When I was 16, I got the opportunity of a lifetime-I got to travel to Guatemala City with 7 other youth from my church to do mission work at our sister church, Cristo Nuestr0 Paz (Christ Our Peace).  We stayed in a convent in Zone 2 of Guatemala City and took a bus everyday to Zone 18, where our sister church is.  There are 21 zones in Guatemala City.  1-4 are where the wealthiest live and the government buildings are.  The higher the zone number, the poorer the area.  So essentially, Zone 18 is the 4th poorest in all of Guatemala City. 

The convent we stayed at in Zone 2 was very nice.  It even had a pool with a slide!  Only one of the nuns spoke English, but they all tried very hard to keep us fed and comfortable.  They made money to support their convent by educating young girls.  Although the nuns did not wear the traditional habits we see in movies, they were always fully clothed in long dresses and usually had some sort of long fabric covering their hair.  It was funny to sit in a room full of pictures of saints while the nuns hovered around the television cheering on the Guatemalan soccer team!

Zone 18 was quite different from the business buildings and McDonalds we had seen in Zone 2.  The church was over a century old.  Connected to the church was Padre Pedro’s house.  Padre Pedro was the only priest at Cristo Nuestro Paz, and he and his adult son, Mario, were seen as local heros and were known by everyone in Zone 18.  On the other side of the church was a combined medical and dental clinic.  After a quick tour, it was obvious that they were far behind us when it came to technology.  The medical center was just being introduced to computers-old, bulky things I had not seen since kindergarten.  Up the hill from the church was the two-room grade school.  The children were delighted to see us, and performed a song and dance for us.  I couldn’t help but notice how clean the kids were, after seeing all those Christian Foundation commercials back home, I was expecting everyone to be sick and dirty looking.

A tour of the rest of Zone 18 proved how poor this area is and how much they needed our help.  Houses were one- roomed tin huts.  Most homes have one bed the entire family shares made of wood, with one lightbulb dangling from the rusty roof.  One corner of the house was usually a shrine to the Virgin Mary with religious icons and candles.  Most of the land in Zone 18 is owned by wealthy businessmen that live in Zones 1-4 who charge exorbitant rent.   The water is polluted from the locals bathing and doing laundry in the river. 

Violence and prostitution are two huge problems in Zone 18, our “gringo” group was always led and followed by at least two locals for our protection.  We met a mother of two of the children families at our church sponsor to send to school.  Her husband had been murdered so to make ends meet she made and sold tortillas all day, and worked in a sweatshop at night.  She said the sweatshop was tedious work for little pay, but it was the only option she had.

After seeing how terrible the living conditions were here, I was surprised how hopeful everyone was.  It was also obvious how important religion was in their lives.  They prayed more than anybody I had ever known before.  They prayed before all meals, prayed in the morning, and at the end of all our visits, they prayed for our protection. 

With the majority of their population being under age 18, the inhabitants of Zone 18 are hopeful of change.  Padre Pedro visits the grade school and guarderia (daycare) kids regularly.  He preaches about Jesus and miracles, hoping that the youth will have faith to work for change in their poor neighborhood.

For more information on how St. Paul Parish helps Cristo Nuestro Paz: http://www.stpaulgenesee.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=34:christ-our-peace-parish-guatemala&catid=7:sister-parishes&Itemid=9