our understanding of Spanish had increased every day, but not enough to follow Mass.)  It was fun to see Chico sine in the choir and lead part of the worship.  Apparently he grew up very involved in his own Catholic church.  We did rally when Father John asked us to pass the peace of Christ – that we understood!

Due to the late hour, the crowd of locals thinned as the mass continued.  There were few at the end when we left the gym for dinner.  Amanda was not feeling well, so we brought her 7 up and crackers.  Even though they were preparing to serve dinner for 200 from a small kitchen, Brenda retrieved crackers for us with a smile.

We sat at a table reserved for Grupo Woodmont, right in front of the stage.  With amazing speed, 200 plates of chicken, rice and vegetables arrived.  Brenda came to sit down with use.  She was obviously somewhat disappointed that her mother and daughter could not come because of the rain.  However Manuel brought his smiling daughter to meet each of us!

After dinner, the presentations began again.  I was grateful that our youth jumped up to offer to clear the tables and wash dishes.  It was wonderful to see our American youth serving these lovely Guatemalans!

There were gifts for Bob.  He spoke, thanking the staff.  There were beautiful hand crafted gifts for each of the country directors that were present.  And a somewhat lengthy (!) video celebrated the beginning of the walk from the CFCA Center to the Guatemalan border.

After a long day, we headed to our rooms to pac.  We were all exhausted, but leaving at 6:30 the next morning for Antiqua.