Unification News for August 2001

IIFWP Friendship America’s Project in Guatemala

by Ana M. Cobiella-Olson, M.S.

RYS and IRFF have been working with various government and non-governmental organizations in sponsoring the Friendship America’s Project. These projects seek to create a greater harmony between all the nations and cultures represented in the America’s. While these projects bring into close working relationships members of the Roman Catholic and Protestant communities they often seek to provide a base for healing and understanding among the indigenous population.

As the America’s have become increasingly pluralistic these projects draw people of all faiths together to create an atmosphere of trust and peaceful reconciliation. The IIFWP is working during the Summer of 2001 to sponsor Friendship America’s Projects in Guatemala, Honduras, Miami and Trinidad. The following is a report from Ana M. Cobiella-Olson, M.S., who was a central staff member of the Guatemala project.

The Guatemala Adventure

Solala is one of 22 provinces which make up the country of Guatemala. It is in this lush, mountainous region framed by majestic volcanoes that one finds one of the world's most beautiful lakes, 'Lago de Atitlan'. This geographical splendor is inhabited by 12 indigenous (Mayan) communities, amongst them 'Santiago Atitlan. It was in this picturesque setting that the 4th RYS project in Guatemala took place and the 8th Friendship America‘s Project. After a 2 day orientation in Guatemala City, under the leadership of Rev John Gehring the International Director of RYS, over 40 participants representing 12 countries and various Christian denominations, Islam, Unificationism and Buddhism, embarked on a journey that was not only educational and informative but truly transformational. This group was able to weave into a spirit of trust and cooperation already in existence within this community which for the past 4 years has been the recipient of goodwill and contribution of labor from Friendship America's Project (FAP).

On the first evening in Santiago Atitlan we were hosted over dinner by its mayor who for the past two years has been an advisor and great supporter of RYS. It was clearly understood that our next 8 days in this Mayan community was two-fold. Participants would work 8 days on two schools desperately in need of structural and aesthetic improvements. Secondly, and perhaps most significantly, a foundation was being built upon which the most effective educational atmosphere for disadvantaged and illiterate children, many victims of poverty and parental death, could receive the tools to build productive and self reliant lives.

As a multicultural and interreligious community, RYS believes that God is active in all realms of life, including the social, economic, political and that he promotes justice in a broken world. We are continually pulled out of our private lives and into the public where we participate in a world in common with those who are different from us. We are aware that we do not come together in a vacuum. Multiculturalism challenges what particular school of thought eg; sociological, psychological, theological we consider to be universal. There can be much fear and anxiety associated with moving toward cross-cultural interaction.

To help participants explore their own unique backgrounds, glean wisdom as to what makes for a healthy multicultural, interreligious community, be receptive to the gift of seeing the world through different eyes, various notable leaders in Guatemala were invited by Mr. Daniel Bessell Project Director, to address the group. We were privileged to be in dialogue with; Lic. Ricardo Cifuentes, Member of Asociacion Guatemalteca Pro-Naciones Unidas, Lic. Ricardo Garcia, Ministry of Communication and Information, Licda. Catalina Soberanis Reyes former President of the Guatemaltecan Congress, Dr. Leonel Guerra Saravia, Ministry of Health, Licda. Blanca Estela, Professor of Mayan Cosmovision at Universidad Francisco Maroquin, (this lecture was followed in the evening by an authentic Mayan Ritual performed by the elder Sacerdote (High Priest) of Guatemala. Also Lic. Bernardo Solares Revolorio, editor of Tiempos Mundo and Dr. Armando de la Torre, Dean of Social Science, Universidad Francisco Maroquin. It appears that the essence of what each of these highly regarded, generous, committed leaders from such diverse professional persuasions taught us is best expressed in a quote from the Theologian and RYS Advisor, Huston Smith, "Infinite gratitude toward all things past, infinite service toward all things present, infinite responsibility toward all things future."

