Monday, November 26, 2012

Now Appearing

Fr. John Chakos will be appearing and offering a power point presentation about the Guatemalan mission at the following locations:

Tuesday, November 27, 12:00 noon
St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary
South Canaan, PA

Tuesday, November 27, 7:00 pm
St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church
1607 West Union Boulevard
Bethlehem, PA 18018

Upcoming:  December 5 - 10, 2012
Fr. John and Presv. Alexandra will be attending and speaking at the Archon Orthodox Christian Pilgrimage in Havana, Cuba.  Photos and information about this historic event will be posted.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

TUNE IN!

ANNOUNCEMENT:  As part of Missions Week at Holy Cross School of Theology in Boston, MA, Fr. John Chakos and Fr. Andres Giron will deliver a lecture entitled, Mission to Guatemala: Receiving the Mayan People Into the Orthodox Church.   The lecture, which will take place on Thursday, November 8, at 7:00 pm, will be live-streamed over the Internet.  To view the lecture online, visit:
http://bit.ly/HCHCMissionsLecture


Thursday, October 4, 2012

PORTRAIT OF A CATECHIST: THE FOOT SOLDIERS OF CHRIST


PORTRAIT OF A CATECHIST: FOOT SOLDIERS OF CHRIST- Father John
Chakos

Catechist heading home
The newly emergent Guatemalan Orthodox Church under the omophorion of Metropolitan Athenagoras faces many challenges, not the least of which is the low number of canonically ordained priests--eight to be exact--who serve the spiritual needs of its nearly 300 communities.

Catechist speaking to clergy

They travel over great distances into remote mountainous areas, often along dangerous and at times impassible muddy roads, going from village to village in an attempt to reach people that the world has seemingly forgotten. Because of this glaring shortage, one of the top priorities of Father Andres Giron, Vicar of the Guatemalan Orthodox Church, is the recruitment and training of qualified candidates for the holy priesthood. In the meantime, and certainly well into the future, the pressing spiritual needs of such a vibrant, dynamic and growing church movement require an empowered laity, not only willing to fill the pastoral void, but to promote the church's greater mission to expand its outreach. Among those who stand in the forefront of this great challenge are the church's catechists. It is about these men and women of faith that I wish to speak.

Who are the catechists and what role do they play? They are most certainly teachers as the name implies, but also the respected leaders of the church communities. They possess a moral authority that goes well beyond the mere teaching of the faith. They are the voice of Christ to the people and organizers of the spiritual, educational and worship life of the community. They are indeed the backbone of the Orthodox Church in Guatemala and in every sense the foot soldiers of Christ. Without them the church would not have been able to advance as it has over the past twenty-five years.

I have gained a greater appreciation of their unique role in the church by attending the bi-monthly seminars that are held at the Centro Apostólico in Huehuetenango. They often travel from great distances at great expense to themselves to attend the two day seminars. They carry their own bedding and even children with them and sleep on the cement floor of the large lecture hall where the classes are held. They love and live by the Holy Scriptures and speak of Christ and the Church with great conviction. Likewise they lead late night vigils of prayer in their villages and call upon the faithful to fast for specific intentions. In short, they fulfill the calling of the royal priesthood of the believers through prophetic teaching and preaching, self-donating service and virtuous leadership. I greatly admire their commitment and am inspired by their faith. It is amazing what an empowered laity can do to set the church on fire. If Orthodoxy is to grow in Latin America it will need catechists like these to lead the way.

The Mission Center in Huehuetenango
CENTRO APOSTÓLICO


Home Again!

I apologize, Dear Readers, for having neglected you for so many weeks.  We returned to our Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania home at the beginning of September.  The time flew by as we re-aquainted ourselves with family and friends and rejoiced in the birth of our 11th grandchild.  While our life in the U.S. is certainly comfortable and pleasant, we have not succumbed to retiree La-La-Land.  We are still devoted to our Guatemalan mission and are actively working on it here, raising funds and amassing supplies to take back.

I have been purchasing supplies for the vestment sewing project that are difficult to access in Guatemala, such as, galloon trim, cross appliqués, buttons, and emblems.  Fr. John has been collecting ecclesiastical supplies for the Guatemalan churches, such as, communion sets (which include a chalice, paten, asterisk, spoon, and lance), censors, portable Holy Communion kits, and hand-held blessing crosses.  If you know of a church that has these items to spare, please send them to:
Guatemalan Mission
c/o Holy Cross Church
123 Gilkeson Road
Pittsburgh, PA 15228

