Thankfulness in Guatemala

Our church service yesterday on thankfulness reminded me of some special memories. When I was in seminary I worked for a Methodist church in Houston for a few years. One of the major parts of my job was coordinating outreach projects and mission trips. These formative years definitely shaped my passion for outreach in the local church! One organization we worked with was ZOE, a nonprofit focused on empowering orphans and vulnerable youth. My wife and I continue to support them, and I think they’re worth checking out!

ZOE is a 3-year program that lifts teenagers and their younger siblings out of poverty through education, health, and business work. They have programs in Guatemala, India, and several African countries. 60-120 youth in a particular community come together as a “working group” and meet on a regular basis. They select adult mentors and organize what to spend grant money on for both individual and group projects. Pastors from the community would offer spiritual guidance, too, for a holistic approach to missions. ZOE covered the full spectrum of human need, from promoting public health, educating youth about the bible, to even how to successfully raise pigs.

While working with ZOE, I had the blessing of making several trips to Xela, Guatemala to see this mission project in action. These weeks were such a blessing to see youth overcome the struggles of poverty and transform their communities. ZOE groups had a lasting impact on the surrounding town. Young people developed businesses and had brighter futures than joining gangs associated with drug cartels. This was so powerful to see, compared to the troublesome anti-immigrant and racist sentiments that run so rampant in our culture. God calls us to love our neighbors, and that includes “neighbors” in other countries, too.

As I reflect back on these trips, I cannot help but remember the spirit of thanksgiving among these young brothers and sisters of the faith. They were truly thankful for what they were learning. They saw how God could give hope, regardless of life circumstances. Sure, they had challenges, including abandonment by a parent, violence from gangs, or faced racism as indigenous Guatemalans. Yet they found ways to count their blessings and celebrate what God was doing in their communities.

Here are some pictures and details on the mission work!

The kids literally ran down to meet us from their village in the highlands!
A young man named Nisfi who started a chicken business. I was able to visit him for several trips over a couple years and each year he was making more money and expanding his enterprise in the local community!
This ZOE working group came together and opened up a cafe to earn money for the group. Here were the cooks and servers for the day we visited. It was 100% youth led.
Textile work was a favorite entrepreneurial project of many.
The ZOE Chuicavioc group leadership team with their mentors. The eldest sibling of each family usually served on the team.
This young man opened up a pizza bakery in his home kitchen. He would make custom orders for people all around the community.
Another ZOE working group named themselves “The Persevering Youth.”
Raising chickens was a favorite of many of the youth!
Many of the youth had been orphaned or lived with older siblings. In Jennifer’s case, he mother had been killed by gangs in Guatemala City. At age 14, she was the caregiver for her three younger siblings. They did not have much, but she was so cheerful and uplifting, giving a great example to others about what it means to have joy at all times.
As a group project one year, one working group decided to plant crops together. They leased the land and bought seed with group funds. They also had a schedule for everyone to chip in to tend to the crops, including carrying water uphill quite a ways during times of drought!
Over the years, a ZOE group quite literally became a family! After “graduation” following the 3-year program conclusion, most groups continue to still meet together and develop their community for the better.
It was a blessing to get to pray with so many people as they worked to better themselves, their families, and spread God’s love to others.

How can you count your blessings this week? What does it mean to have joy in all circumstances? Do you intentionally spend time thanking God for what you have?

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