As the debate rages on in the US over medical insurance, poor people in countries like Guatemala can only dream that one day they might have some kind of medical coverage or even a doctor to see them. The scale of the crisis in the highlands of Guatemala where we have our clinic is not so much acute as it is chronic and widespread. There just are no doctors and even nurses who will visit or serve in the remote locales where the poorest of the poor live and die. As missionaries and mission specialists, representing the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) and Archbishop Athenagoras of Mexico, we have tried to address this crying need. Since opening our medical clinic in the village of Aguacate on August of 2015, over 2000 patients have been treated by visiting medical teams of dentists, doctors, mid-wives, translators, nurses and counselors. A whole village, and its surrounding area, have been transformed by these efforts, saving many lives and bringing healing to the sick and suffering, all in the name of our all-merciful Christ. Orthodox Christianity does not believe in bad karma or inherited sin as the cause of human suffering. Instead, like Jesus with the man born blind, we see sickness as an opportunity for us to give witness to God’s glory and love. Indeed, we try to become the very healing hands of Christ in this fallen world.
Towards this end, working closely with the local clergy, we have recently expanded our mission of mercy in a number of significant ways these first three months of 2017. First of all, with the help of an OCMC medical grant, we were able to help enroll Juana Pascual Lucas, a young Mayan woman from Aguacate, in medical school. She is committed to returning to her village as a medical doctor in order to help her people. We believe that her proven dedication as a community health worker and great love for her people will greatly improve the health outcomes in that region, once she completes her studies and returns home.
A second major development is the opening of the Perpetuo Socorro medical clinic on the Pacific Coast in the bustling town of Nueva Concepcion. Two years ago, an OCMC construction team, at the invitation of Vicar Mihail Castellanos, helped begin the renovation of a building, that today is a functioning clinic, legally registered with with the Guatemalan health department. Dr. Oscar Aguilar, a Cuban-trained doctor and attending physician at the clinic, was inspired to become a doctor by the late and much beloved Fr. Andres Giron. Aguilar was a promising student at the Orthodox secondary school, who has now come to pay his debt of gratitude by serving his people. A service of blessing took place on January 8th, to inaugurate the clinic. It should be noted that Dr. Aguilar has already offered his services, and will continue to do so on a monthly basis, at the Fr. Andres Giron clinic in Aguacate.
Finally, on January 10th, I, together with our mission dentist- Dr. Willie Manteris, OCMC missionary Jesse Brandow and Fr. Evangelos Pata, traveled to Guatemala City to meet with faculty members of the school of dentistry at San Carlos University. This meeting focused on the university’s program that sends graduate dental students to underserved villages for an eight month internship. An agreement was reached and arrangements made for the arrival of a “practicante” or intern sometime in the near future. In addition to offering the usual dental services, the intern’s main focus will be on preventative care for children at the local primary school in Aguacate. Here again the potential for transforming a whole village is great, since good health begins with proper oral care. Join us in prayer for the intercessions of St. Apollonia, who was tortured for her faith. She was one of a group of virgin martyrs who suffered in Alexandria during a local uprising against the Christians. According to one account, her torture included having all of her teeth violently pulled out or shattered. For this reason, she is popularly regarded as the patroness of dentistry and those suffering from toothache or other dental problems. In the attached photo she is shown holding a tooth.
Needless to say, much remains to be done in Guatemala, but we have much to be thankful for and great hope for the future. Many are the unknown saints who have come forward to help us in our humble efforts. We continue to pray for more volunteer medical professionals who are willing to join or otherwise support these efforts. Contact OCMC (OCMC.org) or me (email@example.com) if you want to learn more about our work. Your special talent will be a great blessing and a show of God’s benevolence to our long-suffering brothers and sisters in Christ. FELIZ PASCUA A TODOS! KALI ANASTASIA! BLESSED PASCHA TO ALL!
We were blessed to celebrate Epiphany in the village of Aguacate. The faithful congregation always arrives an hour before the Liturgy in eager anticipation. It is inspiring to witness the vibrancy of their faith. Men, women, and children of every age pack the church. It was a lengthy service, including the blessing of the water and the baptism of two children.
During the many repetitions of the Festal Hymn, wherein the words, “the Spirit in the form of a dove,” are sung, a local chicken wandered into the church. She strutted importantly in front of the iconostas, assuming that on this day, above all others, an avian presence would be acceptable in the church. Respectful of the Orthodox restriction of females in the altar, she avoided entering the Royal Gate. Instead, she settled by the bishop’s throne.
Grabbing the chicken by her wings, a seminarian resolutely escorted her outdoors, accompanied by her vociferous squawks of protest. A few minutes later, the chicken reappeared by the bishop’s throne, determined to fulfill her adoration of Christ’s baptism. Again, she was captured and evicted. Several more times, the chicken entered, only to be taken outside.
