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Home > Articles > The Guatemala Project

The Guatemala Project
Ruth O'Neill

The Guatemala Project is a mission affiliated with the Southern California United Methodist Church to help the indigenous Mayan people improve their quality of life. We go to Guatemala twice a year and install fuel-efficient wood-burning stoves to lessen smoke inhalation, help with construction projects, and provide scholarships. When I went the first time in 2012, we visited a school in Camanchaj supported by the Project. The principal told us, "We do quite well providing a well- balanced curriculum, except for music." "Hmmmm," thought I. "I wonder if I could teach handbells to the children."

At our next handbell festival back in Area XII, I approached the Jeffers booth and asked if they would be willing to donate handbells to this endeavor. They graciously agreed and donated two complete sets of color coded children's handbells. 

By the next time I visited, I had transcribed about 9 color-coded songs onto chart paper. Our class was composed of only nine first graders the first time. As I pointed to each colored note, the children were able to ring the corresponding colored bell. The first day, we demonstrated a song to the class and started in with a 45 minute lesson. They did really well (with the usual wiggles and distractions.) We went and taught a new song every day, adding a little something each day, like a half note or ringing two bells together.

When the rest of the team came down a week later, they toured the school/clinic. By then, we had 7 songs in our repertoire. Of course they were very flawed, but the students had gotten more focused and engaged. Our lesson was always before snack/recess. On that day since the team was going to be sticking their heads in the door after recess, we left the bells out so we could perform a song or two for them. One little boy, Brandon, finished his snack before the others and came up and started pointing to the notes as I had done. So I picked up the bells and played as he pointed. When the others came to listen, I introduced him as "El Director" and let HIM do the pointing as I stood aside. It was sooooo exciting to me!!!!  Another team followed ours and continued the handbell lessons for another week. The classroom teacher was fully qualified to carry on after they left. 

The other handbell highlight was on Sunday. We went to church where Tomas leads the Sunday School. There were probably 20-25 of us, ages 4 to 14! Three of us started the same procedure as with the first grade. After a couple of tries, they didn't seem to get the concept, so another team member and I went around to the other side of the table while a third team member and Tomas pointed. We played the song "Cristo Me Ama/ Jesus Loves Me" and that was the last time I was in front of the group!!!! Tomas took on the leadership as if he'd been doing it his whole life!!! He'd stop the group if the reds weren't playing together or if the yellows didn't come in on time!! Those kids were ready to play in one half hour!!!! We had to kill time until the sermon was over! We sat outside while Tomas said he would tell a story. He started out in a very engaging way saying something about a mountain (my Spanish is only so-so) but as the story progressed, he asked some questions which had the children raising their hands. Then I heard him say, "Rojos juntos, amarillos juntos!" (Something about reds together and yellows together.) As nearly as I could tell, his story had been some kind of a metaphor about working together! Then he asked me to go check an see how much longer the sermon might be. I stuck my head in the sanctuary door and heard the pastor saying, "Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ." (1 Corinthians 12) Oh my!!! So I went out and told the children in my broken Spanish that although there are many children playing bells, it's not like 20 guitars or 20 violins. Our handbell group was playing one instrument of many parts, but all bells form one instrument. So it is with the body of Christ. What a powerful metaphor!

At last the sermon was over, and the children filed in to the front on to the chancel. They played the song beautifully under the direction of Tomas, with me standing off to the side, received applause, and then played it again. Families were delighted, and we were all blessed!

-Ruth O’Neil
If you can’t make the corners of your mouth turn up, let the middle sag.