Unification News for September 2002
RYS 13th Friendship Americas Project
by Carol Pobanz
The question, "What is True Service?" was a prayer topic for me as I prepared for the Religious Youth Service 2002 in Central America. This Thirteenth Friendship Americas Project took place from July 9th to August 1st. It was the first tri-national project RYS has ever held and it included Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. In my newly appointed responsibility of Project Director, under the tutelage of veteran RYS directors and educators I embarked on the journey to discover for myself the answers to questions about "creating world peace through loving service", the theme of our project.
Beginning in Guatemala City, our staff, together with 42 participants, joined for a two-day orientation. The orientation and education program is designed to equip participants with the skills necessary to communicate with one another, to appreciate and work through our differences. The education program included exercises to develop better listening skills, the ability to recognize personal leadership styles, as well as how to work with individuals having styles different from our own. We also spent time brainstorming, sharing ideas, creating our vision for peace, articulating our vision statements and drawing out the vision on posters.
The next two and a half weeks provided us the opportunity to test our abilities and the validity of our ideas regarding service and peace. We learned from the Central American participants as well as from the people we served. Through our conversations, service projects, cultural visits, speakers and through our common worship services, we came to understand one anotherís values and the diversity of their expression.
Each of the three countries reflected some unique aspect of beauty, sharing as well unique expressions of Central American hospitality and presenting unique challenges.
The following are reflection submitted by Ana Cobiella-Olson, co-educational director:
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 Cynthia Castillo, Ambassador for Peace, recently appointed by the Guatemalan government to the position of Minister of Peace. 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 was a wonderful experience. The sharing of major religious heritages -- Christian, Buddhist, Unificationist -- 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.
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, and incredible lunch, and the opportunity to enter into an open forum with top officials. All of us felt 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 into Santiago Atitlan, our next work site.
Santiago Atitlan, one of 12 indigenous Mayan communities, is nestled between volcanic, mountainous regions and the spectacular lake, "Lago de Atitlan". In addition to making improvements on two schools, 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 greatly 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.
The capital city of El Salvador, 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 first 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. On the morning commencing our work, we were accompanied by the Catholic schoolís 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.
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 including Dr. Ron Burr, Educational Director, and a Buddhist, Sister Blanka Cvrkova, a Carmelite nun from Austria, and Rev. Carol Pobanz, a Unificationist. Mr. Daniel Bessell, RYS Project Coordinator, gave an eloquent and passionate testimony of the RYS vision and its commitment to creating 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 the well-known Academic Professor of Literature and Ethics who, as an Ambassador for Peace, has been a great supporter of RYS -- Rev. Dr. Matias Romero. The evening concluded with unanimous outpouring of gratitude towards Dr. Ron Burr and Dr. Sherry Hartman, Senior Advisors to RYS, as we bid them farewell. Up until then the group had been the recipient of their wisdom, talent, love, and leadership.
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. From there we proceeded to Tegucigalpa, capital of Honduras, which is still dealing with the 1998 aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. 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 amongst mounds of garbage, where 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 work day 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 gathering for the purpose of dedicating the work site. It was a confusing time for all of us in as much as we perceived our presence as having a two-fold meaning; on the one hand, we were receiving genuine appreciation and gratitude from many Hondurans for our help and continued support throughout the past 4 years; yet, on the other hand there was the 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 remarkable ways.
In conclusion, it might be observed that 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 the people 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. One very significant opportunity was 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 at an "all-out" dinner attended by many high-ranking officials, held to honor our work. This splendid affair was considered by all of us 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 to the beautiful beach town of Tela where we spent the next couple of days in meditation and reflection. 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 of these was a deeply moving religious fire ritual held late one evening on the beach. As we held hands in a circle surrounding this magnificent bonfire, 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 once 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 that was making us weak. After deep prayer we were ready to let go of the balloons, and to 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 express the experience if just one individual. Every participant went away with their own unique memory. What a rich experience it was for everyone.
Perhaps the true reflection was done when we traveled back home. When I review my own experience I realize there are many ways we serve. On one end of the spectrum, one can serve and get paid for it or one can serve simply out of duty, both of these ways yielding primarily external benefits. On the other end of the spectrum is "pity service", serving with a superior attitude, feeling sorry for another and serving out of that emotion. "True Service", however, comes from the heart of sacrificial love and is expressed through our actions. But that love doesnít just happen. Only after first investing in the lives of the people we serve, can we get to know and love them, then we come to see the people we serve truly as our brothers and sisters, not as nameless individuals. It is with this heart that we can experience the world as a place of peace.
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