Guatemala is 2,500 miles away, but Dorothy Marsh, missionary president for the La Mirada First Church of the Nazarene, has formed a strong link with the Central American country.
Her ongoing connection with the Guatemalans began in October, when Marsh headed a 16-member group that built a church for the people of Huehuetenango, in the northwestern mountainous region of Guatemala.
The 170 members of the congregation approved the project after Nazarene missionaries working in Guatemala visited the La Mirada church and told them about the Central Americans' need for a church. After 15 months of planning and saving $17,000 for the project, the La Mirada group traveled to Guatemala. Despite limited equipment and experience, they built the church by hand in two weeks.
Improvising often, the crew filed and chipped 3,000 cement blocks to smooth the rough edges, formed a brigade to pour cement with buckets and operated a mixer 12 hours a day. They also sawed, sanded and varnished cedar planks to make 30 pews for the church.
"We poured our hearts into that building," said the 52-year-old Marsh, who worked on the construction crew.
The trip to Huehuetenango was only the beginning of Marsh's commitment to the people there.
Members of the congregation last month sent 52 quilts and blankets they made to a Nazarene orphanage in San Miguel, a town north of Guatemala City. About 15 people in the La Mirada congregation, ranging from 12 to 82 years old, worked on the project. Dale Black, a licensed pilot who is a member of the Long Beach First Church of the Nazarene and a former member of the La Mirada congregation, flew the blankets and other supplies to Guatemala, Marsh said.
The orphanage is the first established by the denomination, which has 605 missionaries in 76 countries.
Marsh said she wants to return to Huehuetenango with another crew to build a two-story center needed for Bible studies on the church site.
With short, graying hair falling in wisps around her face and glasses framing her large hazel eyes, Marsh has a gentle but determined air.
Helped Build La Mirada Church
The mother of two daughters, Debbie, 31, and Brenda, 26, Marsh has lived in La Mirada with her husband, Bob, for nearly 30 years. The couple were founding members of the church and helped to build it 25 years ago.
Marsh said she became a Nazarene when she was 16. "I was a teen-ager and looking for something," she recalled, saying that she found a "loving family " in Nazarene members.
Marsh has worked as a nurse's aide for the last 15 years and three days a week cares for elderly people, including some who are terminally ill and live in a hospice.
She said she is able to help others face death because "I have a very optimistic view. I don't think death is the end."
The Guatemalan mission was tackled, Marsh said, because "any church will only be as strong as its outreach. If we're only self-contained in our own little area, especially when we're blessed with so much . . . we become stagnant and self-centered."
After they visited Guatemala, Marsh said, the congregation "felt the heartbeat of the people and we wanted to extend our ministry" to the orphanage.
Most of the children's parents were killed during political violence that escalated about six years ago in the country. According to a 1984 Amnesty International report, military and civilian defense squads under government orders are responsible for the tortures, massacres and disappearances of thousands of Guatemalan civilians.
Marsh said the congregation is aware of the political strife in Guatemala, but its involvement with the Guatemalan people is not political. Instead, the church's efforts are a way of spreading the gospel and lifting people out of despair, she said.
In return, she said, the Guatemalans are "gracious, loving people who have nothing to give materially but everything to give in love and appreciation."
One Guatemalan woman gave one of her most prized possessions to Marsh.
It is a scrapbook of pictures cut from magazines and brochures, neatly pasted and organized in sections detailing the geography, art, architecture, currency, customs and folklore of Guatemala.
"With affection and admiration," the Spanish inscription in the book says, "to our brothers and sisters who have helped my beloved town build a church."