Led by their charismatic leader in Guatemala- the late Father Andres Giron (2014), the Mayan people found a champion to vigorously address their spiritual and material needs. The social movement began with his advocacy for land reform and their repatriation to lands forcibly taken from them. No longer having a spiritual home because of many dislocations brought about by a brutal civil war and the absence of pastoral care, these same people also asked Father Andres to assume responsibility for their spiritual lives. Village after village sought him out for sacraments — baptisms, weddings, confessions, the Holy Eucharist, health care and healing. Having been expelled from his mother church for his political activities, he was additionally threatened with death and nearly assassinated four times, even while accompanied by body guards. Fr. Andres, nonetheless, bravely traveled to remote places where the faithful yearned to hear the Gospel preached from a man who dearly loved them, even unto death. This true apostle of Christ, accompanied by a small cadre of dedicated priests that he had inspired and trained, led his long-suffering flock into the embrace of the Orthodox Christian Church in 2010. It was Archbishop Athenagoras of Mexico who wisely opened the door of Orthodoxy to the tens of thousands of Mayans who now call the Orthodox Church their true mother.
Since this time, the church has grown and can now be found in more than 150 villages throughout Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico. The seeds of this movement have now been planted in the United States in places like Oakland, California and the state of Washington, where pockets of Guatemalans are seeking to establish their own distinctively Mayan Orthodox churches. On July 13 and 14, I joined Father Evangelos Pata, the Vicar for Guatemala, in Oakland to celebrate the Divine Liturgy for 300 people, as well as the rites of Baptism and Chrismation for 16 candidates. Fr. Tom Zafferes, priest of the nearby Ascension Church, with the blessing of his hierarch, Archbishop Gerasimos, desirous of meeting the pious members of the community, participated as well. Most of the Guatemalan faithful hailed from the region of Todos Los Santos in the state of Huehuetenango. Arrayed in their typical indigenous vesture, they honored the revered traditional dress of their Mayan ancestors.
A bright future is envisioned for these fledgling communities of Guatemalans. Following the example of their beloved founder, Father Andres, they hope one day to reach out to the greater Latino community in the United States. Evangelistic efforts like this one are happening throughout Guatemala every day. Our team of five OCMC missionaries serving in the field, led by the five indigenous clergy, are spreading the Good News with support from so many people of good will throughout the world. To date, we have established the Father Andres Giron Medical Clinic, fully operational since 2015, the St. Andres Seminary, housing and training 12 students, a sewing center for Orthodox vestments, a catechetical training center for the many catechists of the church, a medical scholarship fund to train doctors and nurses, a center to publish liturgical texts and the “Calendario Ortodoxo” of daily saints and Scripture readings. Besides this, there is an active program of church construction and renovation taking place, allowing us to bear witness to the unique character of the Orthodox church in icons, architecture and ritual. All of this is made possible with the help and encouragement of Archbishop Athenagoras, as well as visiting OCMC teams of medical professionals, construction workers, translators, teachers, and many generous foundations and donors. Working together, we can make the great mission legacy of Fr. Andres and his priests and people, a great witness that redounds to the glory of God.
Of the many miracles that Jesus performed, surely the healing of the man born blind ranks among the greatest. According to St. John Chrysostom’s interpretation, the man’s eyes were literally created with mud moistened by Jesus’s saliva and opened by washing them in the Pool of Siloam. While modern medicine cannot replicate such marvels, it can at times serve as the healing hands of Jesus in other ways to restore or improve our eyesight. For the first time at our Father Andres Giron Medical Clinic, we were able to set up a fully operational vision clinic. The outreach was spearheaded by University of Pittsburgh professor and pediatrician Dr. Larry Butler, his wife Susan, University of Pittsburgh Medical student Mary Morkos, Doctor of Optometry student Jenny Liu and her computer-savvy brother Peter. Also, our team was able to count upon the expertise of a Guatemalan optometrist-Cesar Roman- accompanied by daughter Mimi. While an eye exam and a new prescription for eye glasses may seem routine for most of us, this is surely not the case for most people living in the rural Highlands of Guatemala. Indeed, almost all of the patients streaming into our clinic over four days never had their eyes checked before, much less worn a pair of eye glasses. Imagine, then, their joy when testing a pair of glasses and seeing, as one man from Aguacate put it, “so many colors.” This “miracle” was made possible by the donation of 1,300 pairs of prescription glasses, 300 pairs of reading glasses and a high-end auto refractor, all of which made it through the Mexico City airport after tearful appeals to the humanity of the customs officials. Now, because of this blessed convergence of so many dedicated people and donated high tech equipment, an elderly woman in Guatemala happily tells us that she will be able to read her Bible again. This may seem like such a small thing to us, and yet for her it is a miracle. And with the blind man, she, too, will be able to say, “I was blind and now I can see” (John 9:25). To all who continue to generously support the Father Andres Clinic, please accept our deep gratitude for your show of love. It is making a big difference in the lives of so many people.
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