Before leaving America, the team doctor told us that each one of us would have a moment in Guatemala when we’d know why we were on this medical mission. I’m non-medical, so I figured I’d have my “moment” while entertaining the village kids.
“Am I having a hot flash or is it hot here?” a nurse asks.
The majority of our mission team hasn’t slept well for the past two nights. We’re still learning each others names and idiosyncrasies. The humidity and lack of modern amenities would be enough to make anyone cranky, but everyone is working well together. I marvel at our esprit de corps and chalk it up to the power of the Holy Spirit.
The coolest place is upwind from the rank of latrines near the perimeter of the school-cum-clinic where a fresh mountain breeze blows through the chain link fence
I hear a distinctive, fleshy pat, pat, pat. It’s a woman shaping dough, slapping it from hand to hand. She cooks tortillas on a wood-fired portable griddle. Next to her stands an armed guard, hips askew, rifle slung loosely over his shoulder. A skinny dog sniffs at the cobblestone lane for morsels.
The mission team members, proponents of better living through chemistry, are armed with an arsenal of pills for headaches, constipation, diarrhea, bacterial infections and whatnot. I swallow two aspirin, drink plenty of bottled water and look for ways to be useful.
After folding donated clothes, picking up trash, running errands for the nurses, and coloring with the children, I sit on a concrete slab. Next to me sits a wizened Guatemalan woman and three young kids. They’re sharing a meal of rice and lentils. The woman holds a bottle of 7-Up to a child’s mouth and then up to the other two kids’ mouths.
And then I see a village man leaning against a pole near the tortilla vendor. His brown stomach protrudes out of his unbuttoned shirt like fat Buddha. My judgment begins: “Hah! Look at that fat man! These villagers barely have enough to eat and there he is with his big belly.”
Later the doctor talks about a villager he saw whose diseased liver had distended his stomach. The fat-bellied man I saw couldn’t have been the same man the doctor talked about. That man was bedridden. But that’s not the point.
A wave of shame surges through me like hot lava. I look up. A flock of 40 or more vultures swirls slowly around and around, buoyed by invisible highways in the sky. When I was a kid I thought vultures circling overhead meant something dead lay rotting on the ground below.
This is my moment. My moment is a customized gift: I do not know what’s going on in other people’s lives. I have no right to judge.
God, forgive me. God, please, forgive me.
The flock of vultures has moved on. The sky is cloudless and blue.