A few nights ago, Andrew and I returned home to our rural mountain village after a long week of traveling. It was Wednesday night, and our traditional beef and potato stew was brewing on the kitchen stove top. Delicious fumes wafted through the foyer, and we were giddy to sit down with the delicious weekly dinner we loved so much, accompanied by a piping hot cup of Mayan hot chocolate.
As we sat and ate, we were visited by Moises, our host uncle who lived a stone’s throw away from our house. We greeted one another in the usual fashion, shaking hands and asking how each other’s weeks had unfolded, commenting on the strength of the cold all the while. The casual conversation turned to the local health clinic up the road.
Andrew and I are good friends with the clinic. They were the people who invited us to take part in their very first medical jornada in the village, a year and a half ago. They introduced us to leaders in the community, which led to an invitation for us to work and live in Chuinajtajuyup and has been the basis for all our work in the community today. We helped them with the construction of the clinic and various community projects, and they invited us to meals and Saturday night movies in return. We thoroughly enjoy the clinic community, and although we have different methods and missions, our shared experiences in the Guatemalan outback, both good and bad, have created a unique bond and friendship that we would not soon break.
The clinic was a common topic of conversation in the community, and Moises’ question of whether there were new volunteers there was nothing but cordial – a simple way to keep the conversation going.
The next thing he said was not unexpected either. Taking his thumb and pointer finger, he formed it into the shape of a “U” and put it against his chest, in the commonly understood symbol for money, or “pisto” in Guatemalan slang.
“Pero, allí la jefa gana mucho dinero ¿ verdad?”
But over there, the boss makes a lot of money, right?
The topic of money is a pervasive one in rural Guatemala. Often money is brought up as a joke with a biting edge to it. When Andrew and I return from the occasional trip back to the United States, our village friends and neighbors will ask if we brought them a suitcase of money or a new car, laughing and smiling while doing so. We’ll reply saying if we had it, we would give them twelve suitcases. Even though jabs like these are merely intended to highlight the predominant stereotype that all Americans are wealthy, sometimes they feel less like jokes and more like accusations. You have money. We don’t. How about you bring us some?
I responded to Moises:
“Tiene suficiente dinero para vivir. Como para pagar su comida, cuidar por los voluntarios, proveer medicanmentos, y pagar la luz y agua.”
She has enough money to live. Like to pay for food, care for the volunteers, provide medicine, and pay the electricity and water.
“Bueno, para vivir sí. Pero, seguramente ella esta ganando mucho por ser la jefa. Ella maneja las donaciónes, entonces siempre hay dinero por ella.”
Well, to live, yes. But she is definitely getting a lot of money because she is the boss. She handles the donations, so there’s always money for her.
Andrew and I could feel the blood starting to boil in our bodies. We know the operations of the clinic well, and the director of the clinic is a good friend of ours. One of our best friends in fact. We speak about money often with her, and we know just how strapped the clinic is for cash. We know that her organization has all clinic volunteers pay their own way and only in exceptional circumstances do they pay their volunteers a small salary. As far as their patients go, they charge the absolute minimum for consultations and medicines, sometimes at 1/100th of the market price in Guatemala.
“¿Toda la gente en la comunidad creen este sobre de ella?”
Does everyone in the community believe this about her?
“No sé si creen este, pero todo el mundo sabe.”
I don’t know if they believe it, but everyone knows it.
“¿Y la comunidad cree eso sobre de nosotros también?”
And does the community believe that about us as well?
“Tal vez no de ustedes, pero seguramente de tú jefe, porque él está manejando el dinero, y por eso está ganando.”
Maybe not about you guys, but definitely about your boss because he is handling the money and is therefore making some cash.
I turned to Andrew, absolutely gob smacked. My initial anger at “the people’s” beliefs about the clinic redoubled when I heard these accusations about our own organization’s director, John Heers. Really? John Heers? Takes money intended for the poor and uses it for his own personal benefit? The guy who is unbelievably committed to Christian Orthodoxy and talks about FTF as a mission to save his soul? The temptation to argue was overwhelming.
The shots taken at John hit Andrew and I as well. It was not only that I, from my bones to my brain, wanted to be known as a good man, but it was that the things Moises was saying were objectively untrue. They were simply and spectacularly off the mark. How could he believe that an organization whose singular mission was to help the poor, was also funneling money to themselves for personal benefit? How could he distrust us so much?
The Western side of my brain – the side that was forged in the furnaces of American culture and an engineering education – kicked in. What if we just showed them our books? What if we just opened up our accounting records to the community and they could look and see that we were honest? That we were using all of our donations for exactly what we had said they would be used for?
This argument fell to pieces as I realized that facts and evidence were not important to Moises. His 44 years of life experience in Guatemala had crumbled his willingness to trust in authority.
There it was. Trust.
My paradigm of non-profits was to inherently trust them. His was to inherently distrust them. My experiences told me that people who worked for non-profits had integrity and were oriented toward social goals. Moises’ experiences in rural Guatemala told him that authority figures in non-profits shamelessly took money from their donors and created a profit machine.
We had heard this narrative once before. A few weeks ago, our host father had told us that he might consider starting an NGO, because everyone knows that non-profits make a lot of money from donations. And he did not mean that the “lots of money made” would then be put toward the non-profit’s mission, but rather that the “lots of money made,” as everyone knew, would be pocketed by the organization’s executives and used in whatever manner they saw fit.
My anger slowed as I realized that Moises’ accusations were not meant to be harmful or inflammatory. Rather, he was stating his beliefs about the way the world worked. Everyone knows the director is making a lot of money from the clinic. She is the boss. She handles the donations. That’s how it works.
My anger gave way to sadness.
To live in a world in which every man, woman, and child’s incentives hinge on the presence of money is bleak and unjoyful. It is a world void of humanity. My sadness grew as I began to see the world with Moises’ eyes.
Although Moises statements were untruthful, they had a hard truth to them. A different kind of truth. Guatemala’s history is a tumultuous one. In a country where many, if not the majority of its leaders, have disappointed its citizens through corruption, money laundering, bribes, and stealing, it is hard for any person to respect, trust, and believe in any sort of authority figure. When all Moises has seen is the unapologetic shuffling of money into executive pockets, how can he not believe that this is the way the world works? That all people work this way? Forget ought’s and should’s, this is the way it is. Moises was just a product of his rural Guatemalan culture and experiences.
My sadness gave way to understanding.
When one has encountered so much corruption, distrust, and disappointment in those who control money, one can only start to believe that all human beings will act this way. Money will motivate. Money will influence. Money will corrupt. To believe anything different is just naïve.
So, what now?
Now, we keep loving people. We meet them where they’re at and we continuously strive for understanding over anger. We try to think of ways to shock people with how different we are. We strive for complete vulnerability, giving without receiving, open generosity even without gratitude, and open trust – even at the expense of being taken advantage of.
Only in this way can we achieve anything. Only in this way will Andrew and I ever become better men, and only in this way can we have a chance at changing a long-entrenched paradigm of distrust. Only in this way can we rediscover our humanity, our vulnerability, and our ability to trust one another.