PHOTO | JOEL PEARSON
Calgary musician Denis Grady hugs two of his Guatemalan fans.
The spirit of adventure, a pleasant holiday and Christian music ministry have proven to be a good mix for a yearly mission to Guatemala.
The Guatemala Music Mission is a project coordinated by Franciscan and Friends Music Mission, a not-for-profit charitable ministry.
"Doing music is something I've had a long passion for," said Denis Grady, a Calgary-based musician. "This was an opportunity to utilize our gifts for godly purposes as best we could."
The impetus for the mission came in 2002, following Pope John Paul's visit to Toronto for World Youth Day.
Grady, a secular Franciscan, met fellow musicians from Trinidad and Barbados. They stayed in close contact and by 2005 he was invited to join them for music ministry in Guatemala. Networking with his contacts through the Catholic Association of Musicians, 18 people from North America went to Guatemala that first year.
"It sort of began in an organic way. We started playing in prisons, drug rehabs, and we'd play on the streets and in churches. The bishops down there liked us, and it became an annual thing," said Grady.
Eight people from Canada and the United States, four of them musicians, were in Guatemala from Nov. 24 to Dec. 12. Four of the group come from Calgary.
A line the group heard a few years ago defined their mission effort: "Nobody gets into heaven without a reference letter from the poor."
Managing the logistics, venues, sound systems and other aspects of the music tour is an evolving process, with new elements added each year. The new element this year was their collaboration with Franciscans in Action. This group of mostly women focused on feeding the poor in Guatemalan villages.
They visited a cancer hospital, going from unit to unit, playing songs in English and Spanish. Most of the patients were enduring end-stage cancer, and some have likely died already. But at least for the duration of their visit, the missionaries put a smile on their faces.
Through fundraising concerts back home, they had enough money to buy and distribute baskets of food for the poor people of Guatemala. They had beans, rice, sugar and other necessities for 193 food hampers.
"We took off in four or five vehicles and headed for the hills. We pull up to these little villages of unbelievable poverty. We'd toot the horn, and we gave out hampers to all people over 60," said Grady.
"The kids would come out, and we had balloons and candy for them, and we'd play music."
In this mountain village, an older man with a beautiful face told them, "You are storing treasure in heaven." The man's words were a strong signal that they were doing something extraordinary and changing people's lives.
Following a benefit concert for Franciscans in Action, next on their itinerary was a stop in the city of Antigua.
"Antigua has cobblestone streets, nice cafes and it's really the jewel of their tourism industry," explained Grady.
They did concerts at the Hermano Pedro Hospital for Children, Franciscan drug and alcohol rehab, churches and in the streets of deplorable Mayan villages nearby. They also performed concerts in five cities in Belize.
Another component of the mission was Guitars for Guatemala, a way of connecting the haves with the have-nots through the international language of music. People with guitars collecting dust in their basements were asked to bring them in. The gist of the program is providing those guitars to children, and having instructors teach them the fundamentals of playing the instrument.
"Part of the idea with these young people is turning them onto music, for the purposes of serving. Get the instruments, ship them down there, and help cultivate the program, and we'll just see where it goes," said Grady.
Guatemala holds fond memories for Bob Palmer, a secular Franciscan from Mississippi. Palmer first went with his parents to Guatemala as a teenager about 60 years ago. Over the years he brought his own children down in the summers.
The highlight of this year's experience was dedicating a concert near Antigua, to his wife, Patty O'Neill Palmer, who died in January. Through a translator, he told the 500 people in the square about his wife.
Close to 40 years ago, he and his future wife rode to Guatemala on a motorcycle together, and he proposed to her there at the ruins of Tikal. They later married in Copán, Guatemala.
"Most of the golden moments of my life happened in Guatemala," said Palmer.
He is not a musician, but he helps in other ways, such as distributing baskets filled with food to the villagers and visiting addicts at rehab centres.
"I have had sobriety for 40 years, so witnessing to them and encouraging them to stay clean and follow the 12-step program, that's one of the things that I do, as well as other things on the tour," he said.