Establishing trust, lifting people from poverty

Scenes from a mission of service: Clara Tan and Zac Davis hand out fruit to the community of San Pedrito, Mexico. - Courtesy of Cross Sound Church
Scenes from a mission of service: Clara Tan and Zac Davis hand out fruit to the community of San Pedrito, Mexico.
— image credit: Courtesy of Cross Sound Church

Cross Sound establishes ties with a Mexican community.

Fourteen families were barely surviving on 2,000 acres no one wanted in Chiapas, Mexico. The village of Nuevo San Pedrito was like an island in an unfriendly sea of ethnically different neighbors.

But bridges are being built, starting with one from Bainbridge Island.

“We’re building trust and relationships,” said Roland Gonzalez, who is team leader of the project between San Pedrito and Bainbridge Island’s Cross Sound Church. “Our premise is, poverty stems from broken relationships – whether with neighbors, government, God or spouse.

“Poverty manifests as material, psychological or financial. What we’re coming to do is saying, ‘Look, we are here with you – heart and soul. We’re going to participate in your planning and fight for you.”

The Cross Sound congregation, part of the Presbyterian Church in America, recently embarked on a five-year effort with the people of San Pedrito through the coordination of the Seattle-based nonprofit Agros International.

Congregants have committed themselves to help the village pull itself out of abject poverty and move toward self-sustainment.

Agros, a faith-based organization, helps the rural poor of any denomination in Central America help themselves through land loans and training, and San Pedrito is its first project in Mexico.

Pastor Paul Schuler had visited San Pedrito on a tour of Mexico with Agros, and found conditions in San Pedrito “heartbreaking.”

“There are all these children. Without some kind of assistance it’s hard to see a future,” Schuler said. He was moved to add San Pedrito to other works the church is already doing in Mexico, “so they have options, so they are not stuck in poverty.”

But before help can begin, trust must come.

The people of San Pedrito are Tzozils, 100 percent indigenous people descended from the Mayans. Culturally distinct from the Mestizo, or Mexicans, few speak Spanish.

The families have been caught in the middle of a struggle between some indigenous groups that want independence from Mexico and a government that has clamped down on resistance.

Destabilized by political unrest, they fled their traditional homes in the highlands, where they had no hope of breaking out of poverty and owning their own land.

The land of San Pedrito is sandy, dry and unwanted, which is why the villagers were granted use of it by the government.

But after eight years, using tarps as shelter and with water a few kilometers away in the dry season, the villagers were at the end of their tether.

Building trust so villagers would accept help from outsiders was the first hurdle and the role of Cross Sound’s service team, which visited the village for a week in October 2005.

Gonzalez said that even if the team worked with villagers for five days, they could not expect to contribute much to improving infrastructure.

Their goal is not to proselytize, and in fact not all service group members are Cross Sound congregants. They don’t look for people with engineering or other expertise, but rather people able to “immerse themselves” and who have “psychological maturity.”

Finding team members is tough, Gonzalez said.

The team was not allowed to bring gifts, but “had to be ready to receive anything they give, because you’re empowering them, giving them dignity,” he said.

He recalled how the village had 35 chickens that were never eaten because their eggs are the only source of protein. For the visitors, the villagers slaughtered 10 hens for meat.

“It takes a real stomach,” Gonzalez said. “Psychologically, it’s hard. It takes a certain mindset.”

More than zero

Agros’ anthropologists cautioned the team at its orientation that the most they could hope to accomplish was “zero.”

The first trip was a “get to know each other” and at a superficial level at best. Agros’ “best village” took four years to establish a bond of trust, and San Pedrito was Agros’ first project in Mexico.

Perhaps it was that three of the seven team members spoke Spanish. Perhaps it was because the team was a mini-U.N. with Caucasian, black, Chinese, Malay and Mestizo heritages.

Or, perhaps it was because Gonzalez’s introductory speech to the San Pedritos pointed out that the world is not homogeneous, but a hodgepodge – which made the normally stoic Tzozils laugh.

But the Bainbridge group and families of San Pedrito took to each other quickly. In just five days, villagers were sharing their stories, sorrows and hopes.

For Gonzalez, the project was a convergence of reconciliation with his Mexican and Costa Rican heritage – which he had suppressed to be successful in the U.S. – and satisfying a yearning to serve others with his skills as project manager and experience working in developing countries with different cultures.

He also believes his family heritage helped facilitate the bonds that developed.

Both of his parents grew up very poor. Gonzalez’s Mexican father lived through the Mexican revolution and his grandmother was 100 percent indigenous. His mother’s father was also indigenous.

“I came to a point in my life where I had to reconcile my life with my roots. (San Pedrito) forced me to rediscover my mother tongue and where my heart and soul are,” Gonzales said.

The team centered its discussions with villagers on what they all had in common: family, community and faith.

Coincidentally, the Tzozils are also Presbyterian. Discussions were not about how to grow food, but loves, fears and family.

“We felt privileged, humbled and an enormous sense of satisfaction and pleasure in seeing (trust) could happen,” Gonzalez said.

Initial efforts focus on relief. For San Pedrito’s villagers, who cling to the lowest level of poverty in Mexico, future planning is in 24-hour increments.

“You have to get water before you can irrigate crops. You have to feed your family before you have the energy to do other things. They can’t think beyond putting food and water on the table,” Gonzalez said.

Running water from a distant spring began flowing to the homes of San Pedrito in mid-February with engineering by Agros’, labor by the villagers and funds from Cross Sound. A teacher now comes to the village to instruct the 40-some children.

Back home, Gonzalez is happy to be a spokesman for and spread awareness of San Pedrito and similar villages worldwide. A CD produced by the church, “Bainbridge Hymns,” introduces the story of San Pedrito.

“Any number of people will write checks, but that’s not what it’s about. Somehow God will provide checks. I will take one person (willing to go on a service trip) over a $10,000 check,” Gonzalez said. “You have to build healthy relationships, and it’s by building trust, by walking alongside people in their footsteps.

“When you have a problem, do you want somebody to solve it or just be there with you and listen? That’s where you do a lot of healing.”

* * * * *

Building bridges

For more information about Cross Sound Church’s collaboration with San Pedrito in Chiapas, Mexico or the Bainbridge Hymns CD, see or call 842-6898.

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