Frustrated in her attempts to worship, the chicken found her way into the priest’s home and onto an elaborate nativity scene. After the Liturgy, when we entered the home for lunch, we found the chicken standing victoriously over her gift to the Christ Child. It was the best thing she had to offer — a perfectly formed white egg.
The vibrant Christian faith in the village of Aguacate is not limited to the human population, but extends to the animal kingdom as well. The Liturgy is often visited by dogs, chickens, mice, and a variety of insects. As stated in Psalm 149, verse 6:
“Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.”
Flower Power- Alexandra Chakos
The ability of flowers to enhance our lives and touch our hearts has been acknowledged and celebrated since the earliest of times. Indeed, God has filled our world with such a myriad of flower colors, shapes, sizes, and aromas as to dazzle our minds. Flowers proclaim joy at a wedding, whisper condolence at a funeral, express love on Mother’s Day, bring cheer to a hospital room, and add beauty wherever they exist. So strong is the influence of flowers, that even artificial ones can have a transformative effect on a person’s life.
My thoughts go back many years to the days of my Peace Corps service in Brazil, where I taught sewing and crafts to impoverished women. In one class, I taught the women how to make artificial flowers. This struck a chord with one of the most forlorn in the group. The delicate paper flower and her ability to create it, suddenly lifted her heart and mind above the devastating years of poverty that had beaten her down. She made quite a few flowers that day and took them into the city, where she sold them in the street. With her newly-earned money, she bought more flower making supplies. Her imagination took wing. She began to create bigger, more elaborate flowers which also sold quickly. Those artificial flowers changed the definition of her life. She was no longer a downtrodden beggar. She was a flower creator — a woman with a marketable skill.
While in my Guatemalan mission, I recently observed another floral impact. At Mayan Artisan Studio, the ecclesiastical sewing workshop I established to employ women and support the Guatemalan Church mission, we have a lot of fabric scraps. I showed the seamstresses how to create flowers out of the scraps. These, I will attach to headbands, wreaths, and other accessories and sell them in the U.S. to raise funds for the mission.
As the women stitched flowers one day, I glanced up and was startled by a wide-eyed face, peering in through the open workshop window. It was Isabelle, the tweleve-year-old daughter of our groundskeeper. I invited Isabelle in, gave her a needle and thread, some fabric scraps, and an opportunity to create. She carefully fashioned the fabric into a large red and yellow flower. The next morning, I saw Isabelle marching off to school, proudly sporting her flower on her headband. It has become her daily adornment. And she has become a daily visitor in our workshop, stitching flowers out of every fabric scrap she can gather. Isabelle is one of six children, living with their parents in a small wooden shack. While they are a loving and supportive family, their poverty leaves little space for creativity and beauty. Isabelle has brought this gift to her family.
God, the Creator of All, instilled a bit of His essence in each one of us. Creativity is an important part of this essence. I believe that creating flowers is one way that we can grow and bloom in our God-like nature.
The experience of worshipping with the indigenous people in their small churches made of baked mud and clay or wooden planks defies description. These are the cathedrals of the poor, every bit as magnificent as the hallowed shrines of Orthodoxy in the great centers of the world. What a great mystery our faith contains. In the least likely places the bliss of paradise comes upon the humble of heart. Through numerous pastoral visits to remote villages such a world of infinite possibilities and promise unfolds before us as we celebrate the Divine Liturgy, but not before hearing many confessions, which in itself is a unique and intimate pastoral encounter. For example, as shy and reserved as the women usually are, adhering to the custom of not eating with nor serving food to visiting men, the floodgates of emotion pour out as they tearfully whisper their sins into our attentive ears. Orthodox Church communities like this exist all over Guatemala. New communities are being added to the fold on a regular basis as they learn of an apostolic church that offers them the holy sacraments.
Because of liturgical and pastoral encounters like this, in places where other missionaries have not gone or will not go, Orthodoxy continues to grow, not only near the Pacific coast and the Highlands of Western Guatemala, but also in Southern Mexico. They come to us by word of mouth, not one or two persons at a time, but whole communities, guided by their elders into the loving care of Archbishop Athenagoras and the Guatemalan clergy. They follow the example of the late Fr. Andres Giron(+2014), their church founder and former leader in the agrarian land reform movement. He greatly benefited the indigenous population of Guatemala with his advocacy of their spiritual and material needs, both as a priest and senator in the congress. As beautiful as these men of God are who tirelessly preach the gospel of peace, even more beautiful are the humble folk who receive it with love and purity of soul. These are the real treasures of the Orthodox Church in Guatemala. The sound of their voices continue to fill the heavens.
