What Prize Awaits Us: Letters from Guatemala was written by Sister Bernice Kita and published in 1988. Sr. Bernice joined the Maryknoll Sisters in 1959. She first went to mission in Guatemala in 1970 after working at the Sisters Center for several years and gaining her college degree. From 1970 to 1977, she led the Social Service Center of Villa de Guadalupe Parish in Guatemala City. In 1977, she began working with other Sisters in towns in the Guatemalan mountains. There they ministered to the indigenous Cakchikel people. They began programs like health classes, bible studies, catechism classes, and craftwork cooperatives.

Sr. Bernice Kita in Guatemala
Some of the letters Sr. Bernice wrote to her family

While in Guatemala, Sr. Bernice wrote letters to her family and friends back home. These letters became What Prize Awaits Us. In 2021, Sr. Bernice reflected on the creation of her book and gave us an inside look on how it came to be. Using her reflection, we can see how letters become a manuscript, how a manuscript becomes a book, and how What Prize Awaits Us makes an impact. Click on the images to enlarge.

Sharing the Letters

What made you decide to write the book?

I never considered writing a book. I had written letters home over many years during which political and religious persecution increased in Guatemala. I was asked to represent Maryknoll Sisters on a panel with the theme of “Missioners’ Response to Violence”. Coincidentally, I had recently received back letters I had written during those years and chose to read excerpts as my part on the panel. At the break, the moderator came to me and asked if I had any more letters. When I said there were lots, he said: “I think they should be published, and I’d like to help you publish them.” Stunned, I physically took a step back.

Excerpt from a letter to Sr. Gerry McGinn OP about the violence faced by the poor and religious in Guatemala
Excerpt from a letter to Sr. Gerry McGinn OP about the violence faced by the poor and religious in Guatemala

The moderator said he was a scout for Orbis Books and believed the book would be timely and important. He offered to put me in touch with the new publisher of Orbis. Everything in me said, NO! I was afraid to write it. I looked to friends who were writers, journalists, Maryknoll Sister authorities and friends to agree with my No, but everyone said YES.

I decided to put an end to my struggle by sending some letters to the new Orbis publisher. Surely he would say no. But he was intrigued. He asked me to write a preface, then an outline, then the new Orbis editor, Robert Ellsberg, came on board, and mine was his first book. It had yet no competitor claiming his time! He encouraged and guided me through the process of turning a bunch of letters into a real book. I learned so much about writing that has served me till now.

The Editing Process

Sr. Bernice’s writing process involved lots of editing and re-editing. She and the editors needed to get to the heart of the book’s message. They had to ask, “Does this passage convey this letter’s main idea? How do these words sound best together? What detail is necessary and what can be cut?”

Below are three examples of the editing process. Using the arrows on the left and right of each image, scroll through each set of images to see an excerpt from the original letter, the manuscript as it was being edited, and the letter as it was published in the book.

A letter to Sr. Bernice’s parents, May 1977
A letter to Sr. Bernice’s parents, June 1979
A letter to Sr. Bernice’s family, November 1981

The Final Product

When it was published, What Prize Awaits Us was well received! People from all over the US felt the impact of Sr. Bernice’s words. Below are just a few examples of how they responded to learning about her mission in Guatemala. Use the arrows on the left and right of the images to see book reviews and letters to Sr. Bernice about the book.

What do you hope someone gets out of reading your book?

When the book was about to be published, Robert Ellsberg told me: “Your book will be like your baby. Once it’s born it will have a life of its own. You will let it go, and it will make its way into the world. It will reach people you never knew, and affect them as you never dreamed.” That was well over 30 years ago. After three editions it was “retired” by Orbis, but Maryknoll Sisters were given the right to continue printing as needed. Even now I get requests for copies, which shows that many people were influenced and shared it with others, who told others…

I hope that those who take up What Prize Awaits Us will be absorbed into the lives of the people at the heart of the book and will absorb those people into their own lives. May readers come to appreciate, as I did, that people of such different cultures and lives share with them a common humanity: a deep appreciation of life and love and truth and faith and service for the common good, even in the face of death.

What Prize Awaits Us is an excellent example of bringing mission work directly to the public. By reading Sr. Bernice’s letters, you experience Guatemala through her eyes and see its highs and lows for yourself. This book reminds the reader of the risks some missioners take when they leave home. It also shows the risks people in mission locations must take every day. But, Sr. Bernice also expresses the joys of mission. Her letters convey universal values – family, friendship, faith, education, and service to others. Books like What Prize Awaits Us bring the reality of mission to the front of the mind and show that people around the world are more similar than we may think.