In the latest chapter of our Look for the Helpers series, we’re taking a look at another of PRUMC’s global mission partners: Catalyst Resources International (CRI), a Christian ministry in Guatemala that operates a bilingual church, a feeding program and orphanage, a child sponsorship for education, and a visitor team program that builds housing and provides clean stoves. PRUMC has taken two mission trips to work with CRI and provided COVID aid.
In early July, we spoke with CRI founder Fontaine Greene, a former Orlando minister. Since he and his wife, Paula, moved to Guatemala with their children and founded CRI nearly 15 years ago, they’ve seen the purpose of their own family – and the lives of hundreds of Guatemalan families – remade. CRI’s goal: to be an advocate in response to the heart Jesus expressed towards helping the “least of these”. Here’s what we learned from Fontaine.
How has life changed in Guatemala during COVID?
As we look around the world, Guatemala is one of the most restricted countries that we’re aware of. The new president is a medical doctor by training, so he’s been very careful with the approach to public health. We’ve been shut down since March 15. There are 22 “departments” in Guatemala, comparable to counties in the U.S., and residents are not allowed to leave their department. Within your department you’re able to drive only three days a week, based on your license plate. Even or odd number determines what days you can drive.
The larger issue is that there’s no economic bailout. There are no unemployment benefits. There are no food stamps. Beyond what ministries like ours are able to bring to the table, aid is very limited. Families are telling us, “We’ve been out of work for four months, please help us.” People are telling us their savings are gone. In the U.S., families may have a few months of savings they can tap into. They don’t have that here.
In the villages, malnutrition and hunger have trumped concerns about COVID. So that’s where our group is focused now. The signal that the situation has become dire for someone is to wave a white flag. Wave it, or post it on your house. Sometimes we’re distributing food aid based on that, in cities and out in villages. The absence of dads who’ve abandoned households compounds the problems here and has left a lot of overwhelmed moms trying to feed children. Oftentimes that mom is the one putting a white flag outside her door.
Is the government allowing missionaries any movement around the restrictions? How have you been able to keep helping?
We’ve found a way to go outside our department using our ministry credentials to create a permission letter, so that when we’re stopped at checkpoints (and we have been stopped) we can present that. Even then, we’re restricted to the neighboring department. But we’re trying to be creative and find ways to operate everywhere we can. In some areas, we have trusted contacts through over a decade of working there, so we can transfer funds to them and allow them to purchase locally and distribute for us. They provide photos of distribution, receipts and other means of accountability. In our neighboring department of Sacatepéquez, where your members have done project work with us, we’ve been able to continue providing food supplies through the contacts we’ve established there.
Some missionaries in Guatemala have longer relationships than we do in different departments, so we pack meals and those partners come here and take the boxes to distribute there. We received a donation specifically for a community that was three hours away, so we used Guatemala’s equivalent of FedEx, packed all the supplies and had them shipped there by this local carrier. In all of these ways, we’re totally above board and trying to work within the guidelines legally and with accountability.
With no groups traveling here to work with us and no homes to build, we have just leveraged everything we can over the last four months to feed the hungry and continue care in our orphanage. Thankfully we have dedicated nannies to help, but it has been a major expense to keep the organization going and keep the staff paid. The government has made a decision that helps, clearing the path for adoptions, by Guatemalan families only, in just this past month. This week will be our second adoption of a baby, which we’re very excited about.
How do your housing and “clean stoves” programs work? And what do you see on the horizon for all of your programs?
About 10 years ago, after observing a profound need for housing, we began building houses with the help of visiting teams, mostly from churches, that come to stay with us. We’ve developed a building plan for a 16×20 ft. wood home, along with a modest household goods package, costing $3,000 to $3,500. The funds for this come largely from fees paid by the teams who come to serve here [a family getting a home raises a small portion of the costs and provides manual labor alongside the volunteer teams]. We’ve worked with about 80 different churches over the years, and I believe our last count was over 600 houses built. Other ministries also build our house. We provide them with the plan and a materials list, and there are now more than 100 of those houses out there.
The stove program is a really important one for these families and for Guatemala’s future. For about $150 we can provide an Ecocomal stove that is vented and requires only 30% of the wood normally required. This greatly reduces the amount of smoke being breathed in by families each day – helping with health issues – and ensures that fewer trees are cut down, which helps reduce deforestation and associated problems that have occurred in other countries.
This Friday [July 10] we’re dedicating our Mimi’s 2 orphanage site, an extension that will allow us to take in more children. PRUMC people worked on that building with us, and we are so excited about it. We’ve been told to expect that the major airport will reopen August 15. That’s a big deal because we’ve lost all of our scheduled groups this year, except for a couple in February, and a big part of our ministry funding comes from the hosting of groups. We don’t charge a fee on projects, so we’ll have a big drop in budget because of the loss of teams.
The president will likely lessen the restrictions if he sees the numbers remain low, and we’re just hopeful that this can happen soon for the good of the country. Compared to a lot of Latin America, we’re shown as an example because of the early and continued strong restrictions. We have fairly low numbers of COVID, and that’s a point of pride. The stranglehold on our economy has been the flip side, so it’s complicated; and just like in the U.S., there are different political views about the situation. As a ministry, all we can do is deal with the limitation of our resources and the effects of that.
What else would you like us all to know?
There are not a lot of missionaries left here. Leaving was encouraged by the embassy. But we have children to raise at the orphanage and ministry needs we’re committed to, so regardless of political or economic or health situations, we’re committed to stay here. When we came to live here in 2006, our two daughters were in their freshman and junior years of high school. We had assumed they would leave when they could. But they’re both married now and still working here with us, alongside their husbands, because they all have a heart to be here.
You guys at PRUMC are our next group scheduled to come down here, at the end of this year, on December 27. You’re still on the calendar right now, and we have used you as an example that’s been so encouraging for us and a model for other churches who have reached out to us about what’s going on. PRUMC is looking to get back here and serve, we tell them. We’re so hopeful that can still happen.
Please pass on our thanks to everyone for all that you do for this ministry. Your church has a lot of opportunities to serve, and we’re very grateful to be part of your conversation. And we ask everyone who prays to please join us in praying that we see the hunger and desperation here in Guatemala relieved.
PRUMC is holding the Guatemala mission trip date on the calendar at present and will continue to monitor case numbers and travel recommendations from the CDC and UMCOR to make a determination about whether the trip could be made safely. Watch for more information from the Global Missions team.