“We were in Union Victoria after Hurricane Stan to build two kinds of bridges,” said Tony Banout, coordinator of a workcamp held March 11-18 in the Guatemalan village. The delegation, co-sponsored by the Emergency Response network and Global Mission Partnerships of the Church of the Brethren General Board, was called together to work alongside villagers to rebuild the remote highlands community of Union Victoria.
Other workcampers were Ray Tritt of Boulder Hill Church of the Brethren, Montgomery, Ill.; Josiah Nell, Josh Yohe, and John Hilty of Pleasant Hill Church of the Brethren, Spring Grove, Pa; and Ken Gresh of Denton (Md.) Church of the Brethren. The trip was hosted by Rebecca Allen, Global Mission Partnerships staff and Brethren Volunteer Service worker in Union Victoria.
Banout had known Union Victoria before October when all crops were destroyed, over 60 mudslides occurred, and the community’s only bridge was washed away by the hurricane. He had been a mission worker with Global Mission Partnerships and a Brethren Volunteer Service worker. “Fortunately, no one there was killed by the storm, although one seven-month pregnant woman was caught in the river and later delivered a stillborn child,” said Banout. “One home was completely destroyed. Most of the damage, however, was clearly psychological,” he added.
“We called our expression of solidarity with materially poor, disenfranchised, and largely voiceless Mayans the main bridge we would build,” he emphasized. The workcampers “lived in the simple homes of the villagers, eating with families and sharing stories.”
“We hoped to visit as fellow brothers and sisters concerned about their plight and history,” Banout added. He explained some of the village’s history. “Virtually every person in the community was profoundly affected during the war,” he said, “from firsthand experiences of torture to having loved ones killed or disappeared. We were open to learning from them.” There was also a profound need to speak of their recent trauma stemming from the hurricane, Banout said.
The physical bridge that the workcampers helped repair had been destroyed by Hurricane Stan. The village of Union Victoria is situated alongside a mountainous river. “Fed by incessant rains and the ensuing hurricane, the river grew to dramatic proportions and entirely wiped out a bridge that provided vital access to the two sides of the community, coffee plantations, crops, and even the children’s school,” Banout said. The workcampers “hauled wood boards out of the forest where they had been cut for the bridge, through the mountain terrain, and out to the site. We also worked with members of the community to prepare the foundations of the bridge by collecting and hauling sand from the river banks and digging the holes for the buttresses,” he said.
“As if to emphasize our role as accompaniers in solidarity,” Banout added, “on the day we were leaving the community, a shipment of additional supplies which we had expected earlier arrived for the bridge.” Workcamper Ray Tritt commented on the difficulties of making a “solidarity” visit to the village, rather than a visit focused on the construction work. “At first it was hard for me,” Tritt said, describing himself as “a hands-on guy who has been in construction for 50 years…. The Mayans gained respect for us as individuals because we listened to them rather than told them what to do. It was educational and inspirational.”
Ken Gresh, a veteran of Habitat for Humanity, Red Cross, and denominational faith expeditions, said, “This workcamp hit home because it was not just a hands-on, doing-what-was-needed effort. It was moving beyond words to hear the stories of people who experience multiple injustices.”
“Others will speak of our building bridges of identification and support with each other,” Gresh said, “but I think more of the way the people of Union Victoria showed me resilience for living and enjoying life in spite of their difficulties. They had a grateful attitude for all we did and for our presence without judgment of our prosperity…. It was a good trip there and back which helped me to not desire fast food French fries and quick fix coffees from kiosks.”
For more information about Global Mission Partnerships of the Church of the Brethren General Board, go to http://www.brethren.org/genbd/global_mission/index.htm.