Sept. 5, 2008

Pastor's deeds enrich lives of thousands of Guatemalans

The lesson of the day was humility. As about 40 people gathered in a small auditorium in Uris Hall Sept. 3, Cornell Professor Robert Blake, director of the Latin American Studies Program at Cornell, gave a simple introduction for the Rev. Gregory Schaffer, the pastor and program director for the Mission San Lucas Toliman in Guatemala.

Blake's unassuming remarks proved to be an understatement of Schaffer's accomplishments.

Since 1962, when Schaffer joined the San Lucas Toliman, one of the best-known Catholic parishes in Guatemala, the mission has built more than 1,600 homes for impoverished families, provided more than 4,000 families with three-acre plots of land and raised the literacy rate of the small village to more than 85 percent from 2.5 percent. Schaffer has overseen all these projects and more, including health-care, education, poverty and disaster-relief programs, according to Chris Barrett, Cornell professor of applied economics and management and associate director of the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future, which co-sponsored the event.

Yet, Schaffer maintains a quiet sense of humility about his work, asking the audience to "Please ask questions ... to please make comments, to please correct anything that needs correcting."

"You'd never have gleaned the changes he's made because he is so self-effacing as a person," said Barrett. "[Schaffer] is very modest about himself and his abilities."

According to Schaffer, he has done that by understanding Third World cultures, such as Guatemala's. "[They] need understanding, appreciation and opportunities to grow because they suffer [from] what I want to call the process of poverty," Schaffer said.

To explain this process, Schaffer told the story of a San Lucas Toliman field worker whose boss corrected him on how to hold a hoe; the worker had been working fields since he was a young boy, and the instruction only impeded his performance.

"'I can't do my work right, but I have to do it his way to get that 50 cents that isn't enough,'" Schaffer quoted the worker. Pointing at his home, a 10-by-12-foot one-room structure with a dirt floor, corn stalks for walls and thatch for a roof, the worker told Schaffer, "Padre, you wouldn't keep an animal in there; I keep my family in there."

"When you spend your life trying to find something to eat and fend for your young, you are living the lifestyle of an animal," said Schaffer. "That continuing, ongoing driving into the ground, that is what I call the process of poverty."

To improve the lives of impoverished people, Schaffer said he has learned an important lesson from another San Lucas Toliman local, who stressed the importance that he "be patient with [him]self and with [his] people."

Schaffer's talk, which kicked off the Latin American Studies Program's Fall Seminar Series, was also co-sponsored by the Latin American Studies Program, the Cornell Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy and the student group Help Us Stop Hunger.

Sarah Palmer '10 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.