Tevlin: Cancer fails to thwart his life's mission of hope, healing

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 17, 2011 - 6:43 PM

Sitting in his sister's living room in Eagan, the Rev. Greg Shaffer is a long way from the place he calls home, an internationally recognized mission in a remote, poverty-stricken region of Guatemala where generations of Minnesotans have helped the priest transform and save lives for more than four decades.

He doesn't move as fast as he did a few years ago, and the chemotherapy treatments he undergoes to keep the T-cell lymphoma in check often sap his energy. Blooms of sores and rashes from the disease climb both of his legs.

But Shaffer's self-deprecating Irish humor remains, as does his keen grasp of Latin American politics and the human condition in general. By phone, he keeps a hand on the rudder of an amazing place in San Lucas Toliman where programs he founded with the help of the New Ulm Diocese so long ago provide health care, education, jobs and housing to thousands of Guatemalans.

Since the lymphoma was diagnosed several months ago, Shaffer has remained in Minnesota, getting treatment and going to mass every day while reading and thinking. "I'm in the pews now and it's been a wonderful experience," said Shaffer. "It's nice to be the guy not telling everybody what to do."

Doctors have allowed him a few weeklong trips back to Guatemala, but he needs ongoing care that he can't get in Central America to "keep ahead" of the cancer.

Shaffer's longevity in Guatemala and the long list of accomplishments of the mission have made them nearly legendary both inside the country and in social justice circles. In 2007, the Guatemalan government gave its highest honor, "The Order of the Quetzal," to the mission in Shaffer's name.

Talking about the long arc of the mission's history during his time there, Shaffer is both buoyed by the gains made and sobered by the reality of trying to empower people in a country that has witnessed government brutality, guerrilla wars, searing poverty and now a vicious drug trade.

"My patience," he says with a smile, "has certainly been tested."

Shaffer's appointment to San Lucas was supposed to be for five years. He spoke no Spanish, and the conditions were shockingly grim. But Shaffer set out on an ambitious plan to encourage self-sufficiency by educating people and training them to start businesses, build houses and plant crops.

I had an opportunity to visit San Lucas in the mid-1980s. The setting is stunning, on Lake Atitlan, which is surrounded by volcanoes that plunge down to the shore.

But I quickly learned the hurdles Shaffer faced when the town's military leader was executed by guerrillas the day I arrived and a military crackdown on the town began. I attended the funeral for the comandante, a tense ceremony in which Shaffer had to preside inside a church where government informants likely sat next to possible guerrillas.

At the time, the parish's clinic was a small, poorly equipped room behind the priest's quarters. There was a fledgling agricultural program and congregants were learning construction skills and building houses in the rare spaces between mountain ranges.

Since then, more than 4,000 families have received 3-acre plots and the housing program has built 1,600 homes. The clinic is now a two-story building that serves 8,000 people per year and the school has 650 students. Literacy rates in San Lucas have risen from 2.5 percent to 85 percent. The parish employs more than 300 people and spends $10,000 in salaries per week. It now has two rooms for surgery, and every year ophthalmologists from Hutchinson go down to perform sight-saving operations.

I asked Shaffer where the money comes from and he tapped his chest. "Wherever we can find it," he said. The generosity has come from churches and organizations around the country, but especially from Minnesota.

While life is better for many, the troubles remain.

"People are pretty disgusted with the violence and drugs," said Shaffer. "It used to be political, now it's about money. Now the greatest cause of poverty is corruption."

And Shaffer isn't terribly surprised that it has taken so long for Guatemalans to seize opportunities given them; after all, they've been exploited for centuries. Since being back in the United States for the first long stint in more than 40 years, Shaffer is struck by the bounty of choices enjoyed here, compared to Guatemala. "I need a list to go into a grocery store or restaurant or I get overwhelmed," he said.

I asked him if this might not be an appropriate time to retire. Shaffer smiled and shook his head.

"What are you going to do with an old priest?" he said. "Put him in a corner and pull him out when you need him? The doctors are sick of me asking when I'll be done with this, but they say they have to get ahead of it, then I can spend more time in Guatemala.

"I guess you can't ask for any more than that."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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