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Ohio congregation’s ‘Big Backyard’ welcomes Guatemalan neighbors


Journey of Hope

By Leslie Vogel | Mission Crossroads Magazine

Volunteer Brad Stephens, a member of FPC-Salem and former member of the session, conducted a science demonstration during the church’s summer program in 2017. Meta Cramer

Why would families leave Guatemala to work in a meat-packing plant in Ohio?

Members of First Presbyterian Church in Salem, Ohio, began asking that question as they met Guatemalan neighbors participating in games and other activities that the church sponsored on Wednesday evenings. The Rev. Meta Cramer was pleased that Guatemalan families, who make up about 8 percent of Salem’s population of 12,000, were attending FPC-Salem’s “Denise’s Big Backyard” summer program. The program is named for Denise Herron Weingart, a church elder who helped organize the event, which includes meals and Christian education. She died in 2014.

At that time, I was working with the Protestant Center for Pastoral Studies in Central America (CEDEPCA), a partner of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In my role with CEDEPCA, I assisted a seven-member team from FPC-Salem by designing a one-week intercultural encounter in Guatemala to help in understanding some of the root causes that have led to forced migration of Guatemalans from their homeland.

The team traveled to Guatemala in February 2017. Guided by CEDEPCA, they learned about the history, culture and current economic and political situation in Guatemala. They began learning why Guatemalans feel forced to migrate in search of safety and ways to feed and educate their children.

Jody Karmazin blows bubbles with young Guatemalan friends at Denise’s Big Backyard at First Presbyterian Church of Salem, Ohio. Jennifer Zamarelli

I also made a follow-up visit to FPC-Salem in June 2018, two weeks after an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid on the local meat-packing plant resulted in arrests of the primary wage-earners for many of FPC-Salem’s Guatemalan neighbor families.

The FPC-Salem pastor and church members took me to visit a local church where many compassionate members of the community were helping families fill reusable bags with donated food, clothing and household supplies. Those who spoke some Spanish, or one of 23 Mayan languages, served as interpreters. Other volunteers provided transportation. It was deeply gratifying to see this well-organized effort.

FPC-Salem’s Guatemalan neighbors have become their friends; children with whom they play in Denise’s Big Backyard; children who offer them hugs, affection and trust. The news of families being detained and separated on the U.S.-Mexico border now has new meaning for FPC-Salem, as church members connect with the names and faces of their Guatemalan neighbors.

There is now a small Guatemalan market in Salem where church members shop. Guatemalan families have brought life and economic activity to this aging Ohio town. Church members ask themselves what their lives would be like if their Guatemalan neighbors all disappeared due to deportations.

FPC-Salem’s journey to reach out to the community has taken church members into the world to learn more about their Guatemalan neighbors. Through reaching out, the people of Salem have learned to show, in more concrete ways, the love of God with and for their neighbors. They also have received gifts of love, trust and the energy of young lives in their community. They have literally gone from the neighborhood to the wider world and back again. And it is clear that life will never be the same.

The Rev. Leslie Vogel is a PC(USA) mission co-worker and regional liaison for Guatemala and Mexico. Leslie previously served as facilitator with the Intercultural Encounters program at CEDEPCA, the Protestant Center for Pastoral Studies in Central America. Support Leslie’s work in Guatemala and Mexico.

This article appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Mission Crossroads magazine, which is printed and mailed free to subscribers’ homes three times a year by Presbyterian World Mission.

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