Now, inspired by the witness of their newfound faith, many communities are asking to renovate or build houses of worship that reflect the beauty and theology of the Orthodox Church. Where once open altars were the norm, simple icon screens are becoming the new focus of worship. Domes or cupolas are crowning church structures, and icons instead of statues are adorning the interior spaces of many sanctuaries. All of these changes are shaping a new mindset and orientation towards worship and the church. The intense power of their Christ-centered individual and corporate faith remains the same, but now it finds full expression in their communion with all the saints in a heavenly world without end.
Up until the late fifties, the sparsely populated jungle area of Ixcan in western Guatemala was thought to be worthless by the government. In an effort to populate the region for the benefit of the indigenous tribes, a program of land reform was initiated. Taking advantage of this opportunity, a Maryknoll priest- Father William Woods- purchased 100 square miles of inaccessible jungle land and began to form cooperatives to assist the Mayan people. With three airplanes, he and other pilots flew thousands of flights to take the produce of these cooperatives to market. Then in 1970, oil was discovered in that region. As a result, the now settled local people were forced to plant grass on their land and leave, thus ceding their land to the rich and powerful for exploitation. As the Mayans only advocate, Woods tried to prevent this land grab by bringing their plight to the attention of the world. He was warned by the military to leave or else. Shortly thereafter his plane crashed in the jungle, and within an hour key telltale components of the plane were removed from the site by the military. Later an army officer confirmed the suspicion of foul play.
The years after the priest’s martyric death were painful for the Ixcan colonizers. A number of times Guatemalan soldiers entered the Ixcan cooperatives to burn, to torture, and massacre the indigenous population. Many had to flee to Mexico or hide in the jungle in order to escape the genocide perpetrated by the Guatemalan army. When those who fled were finally repatriated in 1995 they returned to the Ixcan territory to often find that their original plots of land were given to others by the army. Through subsequent Church efforts most people have recovered their lands. Their gratitude and love for Father Bill Woods has never wavered. His photo hangs in many churches. The late Fr. Andres Giron, the founder of the Orthodox Church in Guatemala and onetime leader of the campesino movement for land reform, named one of the coastal villages he founded after William Woods.
Today, the Orthodox Christians of Ixcan, who were part of this turbulent history and the violent civil war, have vivid memories of this time of trouble. With the peace accords of 1996 and the restoration of their lands, they tried to create a new life for themselves. During the years that followed, however, a period of alienation and estrangement ensued between many of the humble peasants and the area Catholic parishes to which they belonged. They complained of indifference, neglect and even abusive treatment on the part of their clergy. After numerous efforts at reconciliation proved futile, a number of families made the decision on December 31st, 2016, to separate themselves from their mother church. It should be pointed out that in Guatemala and all of Latin America there have been massive defections from the Catholic Church since the 1970s as per a November 2014 Pew report. And so it was that in January of 2010, these disaffected Mayan communities in Ixcan petitioned to become members of the Orthodox Church under the leadership of Fr. Andres Giron. Expelled from the Catholic Church himself for his political activities, the Mayan people of Ixcan found in him a compassionate spiritual leader and defender of their rights.
I visited the faithful of Ixcan with Father Andres nearly four years ago for the first time. What I found was a faithful remnant living in the most humble of circumstances and praying in weathered shanty-like structures consisting of wooden slats, dirt floors covered with fragrant pine needles, and rusty tin roofs, from which colorful streamers hung. I call these the cathedrals of the poor, magnificent in their unassuming simplicity. Since we were visiting these remote outposts of the Church for the first time, the faithful wanted to offer us something special from their meager substance. Some of the village men at early dawn went to the nearby river, hoping to catch a big fish in honor of Fr. Andres’ first visit. They prayed before casting their nets. Then to their surprise and delight, they caught a 30 pound fish, which they proudly presented to us upon our arrival. They saw this large piscine prize as a confirmation of their decision to throw in their lot with Fr. Andres. After this four year hiatus, I was able to visit two of the communities again this past February of 2016, at which time they showed us two newly purchased parcels of land. Fr. Evangelos, the parish priest, who visits them every two months or so, told me that he would like to make the Holy Trinity parish in Mayaland a regional center for Orthodoxy. The potential for growth is great, and the people seem very mission minded. They feel that a proper Orthodox Church structure will give them the visibility they need to reach out and spread the faith to neighbors and friends. Presently, as before, the communities that I visited continue praying and worshiping in their temporary wooden structures. What is lacking in material beauty, however, is more than compensated for by a profound faith and spiritual vitality that shakes the very rafters of their humble churches. When homes and land were lost to them before, they found their consolation in Christ, who now has led them into the Orthodox fold. Their long journey through many trials is a great testament to their resilient faith. May we be worthy of their trust in us.