AN order of Catholic nuns has overcome skepticism about their ability to survive in the competitive world of tour operation. In fact, the sisters are entering their 24th year of successfully offering "reality trips" to impoverished nations.
The Global Awareness Through Experience program, or GATE, is designed and escorted by members of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration of La Crosse, Wis. It will offer nine departures in 2006 on six programs to such nations as Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico, plus some in Eastern Europe. The tours are open to people of all ages and faiths.
Among the obstacles the sisters have had to overcome have been problems with their superiors. Because GATE's earlier tours (offered by a different order of nuns) were consciously promoted as part of the "liberation theology" movement -- the belief that the Catholic Church in Latin America is made up of and should be for economically disadvantaged people -- and they emphasized contacts with priests and nuns who were working with activist groups, they soon ran afoul of prohibitions against political activities.
The words "liberation theology" disappeared from the group's literature, as did some highly charged language about the wealthy elites who dominate certain countries in Latin America and elsewhere.
But the basic themes of these tours -- the emphasis on contact with low-income people in foreign countries -- remain unchanged. Thus, on tours leaving Nov. 26, and June 6 and Nov. 25, 2006, members of the Franciscan order will lead groups to the site of the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and six Jesuit worker priests in El Salvador to take part "in spirited dialogue" with "people in grass-roots movements, religious leaders, staff of the U.S. Embassy and people who experienced the recent civil war," according to the tour brochure.
The brochure says participants will "learn of the effects of international trade agreements in this fragile democracy."
On tours leaving Feb. 4, April 5 and May 1, GATE will escort groups to meet "the indigenous people of Guatemala." Participants will "explore human-rights issues and an active resistance that stretches across centuries."
On escorted tours of Oaxaca, Mexico, called "a poor state" in the brochure, members of the traveling group "will learn something of the problems [Oaxaca] faces in education and agriculture, especially as they touch the lives of indigenous women."
In Chiapas, Mexico, tour participants will "meet with indigenous leaders and human-rights workers who offer alternative models for respecting differences."
All in all, it's a far cry from tours of the "if it's Tuesday, it must be Belgium" variety.
Costs are reasonable, an average of $1,100 per person plus airfare and $150 registration fee, for stays of nine or 10 nights, including lodging and all meals except one.
You might not agree with the politics of the majority of GATE participants, but it's wise to keep an open mind about development issues in Latin America. It may be prudent to meet with dissidents in those countries.
For information, contact GATE at 912 Market St., La Crosse, WI 54601-8000; (608) 791-5283, www.gate-travel.org.