This story was originally printed in The Catholic Advance, the official newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, Aug. 4, 2023.
The Rev. Sam Brand had to remember to speak English when he returned to the United States after studying Spanish in Guatemala for seven weeks.
“We were joking that when we returned to Kansas we were going to accidentally switch over to Spanish at random points,” he said. “When we were going through customs I kept responding with ‘si’ and then I had to explain, ‘No, no! I speak English, I promise!’”
Brand, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Arkansas City, was one of two priests, eight seminarians and two Newman University professors — assistant professor of Spanish Sonja Bontrager and adjunct professor of Spanish Cinthia López — who took part in the Guatemala Study and Serve Spanish immersion program. The other priest was the Rev. John Stang, the parochial vicar at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Dodge City.
The seminarians who took part were Nick Samsel, Luke Meyerhoff, Isaac Hilger, Kyle Demel, Joseph Mick, Peter Bergkamp, Paul Bergkamp and Grant Huslig.
They returned on Friday, July 21.
Newman’s program is an all-purpose, study-abroad immersion program with a focus on improving one’s ability to speak Spanish, Brand said.
The first week was spent volunteering at Labor Vieja (north of Guatemala City) with a mission group associated with the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, the founders of Newman. Other highlights of the trip included visits to Lake Atitlán in Santiago where Blessed Stanley Rother was martyred; study at Proyecto Lingüístico Quetzalteco de Español in Quetzaltenango; and visits to Antigua, Tikal National Park, the Mayan ruins and Guatemala City.
The Study and Serve program helps fulfill the mission of Newman to empower graduates to transform society.
“It was a privilege and joy to have the seminarians and priests with us,” Bontrager said. “It was especially gratifying to witness their communicative and cultural progress. Their commitment, beauty of character, humility and kindness were gifts to us all. I also learned more about their spiritual disciplines and prayer life.”
Brand explained that the students participated in hands-on work for churches, families and clinics.
“The big thing was clinics,” Brand said. “We did a lot of work for the free clinics that are supported by several organizations around the world, including the United States.”
After several days of manual labor, the group took a three-day vacation trip that included a stop at Lake Atitlán where Brand and Stang celebrated Mass in the room where Blessed Rother was martyred. They hit the books after they returned to Quetzaltenango.
“During the day we had one-on-one instruction with professors,” he said. “Then in the afternoon and the evenings there were activities designed to inculturate us, so to speak, to help us get to know the culture, the people and the virtues and vices of Latin America, especially Guatemala.”
The instruction included one-on-one tutoring, movies and documentaries and firsthand accounts from people involved in some aspect of Guatemalan society, such as the Mayans, the health care system and the country’s politics.
Brand was most impressed by the history and culture of Latin America and the hospitality. After learning about recent Guatemalan events, he said he understands why Guatemalans take the risk of bringing their families to the United States.
“They’re trying to build a better future for their families,” he said. “They were so incredibly welcoming down there — opening their homes and cooking extravagant meals that you knew they couldn’t afford. Then to counteract that with the way some of them are treated here. It was definitely enlightening. It gives insight as to why they do the things they do.”
Bontrager described the Guatemala Study and Serve experience as a “meaningful privilege” to walk with the participants in their life paths.
“Many others made this possible: Profesora López who arrived early and collaborated with remarkable devotion every step of the way, Dr. Adela Jauregui and the entire Sangre de Cristo Health Care team, Sister Dani Brought, ASC, who led and made possible the seminarians’ service week with the Sangre de Cristo Health Care Project and community, hotel owners who did so much for us through the months we were there, faculty and administrators at Proyecto Lingüístico Quetzalteco de Español language school and arts and humanities administrative assistant Rachel Lang who does so much behind the scenes. I am also grateful to the Diocese for their trust, and to colleagues and my family for their support.”
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