After one night in Guatemala City, on June 28, 34 members of Kansas City’s Colonial Presbyterian Mission Team set out for Colegio Mark, the Christian School on a high mountain the church has been supporting for decades.
I was about to see the other view of the American generosity that I experienced as a girl in Korea 64 years earlier.
An hour or so after we left the capital our bus was passing tall, red boulders on one side of a rising road and deep green valleys on another. The temperature dropped to about 50 degrees as our bus ascended until white clouds floated below us.
“This gorge is 10,000 feet above the sea level,” someone informed us.
Heaven is closer from here than from Kansas City. Lord, I hope you don’t mind me coming here with Presbyterians; so far so good!
He said, “I gathered you from east and west. Enjoy the trip!”
About half of our group were senior citizens from different backgrounds — teachers, an engineer, a pilot, a salesman, writers — and the rest were younger, including a medical doctor and his two adult daughters, a U.S. Air Force airman, a few students about to enter college and a 10-year-old boy with his grandparents.
From the window, I glimpsed Old Guatemala breathing through ancient ruins and homes with mud walls and rusted metal on broken tile roofs. Men and women carrying firewood on their backs seemed to belong to an old painting. But the women in colorful Mayan dresses talking into their cell phones while herding livestock are definitely 21st century products.
When we arrived at Colegio Mark on June 30, about 300 students in navy blue uniforms or colorful Mayan dresses stood on both sides of the street holding signs that read “Bienvenido a Colegio Mark” or “Jesus Vive!” An arch of red, white and blue balloons dancing wildly in mid-air made us feel important and welcome.
How happy they seemed at seeing us Americans! Some kids abandoned their designated places and approached us, speaking Spanish. Cameras clicked. Arms linked in embraces. “Welcome,” was repeated over and over in both English and Spanish!
My eyes began to water. My mind crossed the boundary of place and time and I was a 9-year-old again, in Pusan, Korea, on July 5, 1950. The North Koreans had invaded the South 10 days earlier and were advancing toward us in the southern region. Then, unbelievable news came: President Harry Truman had declared U.S. support for South Koreans a few days earlier and two U.S. infantry divisions from occupied Japan landed on Pusan that morning.
The whole town stood on both sides of the street as a long line of army trucks, each flying an American flag on the hood, passed before us. Everyone shouted, “Victory U.S.A!” the first American slogan we learned that morning.
Back then, I had been at the receiving end of America’s generosities but now, in Guatemala, I was at the giving end!
As I embraced the children, I wished I could tell them that I had been at their age six decades ago when Americans came to fight for South Korea’s freedom. Sadly, all I could do was smile and say, “Hola, amigo!”
By mid-morning, Colegio Mark turned into a multi-task facility with a medical clinic, a sewing school, a Bible school, a science lab, a reading room, a craft studio, and more.
Time flies fast when you have fun, true? On July 4, after dinner, we celebrated the birthdays of two members of our team. As we sang “Happy Birthday,” a five-man mariachi band in black uniforms studded with silver came through the side door, singing and playing. Within minutes, the whole place turned into a dance hall. Our members, young and old, joined in the festivity, swinging, twisting, swirling, laughing, kicking their feet or clapping.
Lord, what’s happening here? Then I knew: the spirit of Independence Day had caught up with us here 8,000 feet above sea level!
God bless America!
God Bless Guatemala!
Retired musician and freelance columnist Therese Park has written three novels about Korea’s modern history.