On the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul, in the humble and unspoiled village of Aguacate, we celebrated one of the most moving liturgies of my stay in Guatemala. For the first time in the Altiplano, I had the joy of experiencing uninterrupted worship from “Blessed be the kingdom” to the last “amen.” The choir, in particular, sang so beautifully, and the faithful responded with great fervor to all the petitions. I very much had the sense that the Holy Spirit was moving among us in a powerful way.
How fitting indeed it was that we could honor our first missionaries-San Pedro and San Pablo- in such a splendid way. To my surprise and delight, the Mayan choir even chanted their parish hymn of the Annunciation just as the OCMC mission team had taught them two weeks earlier, without missing a note. The people in this village are so open to the faith, so much so that as I was preaching to them about the Holy Fire in Jerusalem, they seemed to be jumping out of their chairs with excitement. At various times they would break out in applause. At the end of my talk I shouted out, “Cristo ha Resucitado,” and with a thunderous roar they shouted back, “Verdaderamente ha Resucitado. This most recent experience has convinced me that we have turned the corner in this community, thanks to the inspirational leadership of its dynamic priest- Fr. Evangelos Pata, the dedicated catechetical and choral work of Fr. David and Rozanne Rucker and recent efforts of the OCMC music team. We are already planning to send the choir out to some of the other nearby villages, so that they, too, can experience the fullness of Orthodox worship. This is a much needed outreach, as we have found some apathy towards the Liturgy in other nearby communities. Having no one to teach or inspire them as to the deeper meaning of the Liturgy, they find more solace and stimulation in the more familiar and livelier Christian songs that have taken root in their culture.
In one of the larger nearby parishes, for example, most of the younger people are ashamed to come forward and receive the Eucharist. We discovered this at a youth retreat the day before. These young people, unlike those in Aguacate, had a greater exposure to the outside world and its corrupting influence. And so, answering the call of Christ to sup with Him could not overcome their teen inhibitions. We must keep in mind that many of the parishes that joined the Orthodox Church under the leadership of Fr. Andres Giron had not been a part of any church for many years. This one incident only goes to show us that we have much work to do in places where the visit of a priest is such a rarity. Having made a good start in Aguacate, a true lamp stand of the light of Christ, we hope to share the riches of Orthodoxy with many other Mayan villages.
Poli Na Safari
“Poli na safari” is a Swahili phrase meaning, I’m sorry for your travel. It is intended to show sympathy for the hardship one often faces while negotiating the difficult African terrain. Having traveled those rocky, pitted, unpaved roads, I understand the need for such a phrase. While Guatemala is a bit more developed than the African bush, I feel some sympathy for the traveler is needed there, too.
I embarked on my return to the Guatemalan mission at 3:30 am to catch a 6:00 am flight. Fr. John had preceded me a month earlier, so I was traveling alone, hauling 2 large suitcases filled with sewing supplies and other donations for the mission. My carry-on bag was a very valuable embroidery machine, generously donated by my sister Diana. I guarded it carefully. Air travel is not as pleasant as it once was, what with far-flung gate changes, increased security checks, and decreased on-plane amenities. I calmed my irritation by telling myself that walking miles through an air-conditioned terminal where restaurants and restrooms are accessible is not a hardship. I was blessed, after all, to have shoes that needed to be removed for inspection.
Upon arriving in Guatemala, I was met by Fr. John and Leri, our new driver. First on the agenda were visits to the fabric and ribbon factories to purchase supplies for the vestments that my seamstresses would sew. This proved daunting for Leri, who was not familiar with those parts of busy, congested Guatemala City. He stopped frequently to ask directions. Each person seemed to know exactly where we needed to go — which was always in the opposite direction from where we were headed. After several hours of wandering, our mission was accomplished and we began the 3-hour trek to Nueva Concepcion, where we would spend the night. What an appreciated blessing it was to have a bed in which to lay my weary bones. The 6-hour trip to our home in Huehuetenango was still to come.
Early the next morning, we loaded our luggage into the small, white pick-up truck which would be our vehicle at the seminary. This time, our old friend, the stalwart Charlie, would be our driver. With Fr. John in the passenger seat, the 15-inch space behind the front seats would be my domain. This space was made even tighter by my insistence on storing my precious embroidery machine and new fabrics there also. There is always a possibility of rain in the mountains and I did not want my treasures getting wet.
I wedged myself in, sideways, onto a hard, makeshift jump-seat and stretched my legs over the embroidery machine case. Charlie, ever solicitous about my well-being, was concerned about the lack of comfort. I told him not to worry. I was like a queen in her private coach. And indeed, I was! So often, I had wished for the luxury of siting for hours with my swollen feet propped up. Now, I had that blessing! I sat serenely while the amazing panorama of the Guatemalan landscape rolled by. Even the hard seat was not a problem. One blessing of having an ample figure is that my seat cushion is always with me. When I positioned myself just right, the ledge jutting into my back gave me a therapeutic massage as we bounced along the rough roads. Could any queen ask for more? Our 6-hour trip stretched into 8 hours. Upon reaching our mountain home at the seminary, I was relieved to uncoil myself and get out of the truck. I think that 8 hours of blessings is quite substantial for even the most grateful of God’s children.
Poli na safari!
Post Script: I have written the above as a humorous illustration of a bit of the struggles and frustrations that are inherent in mission work. It might lead one to ask why I would subject myself to this inconvenience instead of staying in the comfort of my home, surrounded by family, most especially my 12 beloved grandchildren. The answer, in a single word, is love. For the long answer, I urge you to read the First Letter of John, chapter 4, verses 7-21, which ends:
“And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must
love his brother also.”
In His great love for us, God came to our world in the form of Christ. We are likewise called to be a physical, loving presence to our brothers and sisters in need.
Gaspar, the caretaker of our seminary, comes from the pious Orthodox community of Aguacate. Living on the seminary grounds in a humble little house with his wife and 5 children, he toils from morning till night. Yet he is filled with joy in the Lord. He said to us, “We were struggling, flat down on the floor. You came and helped us to stand on our feet!” Our minor discomforts pale in the face of this.
In the book, Wisdom from Mount Athos, we read the words of St. Silouan:
“Brethren, let us humble ourselves that we may be worthy of
the love of God, that The Lord may adorn us with His lowliness
of spirit and His humility, that we may become worthy of the
heavenly mansions which The Lord has made ready for us.”