a smile is about all i have to give
by kerry manning
Justifying a mission trip to Guatemala was hard for me to do. After all, I do not speak Spanish. I can swing a hammer, but otherwise have few skills to offer that would lead to, for example, a village getting better water, especially in the week I planned to be gone. But I wanted to go and share whatever it is I had. Then it was explained to our Maryknoll group that we really didn’t have to do anything, we just needed to be with other people and listen to their stories. For a while, I felt a little better, but once again I had a hard time explaining to myself and others just why I was going. There did not seem to be any good out of me just being there. We’re trained to be doers. But I wanted to go and despite my doubts, I went. I was not sorry...
It turns out just being with people has more value than it’s given credit. For example, in Antigua, we were to be led around by college age students who were learning how to be guides and improve their English. I took my task of being the helpless traveler to heart (not hard to do). Again, my lack of Spanish quickly presented itself as an obstacle, and my guides Brian and Carlos’s lack of English was equally problematic. Brian produced his phone, though, and through Google translate we were soon telling jokes and learning about each other. At one point, we were walking down the street arms around each other’s shoulders, laughing. I cannot honestly say that I learned very much about the town, but I experienced much more through our companionship. And Brian and Carlos seemed to appreciate our being together, too.
This type of experience was not isolated. At the school we visited in Guatemala City, the language barrier almost stopped everything. It was awkward. But soon a pen and paper were produced and introductions were made all around by us signing our names, some with hearts and other flourishes. It started so simple, then maps were drawn showing each other where we lived and slowly we were getting to know each other, and have fun. In another town, our driver, two Maryknoll affiliates, and Rudy, the cook at our hotel, ended up playing the card game Uno until four in the morning, most of the time laughing hysterically. That was the time when I learned the most about some of the difficulties of living in Guatemala. A final example (and there are many more) was at an AIDs clinic we visited. A simple “Buenos Dias” and a warm handshake made people who looked worn out suddenly look invigorated. Then one of us broke out in song and suddenly everyone was singing and smiling. Again, being present did more in that situation than doing anything. And it seems it did more for me than any of those that I met.
I’ve always heard about conversion being a big part of going on a mission, the assumption being that the missionary goes somewhere and converts another. But the biggest conversion that I saw was in me. I didn’t think I was interested in changing much about me, but now I like seeing things with the different perspective this trip has given me. And I do a few things differently, too. For example, I was always really bad at introducing myself when I meet a group of people. Now, I make a point of saying hello to everyone. From what I learned, that is a very Guatemalan thing to do. It seems like a small thing, but it makes a difference. And it started with a simple desire to go somewhere different and be with people different than me. I plan on going again. And I’m glad I now know that a smile is pretty much all you need, because in the end, it’s pretty much all I’ve got.