Upcoming Events:
  • WALK FOR MISSIONS -- October 14, 2012 -- a 7K hike in Pittsburgh's South Park where participants collect pledges to earn money for each mile walked.  All proceeds benefit the Guatemalan mission.  It begins at 2:00 pm.  For more information, call Holy Cross Church, 412-833-3355 or email atchakos04@msn.com
  • RECEPTION & LECTURE -- October 25 -- Holy Cross Church Community Center, 7:00 pm.  An evening of hearty appetizers and desserts by Chef Domenica Merante and a talk by Fr. John Chakos, Mission to Guatemala: Receiving the Mayan People Into the Orthodox Church.  Donation, $35; proceeds to benefit Three Hierarchs Eastern Orthodox School and the Guatemalan mission.
  •  MISSION WEEK at HOLY CROSS SEMINARY -- BOSTON, MA -- November 5 - 10 -- Fr. Andres Giron, leader of the Guatemalan Orthodox Church, and Fr. John Chakos will be lecturing and teaching classes on Orthodox missions, especially in Guatemala.  
  •  FEAST DAY OF ST. NICHOLAS -- HAVANA, CUBA -- December 5 - 10 -- The Order of St. Andrew Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate will be making a pilgrimage to celebrate the Feast Day of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Havana, Cuba.  Fr. Andres Giron and Fr. John Chakos will be presenting a talk about the rapid growth of Orthodoxy in Guatemala.
If you would like to make a monetary donation in support of the mission, checks can be made out to Holy Cross Mission Fund, designated for Guatemala, and mailed to the address above.  Fr. John and I plan to resume our work in Guatemala in January, 2013.  Keep logging on to our blog for a new and inspirational article by Fr. John, coming soon!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


A ROOM OF MY OWN

In the 1920's, author Virginia Woolf lectured and wrote to advance the cause of women's freedom.  In her essay, "A Room of One's Own," she states, "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."  I propose the same to be true If a woman is to sew.

As I rode from Guatemala City to Nueva Concepcion, where my sewing mission was to continue for another six weeks, my heart was as full as the pick-up truck that carried us.   My heart was loaded with anticipation.  The truck was loaded with my sewing supplies: 3 sewing machines, many bolts of fabric, boxes of sundry notions, and my treasure -- the ecclesiastical patterns I had drafted and honed for over 40 years.  The three women who had traveled to the city to attend my class, Eulalia, Romelia, and Presvytera Reina, would again join me for the next phase, vestment construction.

Fr. Andres was out of town when we arrived in Nueva Concepcion, but the 18 boys in residence gave us a warm welcome.  When they led me to the place that was designated for my sewing workshop, my happy heart sank.  The room was in a long, low building, comprised of a series of 5 rooms, each with a door opening to an outdoor corridor.  The first two rooms had been remodeled into sleeping quarters.  The third room was used for corn storage.  The fifth room was where Charlie, the handyman/security guard stayed.  The fourth room, filled with junk and copious evidence of rodent visitation, was to be mine.  My face must have evidenced my shock and disappointment.  The boys immediately set about emptying the room and sweeping it clean.

Fr. John and I wasted no time in ordering tables from a local carpenter.  The carpentry shop was a dismal, dirt-floor shanty, but nonetheless, equipped with power tools.  The barefoot, shirtless craftsmen toiled at sawing wood and welding metal framework without the aid of protective gear.  We ordered one large table for cutting fabric and three smaller ones for the sewing machines.  As we tried to establish a delivery date for the order, the carpenters quickly pulled shiny cell phones from their tattered pockets.  Anachronisms are not unusual here.

Next on our rushed agenda was to hire a contractor to bring the sewing room up to my standards of cleanliness and functionality.  There were a few basic needs such as, a water-tight roof, a ceiling, lighting, electrical outlets, glass windows with screening, ventilator fans, shelving, painting, and a door.  Call me a spoiled Gringa, but those were my demands.  Jairo, the contractor, claimed he could get the job done in one week.  I thought that projection to be overly optimistic, but we paid him half of the $3000
  estimate to get started.  Although the work began, weeks passed, a month passed and my room was still not finished.





If not for the patience and tolerance of Fr. Andres, my time here would have been wasted.  When my tables arrived, (one week later than the promised date) Fr. Andres allowed me to set up my workshop in the living room of his home and invited my students to come.  He tolerated our scattered threads and fabric scraps, our dropped needles and pins, and the incessant whirring of our machines.  Being in such a central area of the home, we often attracted a circle of curious onlookers, including the household dogs, cats, and an occasional chicken.  When Dona Simona, the cook, took her break from the heat of the kitchen, she heated up the atmosphere in the living room by turning on the TV to her favorite telenovela (soap opera), "Mujeres Locas No Van al Cielo" (Crazy Women Don't Go to Heaven). 

Two of the boys, Jorge and Jose, expressed a serious interest in learning to sew.  I set them to work making Communion cloths and chalice covers.  Because this is a community of men, I also taught them to hem pants, a necessary skill here.  Through his diligence, Jorge actually advanced to sewing a vestment.  In all, my students completed 7 sets of vestments, including matching chalice cover sets.  I am so proud of them!

