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Religious Youth Service

Religious Youth Service Holds Thirteenth Friendship Americas Project in Three Countries

 Participants: 42  Nations Represented: 16

Trinational: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras— Thirteenth Friendship Americas Project

When: August 27, 2002

"I think that the most significant work we ever do in our whole world, in our whole life, is done within the four walls of our home. All mothers and fathers, whatever their stations in life, can make the most significant contributions by imprinting the spirit of service, so that the children grow up committed to making a difference." (Stephen R. Covey, PhD.)

It is this sentiment that permeated the spirit of all who participated in RYS 2002, Thirteenth Friendship Americas Project in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. This 3 week journey began in Guatemala City where staff and 42 participants representing 16 countries and diverse religious traditions, took on a challenge whose outcome was a strong community that explicitly valued full and free communication, recognized cultural and social differences as strengths, and embraced diversity among its members.

The challenge faced by many religious organizations is to meet the needs of an increasing multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multiracial population. Part of what makes the task so difficult is that religious organizations need to be proactively planning for and promoting cultural diversity. Furthermore, these organizations must provide the foundation for these diverse perspectives to be discussed, learned, supported and most importantly, experienced. The experience of the 13th (tri-national) RYS project, created a self-awareness in all of us of how much our day-to-day behaviors have been shaped by cultural norms and values, and reinforced by families, peers, and social institutions.

In each of these three geographically beautiful and genuinely hospitable countries, the challenges we encountered helped us to grow in an understanding that acknowledges the simultaneous existence of differing realities that requires neither comparison nor judgment.


We begin in Guatemala where the group was hosted by Rev. and Mrs. Gerhard Bessell at an IIFWP conference attended by various speakers such as Ms. Catalina Soberanis Reyes, Ambassador for Peace, recently appointed by the Guatemalan government to the position of Minister of Peace, who was also the ex-president of Congress, a presidential candidate, the former Minster of Work and an Olympic sportswoman. Welcoming remarks were offered by former President, H.E. Lic. Vinicio Cereso and other notable RYS and IIFWP organizers.

Our first work project involved clearing a parcel of land owned by the Catholic retreat, our host for several years now, for the building of a community center. The parish and local community joined RYS in this enthusiastic endeavor and it helped set the tone for the work ahead. Through this parish and its leader, Father Felix, we participated in an uplifting ecumenical mass. The privilege of addressing a congregation of approximately 500 local parishioners and sharing of numerous religious heritages; Christianity, Buddhism, Unificationsim, remained a highlight throughout the project as we recognized that one needs to be open to other beliefs and traditions, not only because it is the Godly thing to do, but because it is key to our survival. Father Bede Griffiths, one of the great religious leaders of our time said it best; "If you are open to other people's religions, they will open themselves to yours, just be prepared to take the initiative."

Prior to our departing Guatemala City, we were once more the guests of Guatemala's National Congress. The reception included a detailed tour of this auspicious government office, an incredible lunch, and the opportunity to enter into an open forum with top officials. It was felt by all, that this country truly appreciates the mission of RYS and strongly supports a continued relationship. On this affirmative note we embarked on a breathtaking ride through some of the most picturesque areas of Guatemala; Antigua, Panajachel, and unto Santiago Atitlan our next work site.

Santiago Atitlan, one of 12 indigenous Mayan communities, is nestled in-between volcanic, mountainous regions and the spectacular lake, 'Lago de Atitlan'. Someone once said, "The three most difficult things for a human being are not physical feats or intellectual achievements, they are first; returning love for hate; second, including the excluded; third, admitting that you are wrong." I was wrong to underestimate the overwhelming feeling of accomplishment and gratitude at seeing one's own small contribution from only one year earlier. And yet I was reminded by the wise sentiments of a dear friend, when I found myself anticipating the rewards of this RYS project and all the gifts from last year. In essence, we should not carry over experiences from the past. In fact, don't carry over even good experiences. Learn what it means to experience something fully, then drop it and move on to the next moment, uninfluenced by the previous one.

In addition to returning back and continuing improvements on 2 schools from last year, the group completed a reforestation project, performed structural and aesthetic work on other schools as well as assisted in the building of a basketball court for the children of the community who are in need of healthy recreational outlets.

Our work was complemented by the strong support from the local community and the Mayor of Santiago Atitlan who once more praised the positive impact RYS was having on his city and showed his gratitude by hosting a lovely and entertaining dinner incorporating many of the young children and their teachers. During our stay here, various professionals offered reflections during our evening educational sessions. One very interesting speaker was Mayan Priestess Rev. Encarnacion Gargia Sob Ajquij, whose creation of a Mayan Fire Ceremony, helped bring closure to our time in Santiago Atitlan.

El Salvador:

The capital city of San Salvador welcomed us with a lovely dinner attended by IIFWP national leaders, Ambassadors for Peace, and special invitees. There was excitement and anticipation as this was the firs time RYS visited El Salvador. Our service project here was the cleaning of a large park near a Catholic school, a much needed and desired recreational retreat for the local community. The morning commencing our work, we were accompanied by the Catholic's school marching band, which helped to cheerfully announce our arrival in the neighborhood. During our brief time there, we were encouraged, fed, assisted, and genuinely welcomed by the locals. Our presence there surely left an imprint and commitment to carry on the work, and a desire toward a continued relationship with RYS.

The experience of a second country, similar and yet different, helped in noting that each culture generates a uniquely felt experience of living. The quality of life differs in tone, mood, and intensity. Also important is the notion of culture as the ways a people have learned to respond to life’s problems.

