The task facing La Sierra University’s Pre-Medical Society in the fall of 2020 was daunting — take the society’s annual mission trip to Guatemala, which provides badly needed aid, spiritual connection, and compassionate outreach, and reproduce it all online.
For 16 years, the society, a student club of La Sierra University in Riverside, California, United States, led by associate biology professor Eugene Joseph, has spread the love of Christ in Guatemala each Christmas break by distributing food and shoes to those in need, bringing toys and friendship to sick children, praying with families, and providing hands-on assistance such as vaccinating farmers’ livestock and helping medical and dental professionals care for hundreds of patients in rural areas.
The global COVID-19 pandemic upended the plans of university missions and outreach, including the annual Guatemala trip. With foreign travel suspended, the Pre-Medical Society decided to brainstorm ways of continuing the work in Central America, where the impact of COVID-19 has compounded suffering.
During an early October 2020 video conferencing call between faculty sponsor Joseph, Pre-Medical Society president Kay Kim, and Guatemalan contacts and Adventist church members Sergio Ortiz and Manuel Argueta, it was decided the club would forge ahead with a virtual mission activity, a feat that would require significant planning and coordination. Club leaders emailed an invitational application campus-wide and ended up with a team of 25 students led by nine club officers.
The group held an online fundraiser in January 2021 that, together with funds from the club, brought in US$3,800. Ortiz, Argueta, and their contacts used the money to purchase 48 pairs of children’s shoes and 2,100 pounds (950 kilograms) of food to provide 60 large food bags containing black beans, red beans, rice, sugar, cornflour, cooking oil, soups, and noodles. They also bought items for 40 gift packages for children at the Casa de San José AIDS hospice that included brightly colored blankets, baby wipes, baby shampoo, soap. The Guatemala contacts also purchased other items for nursing-home-resident care packages.
Usually, La Sierra students and faculty deliver food and shoes in person to grateful families, play games with children at the hospice, and form friendships with Guatemalans in various communities. This year, students had to find a way to bring that experience home despite the 2,720-mile (almost 4,400-kilometer) distance. They organized a three-session Saturday (Sabbath) virtual mission “trip” that they livestreamed on February 13 via Zoom video conferencing, allowing audiences in the United States and Guatemala to witness members of three Seventh-day Adventist churches and missionary students receive bags of needed food and boxes of shoes under pandemic safety protocol. Safety concerns required the gift packages for AIDS hospice children to be delivered separately.
The virtual donation event was preceded by a morning church service, and then online children’s activities followed in the afternoon. Activities included praise songs in Spanish, presentations about the students’ lives in California, children's songs in Spanish, a science experiment, arts and crafts, and a short lesson with games in the evening.
“We decided to have this virtual trip in hopes of being able to continue our mission work in Guatemala,” Kim, a senior biomedical sciences major, said. “Our club was also aware of the lack of community, and so through the trip, we wished for students to feel connected by providing group work that made the virtual trip possible in the end.”
Kim and club vice president Uylae Kim directed the virtual trip and its activities, which Kay Kim described as a “marathon” of planning and coordination between nine participant sub-groups and Ortiz and Argueta in Guatemala. “All communication with our Guatemala hosts was through online platforms, and it was also the feeling of the unknown of what was going on in Guatemala.”
Ortiz attends the Seventh-day Adventist church in San Cristóbal, and Argueta attends the Dimensión Profética Seventh-day Adventist Church in Guatemala City. Both have numerous contacts within their churches and with local agencies and are instrumental in helping the Pre-Medical Society conduct its outreach. This year they shopped for food products, shoes, and items for the hospice patients and organized donation events. “Despite the health and economic difficulties that we have faced worldwide, we find young philanthropists who, without knowing about low-income families in other countries, take their time and give it without expecting something in return,” Ortiz said of the La Sierra students. “Thank you for what you do for our people in Guatemala. God bless you and prosper you in everything you do. Hands that give, they are hands that will not remain empty.”
Joseph has organized the annual mission trips to Guatemala since 2004. With assistant biology professor Arun Muthiah and associate biology professor Arturo Diaz, he helped guide the online Guatemala experience. “As I compare the 'in-person' trips from past years to the virtual trip this year, I was able to sense the same spirit of gratitude and an overwhelming sense of being remembered by the people that we touched,” Joseph said. “The students were also impacted by the virtual reception we received and by how we were able to truly be the hands and feet of Jesus even during the pandemic.”
For Kay Kim, the unique experience of carrying out an online mission trip proved impactful beyond expectation. “I got emotional after seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces while each one received their shoes and when the parents expressed their gratitude after receiving their food bags,” she said. “After the virtual trip was over, I realized how blessed I was to have this opportunity to help serve others. Never did I connect so deeply with Isaiah 43:2. God will carry you through the storm and give you the strength to make it.”