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So I recently had a surreal experience in the local community. A local woman had died and I was invited to the funeral (which is huge: people recognize us and feel comfortable with an outsider at a personal event). And so I went, morbidly curious and attempting to gain a deeper understanding of the culture. I arrived at the house where the body was being kept (embalming is not a thing here) and the plan was for the body to be carried from this house to another, then to the local chapel, before being finally taken to the grave. The men would be carrying the coffin the entire way as a sign of respect.
But, as so often happens in Guatemala, expectations don’t always meet reality and amidst the local mourners, children ran and played, and sitting in the center was the local drunk, thoroughly inebriated. I was shocked. My past taught me that funerals were a serious, somber affair that deserved the utmost respect. Certainly they’re not the place for laughing children and drunks… right? During the procession, while the women cried, the men chuckled at the stumbling and incoherent talk of the drunk man. It was accepted or tolerated or something. He was not forced away as I expected to happen at any moment. Eventually I moved him away from the pallbearers in fear that his stumbling would cause the coffin to be dropped.
Weeks after the event I still don’t know what to think. The contradictions baffle me. I thought I was well adjusted to this community and that I was close to a deeper understanding. Instead it served as a reminder to always be open to differences, to misunderstandings, and to the inexplicable. It also reinforces why FTF operates like it does: we are here as servants to gain insight and understanding. To be told how things work here, not be telling. This way, we might better help those that we serve.
I’ve been a teacher my whole adult life. I used to teach in the classroom, now I teach in the field. Of all the teaching moments that stand out, one stands out most. Back in the 90’s, after four years teaching in the Bronx, I realized something that would change my life. The teenage kids I worked with day in and day out never talked about love. Well, let me rephrase that. They talked about love all the time, if talking about sex is the same thing as talking about love. It was with one kid, a kid I’ll call Ralphie, that I came to realize that the one thing that my students needed to get right was the one thing they got wrong again and again. Not that they did wrong things. I mean, maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. You can judge that for yourselves. What they got wrong was this: They thought love was something purely personal. Ralphie thought that what he had for his girl was something only he could understand. The same went for his mother. He thought that the broken love between he and his mom something happening to him alone, something utterly unique, something like his very own fingerprint.
But of course, love is pretty much just the opposite. It is maybe the ONLY thing that we all have in common. In fact, it could be called, and has been called by many cultures from many epochs the source of humanity. The source of life. Love, as Tolstoy famously wrote, is “what all men live by.” And of course, he meant all women too. He meant all every-kinda-thing that dies.
Yet, for something so universal, my kids didn’t know a damn thing about it. Wait. I didn’t know a damn thing about it. And it struck me back then, in the Bronx, that no one in New York City knew a damn thing about it. And New York is really big. It was the most important conversation being had yet no one was actually having it. And as for us, the teachers, forget about it. None of us risked a teaching moment to delve into love. Sex talk was ubiquitous, love talk was like dirty underwear. What was going on?
Well, I’m not exactly sure what was going on, and what continues to go on, but I couldn’t take it anymore. I resolved to teach a class on the history of love. I’d call it The History of Love. But for many years no one was buying my History of Love 101 elective. Until Seacrest, a school down in Florida gave me a shot. And for eight years I taught this class, and for eight years I watched as the suburban kids pretty much thought about love as often and as confusingly as the kids in the Bronx. There was no difference. It was like we adults had hidden love in some plastic egg on Easter, and then jammed it in crawlspace under the furnace. About the only thing more toxic than teaching a course on love was teaching a course about religion. Kids were petrified, teachers bent over in fear.
Until they weren’t. Until they realized it was all they wanted to talk about.
And so it is that now, working as a teacher of a different sort, I’ve come to resurrect the notion of love in a VLOG. I just learned what a VLOG is by the way. I’m hip. Take a look at our new Love Vlog. It is an attempt to talk about the thing that we hope and pray animates FTF field workers, out there alongside the extreme poor. Doing it right is essential. We hope that love is the true metric of success. Furthermore, this VLOG is an attempt to get the conversation moving. We hope you like it. I hope you like it. I’m afraid of the crazy YouTube comments to come, but courage is the currency of the creative. So… let’s get rich and converse. Follow us at our YouTube channel here. Please like us if you like it. If you don’t, like us anyway. Is that even a thing? Is that allowed?
