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Man on a Mission

The Rev. Greg Schaffer has been serving with people of San Lucas for more than 47 years.

August 29, 2010
By Serra Muscatello, Staff Writer

SAN LUCAS MISSION, GUATEMALA - When the Rev. Greg Schaffer began his work at the San Lucas Mission in a community located in the West central highlands of Guatemala - called San Lucas Toliman- he thought he would be staying there for only five years.

San Lucas Toliman is known as the "place of much tule," meaning the reed used to make mats. The reed grows on the lake shores.

This coming October will mark the 48th year Schaffer has served the San Lucas Mission.

Article Photos

Fr. Greg Schaffer

Schaffer grew up in St. Paul as the second oldest child of 10 children. His father was a steam fitter who installed big oil and gas burners. Eventually his father was asked to move to New Ulm to be more centrally located for commercial oil and gas burners.

When Schaffer went to the seminary in St. Paul he came home during his summer vacations to work in construction. He also played on fast pitch softball league in his free time.

In 1960 he was ordained and he was then sent to Holy Redeemer Parish in Marshall. He spent most of his time there teaching.

"The Bishop wanted someone to go down for five years to Guatemala and return and then someone else would go," said Schaffer. "We're not prepared for that type of work. When you go into mission work, you go into someone else's culture - and someone else's home. I'm not there to tell the people how to live and act. We go there primarily to serve."

He said that the people he works with are the teachers - "I have to do the learning."

The Catholic mission is supported by the Diocese of New Ulm.

"We go there to listen, learn and respond to their expressed, felt need," said Father Schaffer. "The people think differently, act differently. It's always constantly learning, learning, learning."

When he arrived in Guatemala he began learning the Spanish language.

"It takes time - to learn any language," said Schaffer. "Like any skill you repeat it until you learn it or go bananas trying to learn it."

It took him three years to really learn the language. After he learned the language, he wanted to stay in Guatemala.

Schaffer said there are "different life ways that make up the global community." For each culture in the global community there are different forms of government and economics, different foods, language and dress.

In Guatemala one of the main resources the people have is their land and agriculture. They grow corn, bush beans, black pole beans, squash, and also coffee.

"They're the Mayan people who domesticated corn ... probably the tomato, turkey and maschove duck," said Schaffer. "They four-crop a piece of land - they have to contour the fields."

The farmers use 28-inch machetes and a 10-inch wide hoe for cutting weeds or for chopping and trimming trees and digging holes.

Crops are planted in a succession of bush beans and corn, then two to six pole beans are planted at the base of the corn stalks. In between these plants squash seeds are planted.

"It is a Mayan belief that tortillas made from corn raised on their own land will be better tasting and be more nutritious," said Schaffer. "Any Mayan woman will tell you that (their) corn will produce more tortillas per pound. One of the things that distinguishes a culture - is their food- that they grow their own food."

The farmers in Guatemala will also plant chilies, tomatoes, and avocados. Another well-known cash crop grown in Guatemala is coffee.

"They can produce the best coffee there," said Father Schaffer. "The coffee plants grow slowly ... with warm days and cool nights."

San Lucas Toliman's altitude is over 5,000 feet.

The mission has a little farm with a coffee processing plant.

There is also a nursery for reforestation trees.

Schaffer said an Integral Human Development Program is used as their guide- it is a Christian social doctrine. There are four main pillars of the program: 1) dignity of the individual (is one face of the "coin"), 2) common good (is the other face of the "coin"), 3) solidarity (means walking with the people - not in front pulling them, not behind pushing them, but walking with them) and 4) subsidiarys (when you are working with people and go up).

"Our people live in the process of poverty," said Schaffer. "They have prayed about it, hoped about how to get out of it, and they've thought a lot about it."

The programs at the mission are based around five basic areas: 1) Food - people receive assistance in buying land so they can produce their own food, 2) Shelter - so people can build substantial houses, 3) Medical assistance - a clinic/hospital exists that makes health care available at a cost the people can afford. Volunteer doctors and dentists come down to provide services and do surgeries. 4) Elementary school, and 5) Creating Work opportunities and skills for people (with work-on-the-job-training).

People can learn stone masonry, carpentry, welding, plumbing and electrical work.

People who have had problems with drugs, alcohol or gangs are invited to participate in on-the-job-training, said Schaffer. They have a chance to work with masters within the various trades.

"If they can stay clean for one year, they are offered a scholarship (through the mission) if they would like to study somewhere," said Schaffer.

There are five basic human rights we have because we are made to the image and likeness of God, Schaffer said.

"Work is the use of gifts from our Creator ... to work with our Creator in the continuation of Creation," he said, "that's a strong Mayan and Christian attitude."

Schaffer said there is a saying in Guatemala that goes like this, "abrir la brecha," which is Spanish for "open the pathway."

"When you see young people come and they're doing so well, you're just proud of them - you're grateful for being a part of how they're doing so well," said Schaffer. "We helped pave the way so they could make things better yet. We're putting the kingdom of God on earth."

Every day is a little different for Schaffer living in Guatemala. As a Catholic priest he leads at least one (or up to two to four) Masses each day.

The San Lucas Church is a Spanish colonial church built in 1594.

There are three priests at the San Lucas Mission. The mission serves 22 smaller communities surrounding the town's center. Each of these communities have its own church that the mission has either been involved in building or some other institution has built.

Some Mayan traditions of religion are celebrated in the Catholic Church and some are celebrated in their own cofradia (center building). Cofradia is like a confraternity of men and women who have carried on the traditions - both religious and civil ways of the Spanish influences and the Mayan influences in the Spanish culture for over 500 years.

The mission has changed in the nearly 50 years Schaffer has been serving there.

When he arrived the population of San Lucas (not the surrounding area) was about 7,000 people, now it is about 20,000 people.

Most of the homes were originally built out of corn stalks. Now they are built out of blocks.

The original elementary school had 80 to 100 kids (in four grades). Now, there are about 60 schools for elementary and secondary students with about 500 local teachers.

"We have a long ways to go to improve the education," said Schaffer.

On May 28 and 29 there were some very serious mudslides in San Lucas on the edge of town. There were 10 people killed. A family of five was buried alive.

About 300-400 houses were destroyed or covered with mud, said Schaffer.

The mission is trying to purchase land that is close to San Lucas on the West side. They need to build 332 houses for people now.

"There's some farm land that was severely eroded - so new land will need to be purchased with them and for them so they can raise their crops with a little more security," said Schaffer.

When he came back to the New Ulm area he planned to celebrate 50 years of ordination with his classmates, family and friends. He wanted to take a couple of months as a sabbatical as he spent time reading, praying and writing.

He has been trying to raise some funds to help rebuild in San Lucas.

Schaffer went back to Guatemala on Aug. 19 to get a first-hand look at the damage and then he will return to New Ulm to continue raising funds for the renewal procession San Lucas.



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