The Guatemalan sun hammers the corrugated tin roof over our heads. Joe and I and local helpers sweat inside the cinderblock building. We’re digging our way through a mountain of black garbage bags filled with clothes people from the U.S.A. have donated for the needy.
The team doctor and other medical professionals, the backbone of this medical mission, are in adjacent classrooms that have been rigged up as clinics. Kinda.
Joe and I don’t talk much. Too hot. Save your energy. It’s only 10 AM.
On the flight down, I’d learned that this was Joe’s first time on an airplane. It’s his first mission (mine too). He’s not in the medical field (me neither). He doesn’t consider himself a Christian. He’s here because his niece, whose career ambition is become an international missionary after graduating from Penn State, asked him to come along.
We’re taking whatever garments come to hand, fold them, and cram four or maybe six of them into smaller bags. These small bags, some shoes and boxes of lentils and rice are distributed to villagers lined up outside our open door. A village man leaning against the doorjamb wears a gym T-shirt. The name Alicia Whitman is magic markered on his shirt front.
For reasons I still don’t know, we were told to wear non-cotton, collared shirts with long sleeves. My collar is drenched with sweat. My legs are broasting like chicken on a spit in my waterproof pants. Airborne lint tickles my nose. My hands feel clammy – something from the clothing is sticking to my fingers.
Most of the clothes are women’s. (Big surprise.) I imagine that wearing these garments of polyester and other synthetic fabrics sure would feel uncomfortable in the jungle here. I’m beginning to think that a congregation of gluttons must have all decided to donate to the poor.
Joe and I tell each other to take a break. We take turns stepping outside.
From the hillside where the school is perched, we peer through a chain link fence onto the cobblestone one-lane road bisecting the village. Those shacks of dirt, tin, stone and string are homes. We watch a group of women hand washing clothes in communal concrete basins. The vista is framed with blue mountain range, foamed with white clouds. The serrated topography tells me these mountains are youngsters compared to the Appalachians of my home.
Back to our mountain of clothes.
I pull a woman’s fancy blouse out of a garbage bag. “1X(22W-24W)” reads the label. I fold. I bag. I dig more clothes out of the mountain. I get annoyed. Most Guatemalan’s are small people.
Our Guatemala Team Covenant includes a clause to “Refrain from complaining and griping and negative comments.” Refraining takes effort on my part.
I mine an XXL man’s shirt, a 2X(26W-28W) woman’s dress, pair of 42/34 men’s slacks. The voice in my head can’t remain silent any longer. “America, home of the free and the fat.” I’m so disgusted with the size of these clothes. Did contributors really believe that big and tall, that plus sizes would fit undernourished people?
A petite Guatemalan helper is tucking a fabric scrap into a small bag. And in goes one ruffled curtain panel. Into other bags go an encrusted placemat, a wool plaid skirt, a pair of coveralls for a seven-foot man and not nearly enough children’s clothes. About a third of the clothes are huge, reflecting the CDC’s fat stats for Americans.
I get excited when I unearth a pair of toddlers pajamas. Now this is something useful. I tuck it into a bag with an oversized jacket. The more clothes for giants that I excavate from the mountain, the snarkier my inner-narrator becomes. “Foldin’ clothes for GEE-zus,” it mocks. “Foldin’ clothes for GEE-zus.”
Joe stops folding and stuffing. His arms flop into his lap. “This is embarrassing!” he gripes.
“These clothes are too big! What are people going to do with these?”
“I know what you mean. I’ve been thinking the same thing.”
“I feel guilty,” Joe adds.
Joe stands up and holds an enormous dress in front of him. He gets the attention of a Guatemalan mission worker. He asks, “What can they do with this?”
She makes a clipping motion with her fingers. “They will cut it and make diapers out of it.”
Out of nylon?
Joe and I feel better, but not much.
Outside, a black tarp stretched over the macadam courtyard creates an oven-like porch. Local women clutching children and bags sit on the curb. One short woman is digging into her bag of donated clothes. Anger shimmers off her like heat waves.
She yanks a brassiere out of her bag. The bra cups are as large as mixing bowls. You don’t need to understand her language to decipher what she’s saying to her companions. She jams the bra back into the bag and pulls it out again, as if in disbelief that someone would play this cruel joke.
What in the world can she do with a 52DDD undergarment? Make a cradle for twins? Rain hats? Pet hammocks?
Suddenly rain pummels the tin roof. The tarp is instantly swollen with a lake of water. The deluge beating on the tin roof is deafening. We can’t converse. Can’t even think straight. The downpour lasts until dusk. When the rain stops falling, the air is cleaner, but still muggy.
At the end of the mission, I donate some of the clothes I’d worn. They’ll fit a Guatemalan woman. Or man.
Later we learn that 4000 pounds of clothes had been divvied out to the people who came to the mission in the village of Tierra Linda.
Nevertheless, like Joe, I am embarrassed.