Peace to you. We don’t claim to have perfect answers on our Love Vlog. But we do claim that there is no more essential conversation than this one. It even beats out Trump tweets and CNN watch parties. It does. It must.
While most of our time is dedicated to building up the people in the countries we serve, re-imagining aid as a manifestation of love, and motivating others to create sustainable change, we recently took some time to reflect upon our organization. What we found was a dash of discord – sometimes our passion and our words failed to match our mission statement. And the logo? It was born in the earliest days of the organization. The simplicity of it served us well. We continue to love it and will use it creatively going forward. But we are no longer a fledgling organization, and the “kids around the globe” idea is, well, a tad too cute. And misleading. As with any coming-of-age story, we’ve noticed how gangly we’ve become when looking in the mirror. We are realizing a new us, a new identity of sorts. And so…
With the pro-bono help of the wonderful Dan Beltran, and the collaboration of all FTF staff, we are proud to present FTF’s ‘makeover.’ Our new logo and streamlined mission statement reflect the reality of our work and the vibrancy of our organization amidst the gamut of NGOs and non-profits. So without further ado… our new logo!
We are happy about Dan’s work (see more of his work here). In it we see joy and the patient growth of magnificent ideas, born locally, and sustained by community at the Kepi table. We love it; we hope you love it too.
In addition to a new logo, we also present our shorter, more attentive mission statement. It was harder to pin down than it looks. Marketing people actually work, it seems. Heck we almost gave up! But, alas, we think it finally got better.
Finally, we want to be held accountable. In turn, here is the FTF Core Values Statement. Think of this as a set of promises to you, our donors, and to the people we work with at home and abroad:
So. There it is. Our new look roll-out. Mostly though, we continue to do what we’ve always done: Get close to folks who suffer, share in their lives and in their hopes and dreams, assisting them in creating momentum for a life-well lived. We call it relationship. We think it is pretty simple. And we thank you for helping us along the way!
Abel is kind of a boss. And he looks great in a blue suit. After hearing our first Ancient Faith Radio interview, Abel offered his wonderful services as master of our website. So from here on out, if there’s anything wrong with the website you can blame him. Seriously though, this is an articulate dude who knows his stuff.
A few months ago, Abel decided to leave his comfortable corporate career to start a new journey in an attempt to live out limitless love as a servant. He maintains a spirit of directed curiosity with optimism and has fun while playing his part to drive humanity toward a brighter tomorrow. FTF is excited to have Abel and his mad web skills on board.
We met Allie when she turned up in Guatemala on a trip to visit our work and the orphanage in Amatitlán. Her group had a lot of energy, but Allie was like an atomic bomb of excitement. Turns out she’s also an atomic bomb of ideas and now she’s applying many of those ideas to our work and our presence on the world wide web.
Allie is a junior at Loyola University Chicago, where she is studying International Affairs, Spanish and Chemistry. She currently works as a pharmacy technician. She has lived in the Spanish Basque Country, studying Spanish language and culture while tutoring three children. Allie has helped out at the First Things site in Momostenango, Guatemala, and plans to continue service work abroad in the future.
We hope you don’t graduate too fast because we love having you around!
We take our work seriously. Reilly Dooris has been in Guatemala for more than a year. He has just been tested by ALTA and guess what, Reilly speaks Spanish at an ILR level 3. He began a zero. A zilch. His level 3 means the State Department would hire him in Spanish speaking countries. Go boy. He is getting good at K’iche’ too, the local Mayan dialect. His immersionship has served him well. His community actually thinks something of him. That’s nice, don’t you think? We do.
But there’s more to this little gig we call First Things Foundation. The other thing we do is use our deep immersion process to uncover and identify brilliant local people and their brilliant ideas. By living alongside the suffering poor we can with confidence verify and develop potential game changing ideas. We can offer social networks, marketing and investment strategies to local people who would never have such access. And that’s exactly what we are doing. Meet Adolfo. He is awesome. He is an FTF Impresario. He is an innovator and above all he is a lover of the people he calls community. Our hope is to shine a light on his work and to help him get momentum for his project. Check it out. Soon we will have investment options and a full profile for Adolfo. Our phase II is beginning. It’s exciting.
Poor ≠ Dumb. Project based learning isn’t just for the classroom. It is for real life. #StopaidStartpeople.
As a field worker in Guatemala I am often caught sitting on the fence between familiar comforts and the unknown. Here’s an example of what I mean.
