A mission trip to Belize in May was a life-changing event for 11 Caldwell University students. Led by college president Dr. Nancy Blattner, her husband Tim and staff member Meghan Moran, the group spent eight days in Punta Gorda, Belize, serving families and children.
When members of the group arrived at their destination May 13, they were greeted by Father Lou McCabe, an American Jesuit, who assigned them to assist local carpenters in building a church in the village of Corazon Creek. The foundation had already been poured and eight pillars had been set. Their job was to help pour the remaining pillars, frame the structure, and construct the roof. That last task included putting up 11 handmade triangular support beams and applying zinc sheeting. They were on a very tight deadline. “Mass was to be celebrated in this church on Sunday, May 19, since that was Pentecost, and we didn’t want to disappoint the eight families of the village who would come or those who would arrive from much farther away either by walking or by bus,” Dr. Blattner said. So they immediately began the heavy lifting.
Each morning they awoke at about 5:30 to the sound of roosters crowing and the bells ringing at the church immediately across the gravel street from where they were staying. “After a simple breakfast of pop tarts or toast, some of us went across the street to morning Mass at 6:30. It was beautiful to worship with the local people, who greeted us warmly during the sign of peace,” said Dr. Blattner. Then they took off to the work site 32 miles from where they were staying. They arrived by 9:15 a.m.
Their days consisted of tearing down framing, putting up two by fours, and building ceiling trusses in the blazing sun, all with limited tools. “We only had two hammers,” said Julia Scarola, a senior art and psychology major. Since materials were scarce, Scarola and a friend looked for previously used wood and pulled nails out of that supply so they could reuse the materials. In between building, the Caldwell students took turns playing with the local children. They colored and drew with books and crayons they had purchased at a gas station. Other students took turns holding babies—“One of my favorite things,” said Selenia Vega, a senior and education major. Others took up a collection to purchase a soccer ball, toy cars, dolls and whistles for the children.
It was a thrill to see the joy the village children got from learning about cameras and iPhones that their new American friends shared with them. “Seeing that just a little thing made the kids smile and happy” made Vega realize “that life is so short and time here is not guaranteed.” There was such “simplicity of life,” said Scarola, who was struck most by “the love in that kind of culture” and how it is “completely different, very pure, so prominent” in their lives, especially since they do not have many people in their midst beyond their families and the other villagers.
By Friday evening, the members of the Caldwell group had met their goal. They had built the church. What a joy it was to attend Mass there on Pentecost Sunday with the local residents! “Everybody in the village was there,” Scarola said. It was wonderful to be able to see Mass celebrated “in the church we built and to know that we had given the people a place to worship God,” Vega said.
But the group accomplished something bigger than erecting the church, said Moran, assistant director of student activities and volunteer outreach. “Building the church was important, but even if we were not there, the locals would have built that church. The bigger achievement was the connections we made. Nothing compared to the joy and love our students received and nothing compared to the love and joy they gave in return.” She said the challenge for the students will be bringing what they saw and learned to their everyday lives.
One evening three college students planned a devotional to share their experiences. “They spoke of answering God’s call, discerning their vocation for service beyond their graduation, and their hope that they would never forget the impact of this experience,” Dr. Blattner said. They reflected on the Scripture verses they had heard in Mass, “We are the hands and feet of Christ” and “In your weakness, I am made strong.” “How powerful it was to see these scriptural passages coming to life each day in Belize,” Dr. Blattner said.
The Caldwell students formed bonds with those they served and among each other. At the beginning of the trip, some of the students hardly knew each other, but by the end they were good friends. Eleven special students had spent eight special days together and had learned many life lessons. “We all shared the same idea and concept—that we are here to change the world one step at a time,” Vega said. “You are put here to do things and called by God to do a lot of things. I am so grateful and thankful for everything I have.”