Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Back to Guyana, on a mission from God

For most of us, Guyana conjures up images of one of two things: Steve McQueen in “Papillion” (which actually took place in nearby French Guiana) or the mass suicide orchestrated by the Rev. Jim Jones in 1978.

But for Paula Blakely, of Tinley Park, the tiny South American country is where tropical breezes wind through mangrove marshes. It is where the dinner bell signals a meal of curried goat with roti rice. It is where her earliest memories were formed.

“Guyana is a beautiful country, rich in culture,” Paula said.

She was born in Georgetown. Her father was pastor and founder of the country’s largest church.

John and Monica Husbands came to the United States as missionaries. Two years later, after the paperwork was in order, they sent for their six children.

“I lived with my grandmother for those two years,” Paula, 42, recalled.

Though the family tried to return as often as they could afford, Paula hasn’t been back in two decades.

That will change when she returns this fall with her husband and two children on a missionary trip of her own.

Eric Blakely, 43, is pastor of Trees of Righteousness International Ministries in East Hazel Crest. The ministry has traveled to China, South Africa and, most recently, Honduras, helping disadvantaged women and children however it can. It has also helped the needy here in the United States.

In May, they spent a week in Ciudad de Zion, Honduras, where they helped build a playground at an orphanage for 54 children. The home was founded by a local woman who began taking in abandoned children.

Unlike some other missionary groups, the Blakelys say, they are in it for the long haul.

“Some groups use these poor children simply to raise money for themselves,” Eric said. “They go in, snap some photos and then send out requests for money.”

When the Blakelys visit another country’s poor, Paula said, they don’t just pop in and take photos and return to the hotel. They stay with the people they’re helping. They eat dinner with them, play board games with them and, in the case of the children, get to know their hopes and dreams.

Eric said, “We went there planning to build a playground but we ended up building a relationship.”

Of course, he added, there is a downside to that. “We were all sobbing when it came time to say goodbye.”

Paula has traveled to Honduras three times. This past spring’s trip was Eric’s second. They also brought their teenage children, Paul and Erica, along for the journey.

“The minister there couldn’t believe we were actually coming back because so many others do not,” Paula said. “Now they know when we come, we truly come to help.”

The couple are planning its first trip to Guyana, which Paula is looking forward to.

Because she’s lived in a number of different cities, including Miami, St. Louis and Toronto, Paula says she understands the value of being able to adapt. But she says she misses her roots.

Paula, who has a degree from Southeast College of the Assemblies of God, met Eric after her job as a flight attendant for American Airlines relocated her to Chicago.

Eric has a degree from DePaul University. In addition to his work at the church, he is a member of the Army Reserves.

“My husband says he can only detect my accent on three occasions: when I’m excited, when I’m angry and when I’m around family.”

She’ll experience plenty of the latter on her pilgrimmage back to Georgetown. Her father will accompany her as well as her husband and children.

“We’ll try to reconnect with extended family members, too,” she said. “It’s important that my children have an understanding of their heritage.”

She wants them to know that the people of Guyana are a blend of Caribe and Arowak indians, as well as East Indian, Portuguese, Chinese and African influences.

Though the country is flush with culture, she said in terms of technology, it is decades behind the United States.

“It will be interesting to bring our knowledge of technology, to hopefully improve their standard of living,” she said.

The biggest challenge, she added, will be figuring out a way to help without hindering or causing her people to think she thinks she’s better simply because she has an American education and lifestyle.

The way to do that, she believes, is to become one with the people they are serving.

That, she added, will be the easy part. She’s already looking forward to a steaming plate of fresh seafood, as well as all the mango and coconut she can get her hands on.