One of the joys in visiting a parish in Guatemala is the warm welcome given to the visiting clergy. Such was the case upon our arrival at the village of Guaxacana (wa-sha-ca-na) on January 28th.
Not only was the Orthodox community celebrating the 14th anniversary of its founding, but also the installation of the church’s newly constructed icon screen. As we processed to the Holy Transfiguration Church along the village’s dusty road, accompanied by musicians and hundreds of the faithful, we also encountered the cacophonous and competing musical strains and shouts of loudspeakers from the Catholics, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, and Monophysites, each caught up in their own little world of worship. This babel of religions proved once again that Guatemala could no longer call itself a Catholic country. And now Holy Orthodoxy, the new kid on the block, brings to Guatemala something authentic, that is, something tried, tested and true into this diverse mix. The addition of the icon screen will set the parish apart, witnessing to the distinctiveness of our faith and its unique form of liturgical worship. Arriving at the front doors of the parish, Fr. Evangelos, their first and only priest, greeted the parishioners as the loud popping sounds of welcoming fireworks exploded all around us. This raccous greeting, although different in form, reminded me of the the prophetic words that greeted Jesus as He triumphantly entered Jerusalem: “ Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” I call this the great entrance, Guatemalan style. Once inside the church, we saw for the first time the wooden icon screen, built by the parishioners themselves. In the past they were accustomed to open altars without barriers that anyone could approach, quite often without a sense of awe. Now a more reverent orientation to God and the idea of sacred space as defined by the icon screen would point them more emphatically towards the kingdom of heaven. Likewise, the holy invitation to partake of the Eucharist “with the fear of a God, with faith and with love” would set a new tone in worship. Little by little or as the saying in Spanish goes , “poco a poco,” the Orthodox Church is quietly finding its way into the hearts of the believers. And in Guaxacana the sacred icons of the saints are reminders to all that we are made in the image of God and called to grow in His likeness. We left Guaxacana that day with the sense that in some small way we had experienced a taste of heaven.
On May 28, 2012, Fr. Andres Giron and I made an historic visit to the humble village of Los Angeles in the region of Ixcan. It would be the first time that Fr. Andres would meet with them on their spiritual journey to the Orthodox Church. To celebrate this special occasion, some of the village men awoke early that morning to go fishing at the nearby river. To their surprise and utter delight, they caught a large 15 kilo fish, which they would later boil for our meal. To the fishermen it was a sign: God was blessing their decision to become Orthodox Christians. Now after five years, another surprise and unexpected blessing sprang up in the midst of their jungle habitat.
The parish of St. John the Baptist, my first parish assignment in Chicago, and a Christian foundation have provided the funds to build a new church in honor of the Baptist. I have just returned from visiting the new site and was greatly impressed, not only with the progress, but also with the quality of workmanship. With no professional skill and no detailed architectural drawings, they have managed to erect a glorious structure. The area neighbors thought they were dreamers and would start something that would never be completed. Now those same neighbors, many of whom are not Orthodox, are making their own donations, asking for prayers and helping with the construction.
This has been a real community effort- men, women and children carrying stones from the nearby riverbed for the foundation and sand used to mix the cement. While you can’t see it from the photos, these people live in humble wooden shacks under the shade of the tropical jungle that covers them. That same jungle was their protection during the civil war, when they did not know whether they would live or die from the shelling. Now their refer to it as their paradise. The completion of this house of worship, born of much prayer, fasting and many sacrifices, will be a testament to their faith and a great witness of Orthodoxy’s love for those living in remote places and in seeming anonymity, and yet known to God. The long suffering people of Ixcan are the hidden saints of the Church. Their prophetic vision and love for the faith will bring many to Christ. In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus said: “And I have other sheep which are not of this fold, them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16). The people of Ixcan have heard His voice and now are true members of Christ’s flock.
Archbishop Athenagoras of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Mexico, motivated by his pastoral concern and deep love for the Mayan people, initiated the construction of the FATHER ANDRES GIRON CLINIC in the remote village of Aguacate, Guatemala. Now after two years of compassionate medical outreach offered by teams of volunteer medical professionals and charitable foundations, a remarkable change has occurred. Not only are people healthier, but their faith has been renewed. This video provides a brief introduction to the profound impact of one humble mission on the lives of thousands of people. See the video here, or watch it below:
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.