High school mission teaches service, Guatemalan faith

The following story ran in the April 13, 2013 edition of the Arkansas Catholic and is reprinted with permission.

By Maryanne Meyerriecks Fort Smith Correspondent

CHARLESTON — When University of Arkansas Fort Smith Catholic Campus Ministry president Jennifer Verkamp returned from a trip to Central America last July, her parish’s youth director Veronica Frederick surprised her by asking her to make a presentation to the Sacred Heart Church youth group in Charleston.

"She told me she had been praying since March and really felt like God was asking her to take a group on a mission trip," Verkamp said.

Three high school juniors, one senior and Verkamp signed up to travel, each with a parent, to Esquipulas, Guatemala, during spring break March 18-24. They raised $10,000 hosting pancake breakfasts, potluck dinners, bake and cookware sales.

Verkamp, a Spanish major, traveled to Guatemala with Kathy Jarvis, a Benedictine oblate, and Sister Rosalie Ruesewald, OSB, of St. Scholastica Monastery in January to set up an itinerary, housing and service opportunities. The Abbey of Jesus Crucified in Esquipulas offered them hospitality and volunteer opportunities at its San Benito School, a school for children with special needs called Los Campiones and a local Franciscan orphanage.

Flying into San Salvador, El Salvador, the group was met there by Sister Peggy O’Neill, SC, director of an arts school, Centro de Arte para La Paz. She took them to the late Archbishop Oscar Romero’s home, the church where he was martyred and the cathedral where he is buried. They visited a Jesuit university and learned about six Jesuit priests who were murdered in 1989 and Cocopyao, a massacre site where a whole community of non-violent demonstrators was slaughtered. More than 75,000 people were killed in El Salvador’s civil wars from 1979 to 1992.

The group attended a harp concert at Sister Peggy’s school. Several of her young harpists are traveling to Canada to perform and raise money for the school’s programs in art, photography, music, theater and crafts. Students’ families invited group members over to make "pupusas," Salvadoran stuffed flatbread.

The group set out for Esquipulas, a three-hour trip, March 20. Their hosts, the Abbey of Jesus Christ Crucified, was founded by Benedictine monks from St. Joseph Abbey in Louisiana to care for the more than 2 million pilgrims a year visiting El Christo Negro, the shrine of the Black Christ.

"The people’s devotion was amazing," Tyna Burrows, who visited with her 16-year-old son Kyle, said. "6:30 a.m. Masses were packed, standing in the aisles. People came back from Communion, stopped and knelt down all over the place and nobody minded."

Los Campiones, where the group taught crafts and dance, gives disabled children an opportunity to attend school. At San Benito School, operated by the Benedictine monks, the group taught English to students, most of whom receive scholarship assistance.

Each afternoon, the group visited the local Franciscan orphanage.

"Everyone hit it off with kids," Verkamp said. "Language didn’t matter. Some of these kids were found in dumpsters; some had been abused. Some had parents who couldn’t care for them."

Local laws make international adoptions difficult, and the orphanages are full.

During their stay at the monastery, the group painted and refurbished the Stations of the Cross. As Holy Week grew near, they saw how central the stations were to people’s lives.

"On Friday evening, we made the stations of the cross in a procession through town with hundreds of people. We stopped and prayed the stations at homes where people had altars. Men and women carried a huge float with statues of Mary and Jesus carrying the cross," Verkamp said.

Sacred Heart would like to make the Guatemala mission trip a biennial event.

"Everyone really got a lot out of it," Verkamp said. "While it might not have seemed like anything major, it was our ministry of presence, that we’d been there, that we cared — a trip of seeking and learning, building awareness and seeing how the majority of the world actually lives."

Mission trip participants were Kathy Jarvis, Rena Miesner, Braylin Hughes, Tyna and Kyle Burrows, Veronica and Nikkole Frederick, Mark, Jennifer, Abigail and Brian Verkamp and Mary Adams.