What’s it like to be an itinerant priest in Guatemalan, visiting your many parishes on a bi-monthly basis? With so much to do and so little time for hearing confessions, performing weddings and baptisms and celebrating the Divine Liturgy, there is both a sense of “great joy and great sorrow,” to quote that great apostle of the poor- St. Kosmas Aitolos. The joy, he explains, comes from seeing the “good disposition and good repentance” of the faithful. This is certainly the case in Guatemala, as we are often received with songs of joy, confetti, fireworks, flower petals and lots of friendly hugs, followed by the rush for confession. The sorrow, he further states, comes from “thinking of my own unworthiness because I don’t have time to hear all of your confessions one by one…” As I journeyed with Father Evangelos Pata on one of his recent parish visitations, I shared in his frustration upon seeing the great spiritual need of his people. In one day, for example, we were obliged to hear many confessions, celebrate the Divine Liturgy, baptize 26 people and conduct 3 marriages. Because such visits are somewhat infrequent, especially in the smaller communities, inevitably there will be one or more troubled individuals that need more face time with the priest. As if this were not enough, preceding the day’s labor intensive pastoral load is the precipitous climb up the narrow, serpentine dirt paths that hug the steep mountainside. Of course, the priest has the stress of having to drive himself, since few are they that can be trusted to drive. One mistake would certainly lead to a tragic free fall of at least 1000 feet or more. Our many hairpin turns eventually bring us to an exhilarating climax atop a lush taborian plateau. Here on this ethereal and breathtaking eyrie, the Orthodox faithful of La Democracia have constructed their own spiritual nest. Like the stunning view from the monasteries of Meteora, Greece, we have the sense of being suspended in mid-air, somewhere between heaven and earth. But the hard truth does not change; the plentiful harvest that is found in the rural areas and mountainsides of Guatemala has only a few laborers. As priests we depend upon the local community, especially the catechists, to lay the groundwork for these intense, but rewarding pastoral visits. Why, some might ask, are there not more priests recruited for this mission? Guatemala as a mission field has its own set of unique challenges. The tradition of married clergy, for one, is relatively unknown. Most married men have large families to care for and as farmers must work their own fields. Poverty is another deterrent as the Guatemalan priests have no reliable income or benefits. The money that is collected from parish visitations is usually enough to cover the cost of gas. Lack of education or even illiteracy is another drawback. The Orthodox priest requires not only a basic knowledge of the faith, but the ability to communicate it to others. At our humble San Andres seminary, we have a promising group of young men who are being prepared to take on this responsibility for the future of the church. However, more time is needed before they can be sent out into the field. Until then, we keep praying to “the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest” (Matthew 9:38). Father John Chakos.
Solomon, I have outdone thee,” were the words spoken by Justinian the Great in the 6th century as he beheld the awe-inspiring beauty of his newly rebuilt cathedral of the Holy Wisdom of God- St. Sophia in Constantinople. Since that time, Orthodox Christian churches have endeavored to replicate elements of that same classical design.
Usually built at great expense, towering cathedrals were prominently situated in the great centers of earthly power and prestige throughout the inhabited world. How then, one might ask, can a little known Guatemalan village, with the famous name of Los Angeles, qualify for such a lofty honor?
Indeed, there could be no two places in the world further apart in terms of development. Up until a few years ago, the only way to enter the once war-torn region of Ixcan, where the village of Los Angeles is located, was by plane or helicopter. Today, however, we can access Los Angels by first traveling along the border between Mexico and Guatemala, then crossing a border bridge onto a red dirt road, barely wide enough for one car. A bumpy three-kilometer roller-coaster ride of twists and turns through a dense jungle, burned in sections to create farm land and animal pasture, brings us to our destination. Only six years ago, I made this same trip by a different route through lush green mountains with Fr. Andres Giron, the church’s founder, and Fr. Evangelos Pata, its pastor. Upon arrival, we climbed a steep, muddy path to the entrance of the little church, a humble structure of slightly separated wooden slats and a rusty metal roof. The dirt floor reeked with the welcoming fragrance of pine needles and wild flowers. On that day, I could never have imagined that my eyes would see the building that exists today — a magnificent cruciform and domed structure, rivaling in size and quality of construction and grandeur many of our Orthodox churches in America. How could such a miracle of resilient faith, human resolve and ingenuity manifest itself in such a remote location, known for its oppressive heat, torrential rains and flooding, difficult access and limited resources? Here there were no road signs, gas stations, hardware stores or sanitary facilities. The only scaffolding available was makeshift structures of wood harvested from the nearby forest and nailed precariously together for support. And yet, to the amazement of all, an ambitious building project, which began from a simple sketch nine months ago on August 18th, is now a completed and consecrated Orthodox church. It now will celebrate the feast day of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist and Forerunner on June 24th, intentionally chosen to coincide with and in honor of the ordination day of Father Andres Giron to the holy priesthood. The impetus to build the church began some four years ago with a generous offer of sponsorship from Fr. John Rallis of St. John the Baptist Church in Des Plaines, Illinois. Through his encouragement and support, together with the architectural expertise of George Prosiliakos, possible sites for the project were evaluated. Fr. Evangelos Pata, the itinerant priest for many of the Orthodox communities in the region, knowing the pulse of the people in Los Angeles, gave his approval, as this community showed great zeal in establishing their community as a center for Orthodoxy that would also reach out to its neighbors and beyond. Even with such a strong recommendation, no one could have believed that a small, but dedicated core group of basically unskilled laborers with some outside help from their neighbors could accomplish so great a feat. Thus the humble village of Los Angeles, “among the least” in the land of the Mayans, has become the forerunner in our collaboration with those who would embrace Christ through the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic faith.” While the church in Ixcan may never rival St. Sophia in its scope and size, the awe-inspiring achievement of the humble people of Los Angeles will certainly resound until the Second Coming to the glory of God. Acknowledgement must also be given to His Eminence Archbishop Athenagoras, for his blessing and encouragement, as well as to the Orthodox Christian Mission Center and the Ancient Christian Foundation for their generous support. Many have been the angels that have prepared the way of the Lord, enabling the parish of St. John the Baptist to call the people of Ixcan to repentance.
From the Saturday of Lazarus to the celebration of Pascha, we walked in Jesus’ footsteps in and through the humble village of Aguacate. Through our Orthodox Holy Week rituals the Mayan faithful felt the power of Christ’s passion, transforming the familiar ground upon which they walked into their own Holy Land. Seen through the long suffering perspective of the Chuj people, the passion of the Christ took on a new and poignant meaning. Only a few years ago, they prayerfully gathered in their little church to meet what they thought would be their possible demise. As a community they had already decided not to flee their homeland, come what may. The invading army of a cruel dictatorship, known for its genocidal acts against the indigenous population, arrived as expected. The village elders told the army leaders, “do with us what you will; we will not leave our village.” The armed soldiers relented and left Aguacate in peace. Their Good Friday became a Resurrection, a testament to their own courage and conviction that God’s love conquers every evil. Throughout all the well attended services, we felt the holy energy of a tenacious faith tested by the purifying fire of a hard life fraught with many privations. It has been our joy to serve them in some small way, receiving more from them than we can give. Christ is Risen! Father John
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.