On Sunday we joined in another ecumenical mass at the largest Catholic parish in San Salvador, and once more had the opportunity to hear profound sentiments from a few of our participants; Dr. Ron Burr, Educational Director, as a Buddhist, Sister Blanka Cvrkova, a Carmelite Nun from Austria, and The Rev. Carol Pobanz, a Unificationist. Mr. Daniel Bessell, RYS Project Coordinator, gave an eloquent and passionate testimony of the RYS vision and its commitment toward a culture of peace. These thoughts were enthusiastically received by the entire gathering of this large and inspired religious community.

On our last evening in El Salvador, the Korean National Leaders invited the entire group to a delightful dinner where we were addressed by a well known Academic Professor of Literature and Ethics who as an Ambassador for Peace has been a great supporter of RYS, The Rev. Dr. Matias Romero. The evening concluded with the unanimous outpouring of gratitude towards Dr. Ron Burr and Dr. Sherry Hartman as we bid them farewell. Up until then the group had been the recipient of their wisdom, talent, love, and leadership after many years as Senior Advisors to RYS. They would be missed!


By the time we reached Nacaome in Honduras, where once more we were greeted by community leaders and Ambassadors for Peace who had created an entertaining and folkloric welcoming, there was a sense that the group was growing in its self-awareness. By now, in this third country, there was an understanding that cultural differences are neither good nor bad, it is just different. When the actions, beliefs, attitudes of others are not assessed or judged, but just allowed to exist, it is far easier to enter into their experience, and thereby empathize with them.

With this thought in mind, the group confronted what perhaps in retrospect was the most challenging work.

Tegucigalpa, capital of Honduras, is still dealing with the 1998 aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. The physical destruction resulting from Mitch is still visible and the feelings of despair and resignation linger within its neighborhoods. Honduras, the second poorest nation in the Americas, continues to struggle with its commitment to eradicate serious health crises. The Dengue fever is the most serious and endemic, killing both young and old in very large numbers. In addition, the appearance of slums marked with dilapidated shacks among mounds of garbage in which children are often seen playing unaware of the risks, can be overwhelming even for the most dedicated and passionate of heart and soul.

And yet it was in this ambiance that the commitment and mission of RYS was clearly understood and experienced. Our first workday was in one of the Mitch ravaged sections of Tegucigalpa, Villa Union. We were joined early in the day by various community leaders, volunteers from community service organizations, and the Mayor of Tegucigalpa. All gathered for the purpose of dedicating the work site. It was a confusing time for all of us for we perceived our presence as being two-fold; genuine appreciation and gratitude from many Hondurans for our help and continued support throughout the past 4 years, and a sense that we had to meet the political needs of certain individuals in positions of authority. These concerns were shared both by Staff and participants, and after deep reflection and prayer, insights and feelings were expressed in ways that were astounding. In conclusion, if we don't have a public challenge, then our private victories often become self-serving. We have to take on some task that requires one to be humble and obedient to the universally held principles of service. RYS committed itself to affirming the local community and helped them to recognize that they could make a major contribution, and so the drive to better one's life began to spread amongst all.

We worked on a total of three work sites in this capital city; the trash removal in Villa Union, the cleaning up of a local hospital, and the return to the town of Totumla where we continued the project of building a community center.

Though Honduras presented numerous challenges, it also provided some real highlights. Two significant opportunities were first; the invitation to The Presidential House where we were received by the Director for the Office of Volunteer Services. In his address to the group, he affirmed all the work and contributions of RYS, and expressed complete support from the Honduran government for future projects. He further demonstrated his affirmation by unexpectedly showing up the following day at our most challenging work site, Villa Union. That same evening we were the special guests of the Mayor of Tegucigalpa in an 'all-out' dinner attended by many high-ranking officials, in order to honor our work. This splendid affair was considered by all to be a truly memorable and joyful time together. We each received a certificate of appreciation from The Mayor, in addition to recognition and praise by the many government officials and representatives from various community organizations who had come. It was a very meaningful way to conclude our time in a city that had presented numerous challenges and so many rewards. As is written in the 'I Ching', the ancient Chinese book of wisdom; "The event is not important, but the response to the event is everything."

Once our work was completed, we traveled unto the beautiful beach town of Tela where we spent the next couple of days in meditation and reflection.

As Educational Directors, Dr. Siobhan Burton, Ms Kelly Henzl, and myself had the task of providing an environment where all felt comfortable and safe to share experiences regarding their perceptions, attitudes, concerns, beliefs, and hopes. With the help and support of many; Carol, Daniel, Mario, Donna, team leaders and assistants, we created an atmosphere of enthusiasm, openness and acceptability.

Motivated by a sustained commitment of self-honesty and a desire to become more sensitive to the needs of others, the participants were led through various exercises. Subhan led several very powerful reflections, one in particular was a deeply moving religious fire ritual held late one evening on the beach. As we held hands in a circle surrounding this magnificent bon-fire, in deep silence, the gift of being in fellowship, in the midst of God's beautiful creation was truly inspirational. It is amazing what comes through when we take time to listen to our hearts and to God. Saint Francis of Assisi told his devotees; "What is it that stands higher than words? Action. What is it that stands higher than action? Silence." Thank you Subhan!

One morning the entire group was gathered for a sunrise service on the beach. Each person was holding a helium balloon carrying a piece of paper listing those things we wanted to leave behind, something we were withholding making us weak. After deep prayer we were ready to let go of the balloons, and therefore open ourselves to the newness of each moment. We were clearing the way of those obstacles that prevent us from reaching our goals.

These reflections as well as many others which produced a greater spiritual awareness and a commitment to work towards a culture of peace and harmony, helped bring closure to three weeks spent in the company of loving, gracious and incredibly generous individuals anxious to return and continue the mission of RYS!

"If you are yourself at peace, then there is at least some peace in the world. Then share your peace with everyone, and everyone will be at peace." (Thomas Merton)

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