I stood there with my shirt off, shivering slightly from the evening breeze that found its way down the 127 steps leading to the local sulfur baths just outside of Momostenango.
“Man, I’m white,” I thought glancing up from my glaringly pale skin and alongside a much browner contingency of local inhabitants. I’m the kind of white that skips the entire tanning color spectrum and goes straight to red when caught in the sun for too long. I am white even by really white-people standards. So to have my white belly flashing innocent bathers with no regard for their general well-being was almost offensive – like I had just turned on the light during a relaxing sleepover.
“Why did you have to bring that thing down here?” their eyes seemed to say, squinting still from the glint of my marshmallow skin.
These kinds of stares never go away in Guatemala, and they never really grow on you either. People are curious about who the outsiders are – the mu’s. Usually I get these stares when I have all my clothes on. So to be partially nude and emitting approximately 6,000 lumens from the glow of my polished ivory torso would have shaken even the most resilient of foreigners. Luckily, I had some Russians by my side, our friends who run the local medical clinic up the road. They’re the kind of people who don’t have preoccupations with doing things that most people might consider different, forward, or “dangerous to your health”. They often provide the push I need to tumble down unceremoniously on the ‘unknown’ and ‘uncomfortable’ side of my fear fence, in this case shivering with my shirt off and 100 pairs of eyes on me.
“Come on, let’s go,” Vika said, starting to dance out of the breeze and climb down the rocky descent into the overcrowded baths.
I looked onto the mass of people below and realized this place was not just for hanging out and chatting like I thought, but rather was intended for actual bathing. Soap, shampoo, scrubbing one another down, the lot. I immediately felt embarrassed to be there. Like I was watching something private – intruding on something I wasn’t invited to. This wasn’t the recreational hot water dip the Russians and I were looking for. We didn’t belong here.
“Reilly, come on already,” Vika pleaded again from below.
As I stood there contemplating my next action, I thought back to a quote from Gregory David Roberts’ novel Shantaram: “Tomorrow, when you go to the village, try to relax completely, and go with the experience. Just….let yourself go. Just surrender, no matter what you find there.”
Focusing hard to ignore the stares that lingered on my half-naked body, I followed Vika and Karina down to the sulfur pools where they had already squeezed in next to a middle-aged man. Just before stepping into the shallows, I hesitated for a moment, listening to the doubt ringing in my ears. “The water is dirty, this place isn’t for you, no one wants you here anyway.”
I considered these for a moment, then shoving them to the back of my mind with all my might, I said nearly aloud, “so be it.” And just like that I was submersed in the near-boiling sulfurous spring water.
As soon as I got in, it was though a weight had been lifted. Everyone stopped staring and went back to bathing, laughing, and playing. A man close-by shook my hand, asked me my name, and passed me a palangana, so that I too, could begin to wash myself with the steaming water.
“See, its not so bad,” Vika jested, as I waded over to them.
As I looked around, I realized that these baths were a place to socialize. The women chattered with each other, washing their children in time, while the men sat half-sunk in the baths, joking and talking about their days. This is exactly where we needed to be – bathing with the city’s poor in the place where they come to clean themselves and socialize with one another.
While living here, sometimes the best thing to do is just to let go, to silence my Western mind, and surrender myself to Guatemala and her people. In submersing myself in the water, I immersed myself in Guatemala. Only by washing and bathing with our local Momostenangan community can we ever hope to become a part of it.
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When I first moved here, to this strange land, a place where I didn’t know a single soul, I was justifiably nervous. Who would I meet? How would I communicate? What would I say?These thoughts raced through my mind and they still surface now and again. It’s a natural reaction moving from a place of security to a place unknown. But recently, those worries and fears have started to fall away. Guatemala is changing…
I just came back after leaving the country for a bit – what we call a visa run. Arriving back in Momostenango, I said to myself “I’m home again.” It feels familiar; the tienda that sells the best chips, the traffic cops, the obnoxious exhaust plumes from passing buses. It’s all…comforting, yet it’s only half the story. I know its been said time and again, but it really is the people that make it home, the people who make a place a place. And pulling up along that dusty road, hugging again the people we live with, sharing our stories, the mundane goings on, well, all of this is my life now. All of it is somehow just like any other part of the world. And so a certain weight has been lifted. Sure, I still don’t have the answers to everything, but I have one crucial component to making this all work. I have a home with people I can call family.