[This piece was originally published in the Lent 2011 issue of La Amistad, newsletter of the Amistad Catholic Worker.]
by Mark Colville
Father Tom Goekler arrived in Guatemala in 2008, after eight years in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where he had developed two very successful programs of outreach, advocacy and uplift for young people and their families: Caminando Por La Paz (Walking For Peace), and Jovenes En La Calle (Youth In The Street). Two of the Honduran young men who had passed through these programs and become leaders- Mario Torres and Odel Marin- accompanied Father Tom with the intention of replicating the programs in the barrios of Guatemala City. Their basic methodology and principles begin with a neighborhood-based communal lifestyle centered on nonviolence, prayer and the Eucharist, education and hospitality. As this lifestyle develops and deepens, community members begin to reach out to the surrounding neighborhood, invite others in, and provide an oasis of support and companionship to people and families in crisis. Leadership is developed with an emphasis on social transformation, beginning with the individual and extending outward to the neighborhood and beyond.
Upon arriving in Guatemala, they purchased a house that was no bigger than one-car garage, in a neighborhood known as Paraiso Dos, or “Paradise Two”, in the city’s Zone 18. Two years later they had built the house into a three-floor residence, hospitality and community center, complete with a classroom, library, five bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a beautiful chapel on the top floor overlooking the city and mountains beyond. (A group of us from Connecticut were on hand for the completion of the house’s construction, in April of last year.) They named the house after Monseñor Juan Gerardi, the martyred archbishop of Guatemala City who was killed in 1998 at the behest of corrupt forces opposed to his courageous work for human rights and defense of the poor.
Currently there are eleven people living in Casa Juan Gerardi, in addition to the many others who attend liturgies and make use of the facilities and services offered there. (A priest at a nearby parish has continued to celebrate masses in the chapel at the house since Father Tom’s passing.) All eleven members of the in-house community are on scholarships at area schools. In the absence of Father Tom, Mario and Odel have assumed increased mentoring responsibilities for the younger members. However, all are role models and agents of change in their neighborhood, all are accountable to the community’s principles, and all assume responsibility for the upkeep of the residence and its programs.
In deliberations on how to keep this ministry intact and growing, we have begun to identify some short-term and long-term goals. First, there is an immediate and urgent need for funding, both to continue the operation of Casa Juan Gerardi, and to ensure that those young people receiving scholarships through Caminando Por La Paz and Jovenes En La Calle can continue to attend school. Until now, these endeavors have been supported in part by a grant from Maryknoll, and by the fundraising efforts and personal sacrifices of Father Tom himself. Unfortunately, in the wake of Father Tom’s passing we’ve been informed by Maryknoll that they do not have anyone available to replace him. And, since Maryknoll’s funding is normally directed toward projects in which their personnel are directly involved, this means that the grant that Casa Juan Gerardi has been receiving from Maryknoll is being phased out as well. While we are hoping that this decision is not final, it is incumbent upon us now to make these programs financially independent of Maryknoll.
Mario Torres has provided us with comprehensive budget reports, which indicate that the cost of maintaining Casa Juan Gerardi’s operation is about $500 a month, or $6,000 a year. These reports further identify the combined cost of all current scholarships to be roughly $1,500 per month, or $18,000 per year. (This covers the scholarships, including books and school supplies, of 15 students: 9 in primary/secondary schools, and 6 attending university.)
Last year, Father Tom began the process of getting Casa Juan Gerardi incorporated; while this became complicated by his death, a lawyer in Guatemala has been assisting, and the process is now finally nearing completion. In the meantime, we have identified a local nonprofit organization- Comunitas, which is based in Manchester, Connecticut- that is ready and willing to receive donations for Casa Juan Gerardi, Caminando Por La Paz, and Jovenes En La Calle. Checks can be made out to “Comunitas/ Father Tom Fund”, and mailed to: Comunitas, PO Box 358, Manchester, CT, 06040. All donations will go directly toward maintaining and extending the reach of these programs in Guatemala. For those who might wish to consider taking on a specific aspect of the budget as explained above (for example, funding one scholarship or making a monthly commitment to pay a particular bill), we would be happy to provide some more detailed information.
This April, a group of adults and youth will again be traveling from Connecticut to Guatemala, to continue our collaboration with the folks at Casa Juan Gerardi. It is the fifth such visit in the past three years, and a vitally important aspect of our participation in the life of the community there. If you or someone you know might be interested in taking part in a future trip, we’d like to extend the invitation to contact us and learn more. People who have made this journey in the past are also prepared to make presentations on the experience to any and all interested groups, as part of the effort to raise awareness, participation, and the support needed to keep Casa Juan Gerardi going.
It is becoming ever more apparent that this is a critical moment for many people to whom Father Tom dedicated the last several years of his life. We ask you today to pray with us that each of their hopes and aspirations for a better future will be realized, and we ask you to consider what you might be able to do to make that future happen.~