When Fr. Josh Mayer first visited Guatemala in 2012 as a seminarian, he was on a simple mission to speak better Spanish. The Diocese of Gallup sent him and two classmates to learn by immersion, and then to bring their improved language skills back stateside for use in their future priestly ministries.
For Fr. Mayer, living with the people of Guatemala left a permanent imprint on his heart.
“I loved it down there and I’ve been back every year of my priesthood in one way or another – usually some kind of mission work,” he says. Soon, love for the country would spread to his parishioners back home in New Mexico.
In 2017, two years after his ordination, a fellow priest from Denver told Fr. Mayer about a school he’d visited in Guatemala in the village of Antigua, called Escuela Integrada. The school is non-denominational Christian but primarily ministers to Catholic families, in an effort that Fr. Mayer says stands in contrast to some inter-Christian religious tensions in the country.
“So if a Catholic would say something to a Protestant – you know, ‘Jesus loves you’ – then there would be a distrust there,” Fr. Mayer said. “And a lot of people on the staff are finding that as Christians, non-denominational Christians, if they talked about God’s love, the resurrection, whatever, with their Catholic students sometimes there would be some distrust.”
To remedy that, the school invited Catholic priests – Fr. Mayer and his friend among them – to visit the school and the local, mostly Catholic families.
“The experience [at this one] was so positive and we all got along well. It just seemed really clear that the invitation from the Lord was to work with Escuela Integrada. The relationships that I developed with the school community when I was down there were so strong so quickly,” Fr. Mayer recalls.
Back home at his parishes – St. Rose of Lima in Blanco, NM and St. Mary in Bloomfield, NM – Fr. Mayer introduced the idea of a partnership with the Guatemalan school to his parishioners, who embraced the idea.
“So we entered into the mission partnership with them and brought our first parish group down this year. We just had a blast.”
Escuela Integrada had provided the option for anyone to sponsor a student through its website. The first year of the partnership, the school introduced classroom sponsorships, and the New Mexico parishes chose to sponsor each year’s Kindergarten class.
“Starting with kindergarten, it’s really an easy way to get to know everyone at the school. God willing, if we’re still involved in nine years when they graduate – graduation there is after ninth grade – then we’ll have known those kids since they started at school, and what a beautiful thing that will be,” Fr. Mayer said.
Each child is already sponsored on an individual level by other donors. So every month, St. Mary and St. Rose parishes send money to the Guatemala school to cover the salary of the Kindergarten teacher and the cost of any school supplies or field trips. In January, the parishes also arrange an annual trip where interested parishioners can visit Guatemala, the school, and the families who send their children there.
“That trip, that annual trip, is primarily relationship building,” Fr. Mayer said. “We do go out and we visit homes, we bring some food bags when we go to different people’s houses, most of our families at the school live in real poverty. This time, we paid for and installed wood-burning stores in three different homes. We brought at least one water filter.”
If the families are Catholic, they often request blessings from the priest. Some families are Protestant, and others follow Indigenous and Mayan traditions. But regardless of their religious beliefs, each family is provided with the same access to education and resources.
“Really the primary purpose is to know the people that we’re in this partnership with already. We already support the school monthly and we sponsor that kindergarten class,” Fr. Mayer said. “So we just want to be friends and know the people that we’re serving and let them into our lives as well so that when we are thinking about the school or praying for them, we know the people we’re praying for.”
Christina Sabol, a parishioner at St. Mary and St. Rose, accompanied her son on the January visit to Guatemala.
“Realizing, through education, we can uplift different generations of people, and that’s why [Fr. Mayer] chose to make our goal at the parish to support this school,” Sabol said. “This is a great and lofty goal, for us to help the people of Guatemala in education and through these young people. And I really see this being something that is a great start for our parish.”
She recalls the friendliness and professionalism of the school’s staff and students.
“The kids were so cute – at recess, the second the bell rang, they ran and put up their toys and then ran to their teachers and went straight into the classroom. You could tell the children were very happy to have the opportunity to play and they were disciplined…straight into the classroom and ready to work again.”
As a priest of the Diocese of Gallup – arguably the poorest in the United States – Fr. Mayer sees no conflict between sponsoring a Guatemalan school while also finding resources for his local parishes.
“The teaching that we have from the Church is that we give out of our necessity and not out of our surplus,” he said. “One of the ways that we actively trust Jesus and engage in the life of the spirit that He’s welcomed us into, is that we give to those in need no matter what the cost, and we’re not always making sure that we have enough first and then just giving the leftovers to others.”
Sabol agrees with her pastor, describing her family’s “global view” of giving to causes inside and outside of their local community.
“We realize that we’re super blessed here, both to be an American citizen and to have the finances to go outside of ourselves and to look in different directions, and there’s many needs out there.”
As he reflects on the partnership, Fr. Mayer recalls an exhortation from Pope St. John Paul II. Perhaps he is thinking of Redemptoris Missio, in which the pope called on all peoples of the Church, no matter their level of spiritual and material wealth, to be authentic missionaries for Christ:
“Sharing in the universal mission therefore is not limited to certain specific activities, but is the sign of maturity in faith and of a Christian life that bears fruit. In this way, individual believers extend the reach of their charity and show concern for those both far and near. They pray for the missions and missionary vocations. They help missionaries and follow their work with interest. And when missionaries return, they welcome them with the same joy with which the first Christian communities heard from the apostles the marvelous things which God had wrought through their preaching.”