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University Congregation members experience religious traditions and meet Guatemalan family they support

After years of putting money into the offering to support a Guatemalan boy, University Congregation members finally got the chance to meet him and his family during a spring break trip.

Led by University Pastors Nancy Connor and Dennis Sepper, the group visited 8-year-old Marvin Barreno, his parents and three brothers.

“It was incredibly meaningful to have it be real, to be flesh and blood, and to really know how the offering makes an incredible difference to Marvin and his family,” Connor said.

The group, which included 11 students and Sheri Tonn, vice president for finance and operations, experienced the culture and religious traditions of Semana Santa, or Holy Week, in Antigua, Guatemala, which is home to the second largest Holy Week celebration in the world. They also visited a hospital for mentally, physically and emotionally challenged patients, and a local coffee farmer who grows, roasts and crushes the beans at his house.

Eight-year-old Marvin Barreno holds up a PLU T-shirt – a gift from the members of University Congregation who traveled to Guatemala to visit him. Photo courtesy of Nancy Connor.

They were struck by the friendly and welcoming nature of Guatemalans, including Marvin and his family. “Even though they are so poor, they are richer than us because they are so close knit,” Sarah Davis ’05 said.

“They have such a unique perspective on happiness,” added Laura Chrissis ’06. “They seemed very satisfied and content.”

Chrissis and Davis said they were humbled by the strong, loving Barreno family – with whom they enjoyed lunch, a game of Frisbee and exchanging gifts. Though they were offered food from a large buffet, the family took very little, illustrating the disparity between them and students from the United States.

“You get a sense of appreciation for what you do have,” Chrissis said. “Marvin’s family took just a bowl of soup and rice each. We helped ourselves.”

University Congregation had sponsored a girl in the Philippines for a number of years when members decided to sponsor a second child. Drawn to its emphasis on education, the congregation decided to go through Common Hope, a Minnesota-based organization dedicated to helping children and families in Guatemala.

“Education is the centerpiece to what Common Hope does,” Sepper said. Education in Guatemala is free, he said, but families have to pay for registration fees, uniforms, school supplies and books.

Common Hope helps cover these costs, making it easier for families to send their children to school. The sponsorship of $30 per month not only allows Marvin to go to school, but his brothers as well.

The organization also helps familyies with health care and housing and provides literacy and job skill courses for parents.

“For me it became overwhelming,” Sepper said. “To see how much it opens the door not only for Marvin, but his family.” Marvin, who is good at math, hopes to become a carpenter one day.

Visiting the family allowed the group to see just how far the congregation’s donations go, with $30 a month taking care of a family of six. “It seemed like the money we do spend does so much,” Chrissis said. “And yet, as college students we can afford to support them.”

It meant a lot to the Barrenos to meet the PLU group. “They were grateful that Marvin could go to school,” Sepper said. “And they were grateful that we would travel all that way to see them.”

“You could tell they were just so happy we were there,” Chrissis said. “Every single one of us got a hug as we left.”

Joining people who had traveled to Antigua from all around the world, the group participated in traditional Holy Week celebrations. “It was amazing to be there during Holy Week and see another culture’s celebrations,” Davis said. “There was a definite lack of Easter eggs and all that stuff.”

The group experienced Palm Sunday with beautiful palm bouquets that are blessed during service, watched processions and biblical plays, listened to sermons and roamed through a variety of street vendors.

Comparing the festivities to the Fourth of July, Davis said there is a definite tourist influence – with vendors selling everything from bottled water to cell phone covers. “It’s a national holiday for them,” she said. “Some of their culture takes it very serious, it’s a somber thing for them. For others it’s more a party day.”

Chrissis said her favorite part of the celebrations were the alfombras, or carpets, that cover the streets before a procession. Made out of colored sawdust and embellished with flowers, fruits and vegetables, the carpets feature beautiful designs including biblical scenes, toucans and flowers. After months of preparation, the carpets take anywhere from 10 to 20 hours to create – only to be walked on minutes later by a passing procession.

“It added so much color to the city,” Chrissis said. “The pure color of the country was captivating.”

There are three or four processions each day, with each one lasting four to 12 hours each. Around 80 men carry the main float, wearing different colored robes for different celebrations – purple for Palm Sunday and black for Good Friday – and stopping at corners to trade men. Similar floats carried by women follow. Tradition is so strong that children walk along side their parents in each procession, training to take their place when they come of age.

“I think we all came away with a rich experience,” Chrissis said. “We took the time to talk to people and see Holy Week through their eyes.”



© Scene 2005  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Summer 2005

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