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Latin American team works and learns in New Orleans

Cathryn Clinton
March 17, 2008

After seeing the effects of tropical storm Stan in her country, Guatemala, the hurricane damage in New Orleans did not surprise Bernardo Rojas.

What did surprise Rojas and most of the other participants in the Latin America work and learn team was that in a country with so many resources, there was still so much work to do, not only in physical buildings, but also in the lives of people.

"We are all vulnerable," Jessica Deras López of Honduras said after seeing New Orleans. "It doesn't matter what we have."

Along with three other Hondurans and five Guatemalans who work with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) partner agencies, Deras López worked for one week alongside volunteers from the United States and Canada in Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) housing projects in New Orleans.

In the second week, the group visited the devastated areas of Pass Christian, Mississippi, visited Anabaptist churches in the New Orleans area and met with MCC workers Tim Barr and Monica Barba to hear and share ideas about their work in Gulf Coast recovery.

They also met with Pam Nath, MCC listening and discernment worker in New Orleans, who shared about the efforts of local people to bring about a more full and just recovery. In addition, they visited the New Orleans Worker's Center for Racial Justice.

Although some members of this team had worked on hurricane, work projects in Honduras and Guatemala, this visit to a disaster area in the United States was a first time for them. They had seen images of New Orleans before they came, but their expectations of what they would encounter were varied.

Pedro Hernández Soto expected to see complete devastation with people living in temporary tent cities, but Rojas expected that everything would be pretty and finished with people back on their feet.

During the first week, the teams divided into four crews and went to different houses. They repaired siding, painted, sanded, and put up dry wall. They also installed a sprinkler system and did clean up work in some of the houses.

Noé Galván saw the value of teamwork in a new way in his work with MDS. The crew members worked well together even though they didn't know each other and had to use translators to communicate.

"Teamwork [is] a way to show the Holy Spirit at work," Galván said. "It will be visible in the community."

From their own experiences with hurricane damage, members of the Latin American team were able to pass on messages of hope to the people they visited and assure people that they were not alone in their struggle.

Hernández Soto, a Honduran Mennonite pastor, was especially concerned for the children and youth in the churches. From his experiences, he had seen how hurricane trauma affects children by causing them to associate all events with the crisis. Hernández Soto shared with the pastors how his church had been able to help children return to daily events and normal routines.

In a meeting with MCC and MDS representatives, group members shared their impressions of disaster response in New Orleans and their countries.

In both the U.S. and Honduras, Deras López noted, "the people who suffer the most are the poor and also people from different racial and ethnic groups."

Deras López, a representative from Mennonite Social Action Commission in Honduras, said after a disaster the Honduran government often promises incentives for people to resettle somewhere else. People in need may follow the government's urging so they will have something rather than nothing, but often they have a strong longing to remain at home.

In the small town of Pass Christian, Miss., she noticed a similar attachment. "Maybe they have economic difficulties in buying a new home. But this is not just any house, it's their home and generations have lived there, and children have grown up there too," she said. "This makes it difficult to think about leaving."

Several group members related stories of how churches and residents in their own countries worked alongside each other to rebuild not only homes but vital communities.

In Honduras, for instance, people from several neighborhoods were relocated to a new, rocky land after Hurricane Mitch. Irma Dinorah Molina Galeas recalled how committees on issues such as health and security created space where people could relate to one another. "Because people helped create community, they felt this was home. We were not only rebuilding homes, but also creating capacity," she said. "Now after three years the community has schools and preschools that they have built with their own hands and through community leadership."

Members of the group noted the differences between the state of New Orleans' French Quarter and the Lower Ninth Ward. They pointed out that they were struck by the sight of people living in tents under a freeway and asked what MCC and MDS are doing for those who are not homeowners.

Saulo Benjamin Joromocoj Guzmán, who works in a western Guatemalan area hit hard by Tropical Storm Stan, wondered why the U.S. had not accepted some aid offered by Latin American countries such as Cuba and Venezuela. "Guatemala would always accept an offer like this. Is this about pride?" he asked.

In both Guatemala and the United States, when government doesn’t provide what people need, church institutions are stepping in, reaching out a hand to communities.

"I believe we are all people of God practicing what Jesus taught," Joromocoj Guzmán said. "We want to dignify people. We are looking to help people recover so their lives are better than when the disaster happened."