Our Sunday Visitor (newsweekly), August 8, 2010

Empowering Villagers in Guatemala

©2010 Valerie Kreutzer

Floating market in Bangkok, Thailand

San Lucas di Toliman, on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala’s highlands, doesn’t attract many tourists. But forty-six years ago it became the destination for a priest from Minnesota who arrived reluctantly and ill-prepared.

Father Gregory (Fr. Greg) Schaffer was a high school teacher in Marshall, Minnesota, when he was chosen to serve the mission in San Lucas. “My initial commitment was for five years,” Fr. Greg recalls. “But I soon felt indebted to these people who accepted me with great kindness.”

When Fr. Greg arrived in 1964, over 97 percent of the villagers were illiterate. Today, 85 percent are graduates of the area’s 49 schools Fr. Greg’s mission helped to build.

When he came to San Lucas, 90 percent of the homes were made of corn stalks and sat on borrowed land. Fr. Greg vividly remembers an encounter with Celestino, a plantation laborer, whose hut stood down the road. “I make 50 cents a day,” a dejected Celestino reported. “I cannot feed my family on that. My children are dying. And my house is not fit for an animal.”

Fr. Greg offered to put Celestino on a salary if he could learn to cut trees, make lumber, and build houses. With a hand saw, Celestino and his compañeros soon cut 125 sheets of lumber a week; after building 15 homes, he built one for his own family. His second son became a school principal, and his oldest son is a doctor and public health administrator.

Reflecting on his rocky beginnings in San Lucas, Fr. Greg recalls a pivotal encounter with a dying patriarch. “After I had prayed with him, he asked to pray for me. ‘Dear God,’ he said, ‘help this young man learn to be patient with himself and with my people.’ And then he died. That was a turning point. I started to listen. ‘Don’t give us food,’ I heard people say. ‘Give us land to raise our own food.’”

That was an especially urgent need after a 2005 hurricane wiped out a nearby community. The government promised homes for the survivors but had no land. Lack of land is a major reason why 80 percent of the indigenous Mayans remain impoverished.

When a plantation became for sale, Fr. Greg’s mission with help from private foundations bought it and gave 166 families titles to the land. The government came through with housing, roads, and a school.

The new town of San Andres is surrounded by pine forests that shelter coffee trees. Their red berries turn into Guatemala’s top export commodity. For generations, Mayans have cultivated and harvested the crop, toiling on plantations, often indebted to the owners. With Fr. Greg’s help, thousands of families now own land and raise coffee as a cash crop. Fluctuating prices on the world market, however, make coffee growing an uncertain business, and so, in 1992, the mission created a processing plant that guarantees farmers a fixed price by cutting out the middlemen.

“We started with six, now we have over 650 families in the program,” Fr. Greg reports. He used an inheritance to finance the coffee project, and Juan-Ana coffee, named in honor of Fr. Greg’s parents, John and Anna, has traveled the world.

Fr. Greg has received many honors, including the title of Monsignor, given by Pope John Paul II in 1984.
In 2007, Fr. Greg received the Order of the Quetzal, Guatemala’s highest award for work in social justice.

Last February, Fr. Greg celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination. With detached wonder he surveyed the mission’s feverish preparations for the event. “I was told to just stay out of the way,” he smiled. “This won’t cost the mission a penny; it’s all volunteer labor and contributions.” Standing tall in his well-worn Guatemalan shirt, he hugged family and friends as they arrived from thousands of miles away.

The townspeople had erected a bigger-than-life statue in his likeness; the women had cooked for days to feed over a thousand people; teenagers had made carpets of pine needles and flowers for a procession that included the bishop and the Vatican’s representative; the guitar and marimba bands played, and the children sang their hearts out.

When all was said and done, Fr. Greg had the last word: “Gracias para permitirme servirles como tu sacerdote,” he said. “Thank you, for letting me serve as your priest.”