The task facing the La Sierra University Pre-Medical Society last fall was daunting — take an annual mission trip to Guatemala that provides badly needed aid, spiritual connection, and compassionate outreach and reproduce it all online.
For 16 years the society, a student club of La Sierra University led by associate biology professor Eugene Joseph, has spread the love of Christ in Guatemala each Christmas break by distributing food and shoes to those in need, bringing toys and friendship to sick children, praying with families, providing hands-on assistance such as vaccinating farmers’ livestock, and helping medical and dental professionals care for hundreds of patients in rural areas.
It was all upended this school year. The global COVID-19 pandemic threw a curve ball into the plans of university missions and outreach including the annual Guatemala trip. With foreign travel suspended, the pre-medical society decided to brainstorm ways of continuing their work in Central America where suffering has been compounded by the impact of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the illness dubbed COVID-19. During an early October video conferencing call between Joseph, pre-medical society president Kay Kim, and Guatemalan contacts and Adventist church members Sergio Ortiz and Manuel Argueta, it was decided the club would forge ahead with a virtual mission activity, a feat that would require significant coordination and planning. Club leaders emailed an invitational application to the campus and ended up with a team of 25 students led by nine club officers.
The group held an online fundraiser in January and, together with funds from the club, brought in $3,800. Ortiz, Argueta and their contacts used the money to purchase 48 pairs of children’s shoes and 2,100 pounds of food to provide 60 large food bags containing black beans, red beans, rice, sugar, corn flour, cooking oil, soups, and noodles. They also bought items for 40 gift packages for children at the Casa de San Jose AIDS hospice that included brightly-colored blankets, baby wipes, baby shampoo, soap and purchased other items for nursing home resident care packages.
Usually La Sierra students and faculty personally deliver food and shoes to grateful families, play fun games with children at the hospice, and form friendships with Guatemalans in various communities. This year, students had to find a way to bring that experience home in spite of the 2,720-mile distance. They organized a three-session Sabbath virtual mission “trip” streamed online Feb. 13, 2021, via Zoom video conferencing, which allowed audiences in the U.S. and Guatemala to witness members of three Seventh-day Adventist churches and missionary students receive bags of needed food and boxes of shoes under pandemic safety protocol. Safety concerns required the gift packages for AIDS hospice children to be delivered separately.
The virtual donation event was preceded by a morning church service and followed by online children’s activities in the afternoon. All together the three online sessions, organized and presented by La Sierra University students and the pre-medical society, attracted a total of 179 viewers. Activities included praise songs in Spanish, presentations about the students’ lives in California, children’s songs in Spanish, a science experiment, arts and crafts, and a short lesson with games in the evening.
“We decided to have this virtual trip in hopes of being able to continue our mission work in Guatemala,” said Kim, a senior biomedical sciences major. “Our club was also aware of the lack of community and so through the trip, we wished for students to feel connected with one another by providing group work that made the virtual trip possible in the end.”
Kim and club vice president Uylae Kim directed the virtual trip and its activities, which Kay described as a “marathon” of planning and coordination between nine participant sub-groups and with Ortiz and Argueta in Guatemala. “All communication with our Guatemala hosts were through online platforms and it was also the feeling of the unknown of what was going on in Guatemala.
“Another hurdle was making sure all of our 34 participants were on board with their own tasks and that they were fully aware of the project deadlines and the trip itinerary,” she said. “The way we overcame these hurdles was to make sure we took the time to have effective meetings and communication using presentations. However, what truly allowed the virtual trip to be successful was the work ethic and outstanding teamwork of all nine sub-groups. This trip was successful because of them and we cannot thank them enough.”
Ortiz attends the Seventh-day Adventist church in San Cristóbal and Argueta attends the Dimensión Profética Seventh-day Adventist Church in Guatemala City. Both have numerous contacts within their churches and with local agencies and are instrumental in helping the pre-medical society conduct its outreach. This year they shopped for food products, shoes, and items for the hospice patients and organized donation events. “Despite the health and economic difficulties that we have faced worldwide, we find young philanthropists who, without knowing about low-income families in other countries, take their time and give it without expecting something in return,” Ortiz said of the La Sierra students. “Thank you for what you do for our people in Guatemala. God bless you and prosper you in everything you do. Hands that give, they are hands that will not remain empty.”
Joseph has organized the annual mission trips to Guatemala since 2004. Together with assistant biology professor Arun Muthiah and associate biology professor Arturo Diaz he helped guide the online Guatemala experience. “As I compare the ‘in-person’ trips from past years to the virtual trip this year, I was able to sense the same spirit of gratitude and an overwhelming sense of being remembered by the people that we touched,” said Joseph. “The students were also impacted by the virtual reception we received and by how we were able to truly be the hands and feet of Jesus even during the pandemic.”
For Kim the unique experience of carrying out an online mission trip proved impactful beyond expectation. “I got emotional after seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces while each one received their shoes and when the parents expressed their gratitude after receiving their food bags,” she said. “After the virtual trip was over, I realized how blessed I was to have this opportunity to help serve others. Never did I connect so deeply with Isaiah 43:2: ‘God will carry you through the storm and give you the strength to make it.’”
— Darla Martin Tucker is director of public relations for La Sierra University; this article originally appeared on the La Sierra University website.