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.
Life goes on in chilly, cloudy Aguacate! If you have ever flown on a plane through the clouds, you will have an idea what it’s like outside of our windows in Aguacate. The village is so high up in the mountains, that clouds usually sit on it. Clouds, being comprised of water vapor, make everything pretty damp and cold. On one rare day, the clouds lifted and we saw the sunshine. We were even blessed with a most beautiful sunset. Despite the chill in the air, the Mayan community here is filled with warmth and love, which makes it an excellent location for our clinic.
The latest medical team from the US had a very busy week in the clinic. Dr. Todd Giese, a private practice doctor from Chicago, IL, Dr. Alexis Vien, who serves a hospital in the Bronx, NY, and Nurse Sarah Lantz, who works at a university hospital in Kansas City, barely got to rest. During the 5-day operation, we treated 270 people in all. I assisted Dr. Alexis with translations. It was a 3-way operation, because most of the people in this area speak their native Mayan language, Chuk. Juana, the village health care worker, spoke to them in Chuk, then to me in Spanish, then I relayed the information to the doctor. Then, back again. The women, who are very modest, were so happy to have a woman doctor. They are too shy to even tell a man their health problems, let alone to be examined by one. Some were surprised to learn that they were diabetic or had high blood pressure. We gave them life-saving medications. We also had quite a few positive pregnancy tests.
It was gratifying to supply much-needed medications to people who have no access to them. It was also heartbreaking to tell some people, who needed surgery, that we were not able to do it. One man walked for 3 hours through the mud to reach us. He arrived wet and muddy up to his knees, only to discover that we could not operate on his painful hernia.
An elderly, ragged woman hiked barefoot for 1 hour, down a steep mountain slope to show us horrific fungal growths on her leg. None of us had ever seen anything like it. Dr. Alexis took photos and sent them to a dermatologist in the US. By the time a response came in and we realized that we had a medication to help her, the woman had set off up the mountain again. Dr. Alexis and Juana took off running up the mountain slope, but could not reach her. Juana will try to make contact and help her toward a cure.
At the end of the week, we drove the medical team to Mexico for their return home. They leave behind a village filled with gratitude for their kindness. We pray that God blesses and keeps them in their work so that one day they may return to us. We look forward to the next medical team which will arrive in April. We thank everyone who has partnered with us in bringing this clinic to fruition through both their prayerful and financial support. May God bless all of you as you have blessed the Mayan people.