Four years ago, the first OCMC mission team to visit the Mayan Orthodox Christians in the highlands of Guatemala elicited this poignant response from the late Fr. Andres Giron: “Now we know that we are not alone.” Since that time many teams have arrived offering their musical, catechetical, medical, dental, architectural and construction skills to the rapidly growing membership of this indigenous church. As a result, tens of thousands of our Mayan brethren now realize that they are part of the Great Church of Christ, which is to be found in all parts of the world. Yet another very concrete expression of this truth was made real by the visit (July 1-6) of my Holy Cross parish mission team to the Fr. Andres Giron medical/dental clinic in the remote border village of Aguacate. Patients came from as far away as 7 hours on the flatbed of a pickup truck to receive medical attention. Also, the life of a two year old feverish child, who was convulsing and near death, was saved by the rapid response of our medical team, led by Robert Kirschner, our project director and Dr. Alexis Megaludis-Politis our medical provider. Others who participated in the team’s effort were Kassiana Politis (medical intake and pharmacy), Lia Dennison and her daughter Lillian (eye testing), Alexa Megaludis (medical intake and dental assistant), and Dr. Willie Manteris (dental work).
Another important feature of the outreach was the videography of Manny Politis and his assistant Johnny Chakos, which will highlight elements of the compelling history and life of the village, as well as the impact of the clinic on the lives of its residents. Presbytera Alexandra and I, together with long-term missionary Jesse Brandow, served as interpreters. This mission of mercy not only made real the Gospel imperative to love our neighbor, it reflected the love and generous support that our Holy Cross parish has for those in greatest need. At times like this the convicting words of Christ come to mind: “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40). May we always see the face of Christ in those who lay claim to our love.
What is the happiness that God calls us to? Can we find paradise on earth? Serving now as I do in the fertile mission field of Guatemala, I often experience privileged moments of spiritual joy in the humblest of settings. My first such mission epiphany occurred in Tanzania upon my arrival some twenty years ago. My eagerness to celebrate my first Sunday Liturgy was tempered by a bad reaction to the food, which kept me up all night. It was not a pleasant experience. Should I or should I not travel for two hours over the bumpy, unpaved roads that made the storied potholes in the streets of my hometown, Pittsburgh, seem like a super highway? My body said, “Stay in bed,” but my heart said, “Go.” Despite a red rash on my face and head, a churning stomach, and weakened body, I forced myself to get into our Toyota Forerunner. As a priest, I had never missed a Sunday Liturgy. I didn’t come all the way to Africa to stay home, sick in bed. This was my moment of truth.
The road lived up to its reputation for beating you up and knocking you mercilessly around, but thankfully, we didn’t have to stop for any emergencies. Upon arriving at the village and entering the humble village church, I slowly began to feel better, not wholly well, but definitely more functional. The Liturgy proved to be ethereal, and my joy uncontainable, not because of any external splendor, but because of it’s exact opposite — abject poverty. I knew that I was looking at Christ and praying in His church. What a sight! The choir of emaciated children assembled in bare feet, together , no doubt, with a host of angels. To my surprise, the children wore donated T- shirts from our Pittsburgh Summer camp as choir robes. Many eager congregants gathered from afar, including nursing mothers with babies and little children in tow. The village elders saw to it that we were greeted warmly as their esteemed guests. After the bishop intoned the blessing of the Kingdom, the gentle flow of the Liturgy began to run its course. The choir of children sang the responses flawlessly in angelic tones. And when it came time for Holy Communion, the Holy Spirit took over. From everywhere people came, dancing, singing, worshiping God with an unmatched fervor. The church became another Mt. Tabor. It was as if I had ascended the mountain with Peter, James and John to taste heaven in the remote Tanzanian village of Rukoma. Even today, as I travel to the remote mountain villages of Guatemala, I keep finding these humble, yet magnificent pockets of paradise. What need have we of intoxicants to create an illusory paradise when we can experience the real thing? This spiritual stimulant will never enslave us or let us down. Today, let us say “no” to self-indulgence and “yes” to the Cross of our Lord. In this way will we discover the great mystery that it is only in dying to self that we can rise again to new life. Is this not a high worth striving for? Here are some highlights from Holy Week in Guatemala.
Palm Sunday was a new and very moving experience for me among the Mayan faithful. Of course, the church was packed as usual, but they raise the celebration to a new level with their love of processions and the enormous sizes of the palm crosses, which they wave joyously to the accompaniment of their music.
Hundreds processed with us through the whole village singing the festal hymn as we followed the large icon of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It reminded me of the joy of the first Palm Sunday, especially that expressed by the children of which there are so many in Aguacate. And even when the Liturgy and procession was over, everyone returned to the church to continue expressing their joy in song. Their sense of anticipation for the remainder of Holy Week was very palpable, even though the Orthodox rituals were unknown to them until recently. The passion of Christ, in whatever form it is reenacted, has a universal appeal. Today, on Palm Sunday, it came alive, as though Christ Himself had just entered their village.This is truly a fertile field for the church, and yet another indication that Orthodoxy can establish firm roots in other cultures and countries.
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.”