These opportunities produced numerous reactions and a great deal to reflect on. To assure that there would be no interference with the formation of working alliances or disrupt group harmony, Mr. Mitch Laurie as Educational Director, led the participants in numerous educational sessions. A primary responsibility of any educational process is to disseminate self-knowledge. The 'heal thyself before healing others' concept is a common philosophy understood by people across the world, and yet the quest for this self -awareness is not a simple process. Under Mitch's guidance we found ourselves relaxing our opinions, discarding erroneous assumptions, and this helped to produce in all a greater degree of loving and accepting of others. We had opportunities to enter into new and different understandings we previously did not have access to. For all, a path to greater spiritual awareness and a desire to cultivate a more generous nature.

Other highlights of our time together were the cultural night where the community of Santiago Atitlan, mostly children from the 2 schools we had worked with, and RYS participants entertained each other. The laughter and sheer joy kept escalating following each unique performance. One beautiful and memorable day began a 4:30 a.m. when some participants adventured on a 2 1/2 hour 'silent walk' toward the mountains bordering Santiago Atitlan. Seeing the sun rise and being surrounded by such geographical beauty, enhanced the fellowship we were all a part of and helped to diminish the intense and physically demanding climb uphill! And once uphill, such incredible JOY!

Half -way through the work we were rewarded with 'HAPPY DAY' On a secluded beach, all to ourselves where we tapped into our child-like natures. We even witnessed a partial surfing event as Mitch and his constant companion, The Surfboard, enjoyed the cool waters of Lago Atitlan. Once we had concluded our work in Santiago Atitlan, we celebrated with 'Reflection Night'. This magical evening consisted of an incredibly beautiful bonfire where we sang songs, ate marsh-mallows, kept warm with hot chocolate, and gave gratitude for the privilege of serving others and for the gift of having met each other.

Once we arrived back in Guatemala City, Daniel had arranged for the group to visit The National Congress. The uniqueness and influential aspect of this visit cannot be understated. The gesture climaxed much of the work and long term goals that the group had been expressing with regards to RYS in Guatemala. The Director of Protocol to the President of Guatemala received us. In response, we presented him with a letter signed by all, expressing our hopes and vision for what we feel are the urgencies needing to be addressed. This letter was to be formally given to the President of The National Congress and we felt confident that its sentiments would be acknowledged.

Finally, the climaxing point of this incredible journey was our last evening together. Receiving our diplomas, being serenaded by the loving women who had cooked our meals nourishing both our stomachs and our hearts. The inspiring message from Rev. Gerhard Bessell, whose presence was constant, and whose passion and commitment to world peace and unity was deeply felt. The passionate testimonies by participants where their 'transformation' in a mere two weeks could be seen and appreciated by all. The 'Rock-Out' filled with dancing, laughter, music and FUN, FUN, FUN!!

The one moment, which will linger and sustain us for a long time was the appreciation circle led by Mitch Lawrie. By now we were a strong community, able to give voice and to carry on our commitment to world peace and unity. To effect change in a world of tumultuous times and brokenness. We learned that we attain spiritual maturity when we recognize that our sense of righteousness comes from the extent that we see ourselves in service to the generation that follows.

Letter to Congress

As a cross-cultural and interreligious service project RYS promotes world peace through dialogue and action by having its youth leaders serve communities in need. We at RYS believe that as children of God, and created in his image, we are diverse and have developed a wide variety of cultures that express our diversity. RYS as a faith community celebrates the mystery of diversity; that we are at once distinct from one another, and yet joined to one another through a common God, who teaches us that we are righteous to the extent that we see ourselves in service to the generation that follows.

Guatemala RYS project 2001, as one of several international projects, focused on the improvement of two educational facilities in Santiago Atitlan. These improvements will dramatically transform the educational environment of the youth within this community.

Our vision for future RYS projects in Guatemala is that they will be broader in impact and scope and this can only be achieved with both local and international support.

RYS believes education is crucial to the prosperity and success of Guatemala in the 21st century, and wishes to encourage that education be given the highest priority.

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