By David Dawson
FRANKLIN — More than 20 years later, Donnie Dalton still gets emotional when he recalls the life-changing conversation he once had with a pastor from Guatemala.
The pastor was visiting Dalton’s church, Grassland Heights Baptist Church, and was talking about the needs of the people in his poverty-stricken community. At the end of the service, Dalton and his wife, Susan, decided to give the pastor some money.
“We had written him a check, and I handed it to him,” Dalton said. “But he never would pull the check completely out of my hand. He just stood there, partly holding it.”
After a few awkward seconds — “that felt like five minutes,” Dalton recalled — the pastor finally took the check. And as he did so, he said something that Dalton would never forget.
“He looked me right in the eye and said, ‘I will take your money, but what I really need is your time, ’ ” Dalton said, choking back tears.
That sentence sparked an intense passion in Dalton’s heart for those who are suffocating from poverty’s grip in Guatemala.
“That hooked me,” said Dalton. “I could never get over that.”
With Dalton leading the charge, Grassland Heights Baptist has been assisting Guatemala in a variety of ways over the past several years, including establishing the Guatemala Hunger Fund, working with Guatemala FCA and providing support, both financially and emotionally, in numerous other ways.
Dalton himself has made more than 40 mission trips to Guatemala. He had a trip scheduled for this year, but it had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Ministering to Guatemala is big in my heart,” said Dalton. “It’s one of the most amazing and beautiful things I’ve ever done in my life.”
The church’s Guatemala Hunger Fund, with the help of trusted friends, pastors and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, has distributed more than 20,000 pounds of food in Guatemala. Clothing, toys, Bibles and other needs were also distributed as part of the ministry efforts.
Last year, 2,120 Guatemalans were served through the ministry, which also provides assistance and support for churches in Guatemala.
Over the past 15 months, Guatemala has faced more challenges than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged parts of the country, causing the already-dire conditions to become even more bleak. At many homes in Guatemala, families have hung makeshift white flags — which are usually nothing more than a white piece of fabric on a stick — in their yards as a cry for help. The flags indicate that the family is completely out of food.
Dalton said those images often come to his mind when he sits down at his own dinner table. “Every time I go to eat, it breaks my heart,” he said. “How can you not have compassion?”
Dalton said during his many trips to Guatemala, he has witnessed the extreme levels of poverty, and the images are never far from his mind.
After his very first trip, in 2000, he said he wasn’t sure if he would ever be able to go back because the images weighed on him so heavily.
“I saw things that day I’d never seen before,” he said. “I’d never seen people living so poorly. Sewage running on top of the ground. People living on dirt in conditions that we would consider a pigpen. Some lived in tents, others in cardboard houses. … It was hard for me to take. It broke my heart. And so when I left there I didn’t know whether I could ever come back. I really didn’t.”
But Dalton did continue to go back. Every year, in fact.
He said the Lord was calling him to do this ministry, and he was determined to go, no matter how hard it was, mentally and emotionally. “I was taught the difference between feeling sorry for somebody and having compassion for somebody,” he said. “You can feel sorry for someone and still walk away and not do anything. But when you have compassion, you can’t walk away.
“Look in the Scriptures — when Christ had compassion, He did something,” said Dalton. “He didn’t say go away and be happy or do your thing. He did something to help the ones in need.”
On one of his first trips to Guatemala, Dalton met a nine-year-old girl who spoke English and Spanish. At the time, Dalton could not speak much Spanish, so the girl, Susana Salvador, served as a translator for him throughout the trip.
It was the start of a life-long friendship between Dalton and Salvador. Each year, Salvador would serve as a translator when Dalton visited Guatemala.
In her early teens, Salvador was able to come to the U.S., live with a Christian family and get an education. During these years, she began to routinely visit the Daltons on holidays and other occasions, further cementing the bond that was born in the streets of Guatemala.
“God asked me to be a father and help her, advise her, try to keep her on the straight, which I haven’t had to do,” said Dalton, who noted that Salvador’s love and devotion to God made it easy to guide her all through her high school years.
When Salvador reached her college years, Dalton and others helped her get enrolled at Lindsey Wilson College in Kentucky, where she continued to excel academically. She graduated with a B.S. in nursing, and now has achieved a Masters in family counseling.
She has been and is a blessing to the entire Dalton family and Grassland Heights Baptist Church. Salvador and her family now play a major role in helping Grassland Heights minister to the people in Guatemala. From her home here in the U.S., she helped oversee the food distribution from the Guatemala Hunger Fund.
“We’re very proud of her,” said Dalton. “She’s a special young lady. We sensed that right from the start.”
Dalton said he is amazed at how the ministry work in Guatemala has impacted his life. He admitted that, prior to his life-changing conversation with the Guatemalan pastor, he was mostly oblivious about the country’s needs.
“I didn’t know where Guatemala was on the map,” he said. “I certainly didn’t know Spanish. But when I heard his sermon, it stirred my heart.”
More than 20 years later, it still does. B&R