Brian Altenhofen

As part of my training to take vows as a member of the Society of Jesus, a.k.a. the Jesuits, I was missioned to Belize, Central America last December 3rd, the feast of St. Francis Xavier, and arrived in the country on January 2nd. I was sent here to learn about and live in a new culture. My superiors wanted me to work with the poor and gain some perspective of the circumstances of a third world country.
Within a week I found work to do at a primary school. St. Martin de Porres School in Belize City has 700 children and nearly 50% of the students are failing reading. I was given the daunting task of taking the five classes that struggle the most and do my best to catch them up with government standards. I am now three months into the job and am happy to say that I have seen improvement in nearly every student and have graduated four to resume English studies with their normal class. Now, four kids might not sound like a lot but I am not only teaching reading and comprehension to these students, I’m teaching them about life. There is a direct correlation with most of my kids between their struggles in school and the struggles they face at home everyday. Visit www.catholicchurch.bz
I will share with you the story of Jermaine. He is an 11 year-old boy who has been forced to repeat two grades. As I taught Jermaine there were clear signs that he was being abused at home. I asked him to stay behind after class one day. He gladly agreed and we began to chat and before I knew it he was opening up to me about how he is beaten nearly every single day with a large stick all over his body; about how he is often sent to school without breakfast or money to buy anything throughout the day; how his mother, father, and older brother all use drugs in the house; about his mother and father making him go buy their drugs for them; and about how he has been smoking weed and crack since the age of 5. This is one story of many I have encountered during my stay. And there is no where for these kids to go. The social services of this country are seriously neglected and because of this, the children and ultimately the country suffers as a result. Nearly everyday, I walk away from St. Martin de Porres heartbroken by the stories that are shared with me.
But not all tales are so grim. My favorite experience thus far was my stay in the Mayan villages. My weekend living with the Pop family was an experience that can only be pictured in a National Geographic. I was completely out of my element. As I trekked up and down the Mayan Mountains, wading through rushing rivers and struggling up mud-slick trails it dawned upon me that this was the perspective I was looking for. I stayed in a simple thatched hut. I slept in a hammock with chickens, pigs, and a horse roaming beside me. The married women went about their day topless. There was no electricity in the village so when the sun went down at seven o’clock there was nothing more we could do for the day accept go to sleep. Getting my eight hours of sleep I woke up promptly at three o’clock in the morning and stared into the pitch black for 2 hours waiting for the sun came up. Once it did come up I was lead back down the muddy trail to the river. And there, four Mayan men and I bathed in the chilly mountain river. For food I ate very well. Being the guest, I was always given the largest portion and a seat at the head of the table. I ate typical Mayan dishes of beans, tortillas, rice, and a rare portion of beef liver. The oddest meal I had was a dish called “Chicken Caldo.” Again, it is a simple dish, of an oily broth with chicken parts in the soup. Looking down into my bowl I was astonished to see three chicken feet floating in my dish. I didn’t say anything, only politely thanked my gracious host and waited for them to demonstrate how to locate and eat the meat off of a chicken foot. Allow me to explain, you take the chicken foot into your hand and then one by one you bite off the chicken’s toes, suck off the little meat that is on the bone, and then spit the bone onto the floor of the hut where the dogs happily share in the meal. This was an amazing experience, this family, like most Mayan farming families can not afford the hearty meat of a chicken and resort to the leftover chicken parts that most wealthy families do not eat. This was a microcosm of my entire experience. I gain a perspective I was sent to retrieve. We, as humans, can live a very simple existence. The family I lived with farmed for their food and only made about $200 a year. Yes, they were poor and very happy at the same time. I was struck by all the stuff that consumes our world and how many “luxuries” we have in our lives; the simplest things that are taken for granted, like carpeting, windows on a house, a stove, and of course the obvious, electricity, indoor plumbing, or common everyday appliances. My view of the world changed. I saw for the first time existence so foreign to the U.S. culture that it shook my core to work and feed these people with the Spiritual Foods of our Lord.
These stories are just a couple that have highlighted my stay in Belize as a Jesuit novice. Please, remember how blessed we truly are and I hope one day you will be given the perspective to recognize all we have as gift. A person doesn’t need to travel to a third world country to gain that. Thanks be to God.
Your fellow pilgrim,
Brian Altenhofen.

in