Laborers for the Harvest: Hope at Los Campeones

Jesuit priest John Dear once said that he had received this advice before ordination: "The whole point is to make your life story fit into the life story of Jesus." That reflection consistently helps me approach both life and the Gospel. I was struck by this on our recent immersion to Guatemala. Specifically, in the moments of despair that some participants expressed at the seemingly insurmountable needs of many of the people that we met. It made some of us feel that whatever small part we could play in serving the poor, it would simply not be enough.

I was taken aback, then, when I read Matthew 9:35-38 a few weeks after returning. In it, Jesus is traveling from town to town, healing and teaching. Despite the good work that he was surely doing, he too becomes overwhelmed by the needs of the people: "At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd" (v. 36). Turning to his disciples, he gives voice to his despair, but also to his faith in God's people. He says, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest" (v. 37-38).

In that moment, Jesus both shares in our despair and provides us with the hope that more of God's people will recognize this abundant need and commit to addressing it. I saw this hope in Guatemala. The most powerful example, I believe, came towards the end of our program. There is a small rural school for children with disabilities called "Los Campeones" ("The Champions," in English). We met with the staff there, all native Guatemalans, who explained that they are simply teachers, while many of these kids actually require psychologists, physical therapists, speech therapists, and other specialized caretakers. Still, they do what they can to affirm the dignity of these young people, and to empower them to be as self-sufficient as possible.

They explained the challenges to doing this. It is difficult to know, for instance, who in the community has these needs, since it is common for people to hide children with disabilities from public view out of shame. (Some pointed out that our own country is really only beginning to move from this mentality, and I wonder how much of that has to do with people finally seeing options for children with such needs.) Some of those that do not hide the children think that they will be confined to a life of begging, or think that the school is actually an orphanage. The teachers also explained that while they try to teach kids self-care skills like feeding themselves, they struggle to get the parents to not do do these things for the kids at home (the teachers in our group could relate to that problem!). We learned, too, that they now have a family living on the property to prevent the frequent robberies that the school has been subject to - in one year, they said, robbers cleared out the entire school four times.

There were very few dry eyes on our side as they explained the circumstances of their work. Still, I had to ask myself, "How can I despair at what needs to be done when this group of people has committed so fully to doing it?" Jesus asked his disciples to pray for laborers for his harvest. Everywhere we went in Guatemala, that is where we found hope: in the laborers; in the lives touched by the work of good people, just as lives were touched by Jesus himself in those towns and villages where he ministered.