At last, on Friday, August 24, four days before my departure, Jairo put the finishing touch on the sewing room.  I finally had a room of my own!  While my own usage of the room will be short-live

d, it will remain here to give opportunity to others.  The "room" that Virginia Woolf spoke of was not only physical, but metaphorical as well.  Certainly, a woman needs a space in which to sit and write, but she also must be allowed the personal liberty and freedom from social constraints to explore her talents and create art.  To illustrate her point, Woolf created a fictional character, Judith Shakespeare, the equally talented sister of William.  Denied an education because she was female, Judith was forced into a marriage and died a tragic death, never having brought her creativity to light.  I'm sorry to say that in rural Guatemalan villages, there are women who are still denied an education, and pressured, at an early age, into conjugal relationships, often without the benefit of marriage.  Multiple pregnancies and large families further restrict a woman's life.  It is also not unusual for a man to move into another relationship, leaving the woman and her children destitute.  Opportunities for women to explore their talents, earn a living, and take control of their own lives need to be created.

Thanks to the generous donations of those who supported my mission, I have been able to provide a well-supplied sewing room which might give someone the space she needs to change her life.  This is the beginning of a small industry.  My students will teach others and now, they have a room of their own.






Thursday, August 23, 2012


PASTORAL VISIT TO SAN MIGUEL, TOTONICAPAN
Father John Chakos

     The Orthodox Church in Guatemala belongs to the indigenous people. They are the Mayans who were conquered by the Spaniards 500 years ago, but who continue to live proudly and nobly in accordance with the customs and traditions of their storied past. The first language that they speak is that of their tribe, then the common language of  Guatemala -- Spanish. Because they have honored and adhered to their heritage in this unique, and at times defensive way, the morally corrosive effects of Western civilization have not as of yet replaced the values of their beautiful way of life. So when St. Paul, echoing the sentiments of Isaiah, exclaims: "How beautiful are the feet of of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things" (Romans 9: 15), we could add, as beautiful as the people who receive the message with a pure heart. Such was our experience with the people of the two small villages of San Miguel in TOTONECAPAN. The signs of welcome were not only on balloons and banners, but in

their welcoming smiles and reverent kneeling to kiss our priestly hands. "They make us feel our priesthood and how unworthy we are of their love," a tearful Fr. Andres remarked.
     These two small clusters of families of the people of San Miguel were not unknown to us, even though we were visiting one of the groups for the first time. Traditionalists to  the core, they had rejected the innovations of Vatican Two many years ago. They refused to use instruments in their worship or encourage the clapping of hands when chanting their simple, but pious hymns. On more than one occasion they traveled en masse (men, women and children) five hours in the morning over unpaved mountain roads to reach our seminary for confession and the Divine Liturgy. Decked out in their native dress and arriving early in the morning, they were a sight, not only to behold, but to admire. Holy Communion was only received on bended knee. In addition to their extreme reverence for the priesthood and sacraments, they tithed the produce from their farms to the church. 
     The experience of worshipping with them in their small block churches made of baked mud and clay 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 opens itself up to the humble of heart. On the day of our visit to the second parish, we crismated 37 people, but not before hearing many confessions, a unique and intimate pastoral encounter. As shy and reserved as the women are, adhering to the custom of not eating with nor serving food to visiting men, the floodgates of emotion poured out as they whispered their sins into our attentive ears.
     That which gave further substance to our already favorable impression of these pious people was the genuine warmth of their hospitality. In addition to sharing with us the simple fare of their diet, they gave up their beds to five men, treating us as members of their family. The children, of which there were many, flocked around us, strangers though we were. They, together with their mothers, were mesmerized by my iPad.  They  asked me to replay, again and again, the parts of the church service that I had videoed earlier in the afternoon. After loading up our pick-up truck with produce and a live chicken, we spent at least an hour taking pictures and trying to say good-bye. The good people didn't want us to leave.  


The children gather around Fr. Andres.


Orthodox Church communities like this exist all over Guatemala. New communities are being added to the fold every month, despite the disdain of the Roman Catholic Church, which challenges the authenticity of the Orthodox sacraments. Because of pastoral visits like this in places where other churches have not gone or will not go, Orthodoxy continues to grow. They come, not one or two persons at a time, but whole communities, guided by their elders into the loving care of Fr. Andres, a leader in the agrarian reform movement that has greatly benefited the indigenous population. As  beautiful as those are who 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 fill the heavens from their cathedrals made of mud and clay.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

ASCENT TO TOQUIAN: AN ETHEREAL PASSAGE Father John Chakos

ASCENT TO TOQUIAN: AN ETHEREAL PASSAGE
Father John Chakos

Our recent missionary journey with Archbishop Athenagoras took us to Toquian, Mexico, a tiny border town perched up high in the verdant, but steep, mountain range that divides northern Guatemala from southern Mexico. Many Guatemalans fled here for reasons of safety during a brutal civil war that ended in 1996. On the Mexican side of the border, known as Chiapas, there are some 52 communities affiliated with the Guatemalan Orthodox Church under the leadership of Fr. Andres Giron. Toquian was to be the last stop of this historic pilgrimage, a remote place where no Orthodox hierarch
Perilous Ascent to Toquian




dared visit before. We began our bumpy ascent, carefully winding our way along narrow mountain roads that were breathtakingly beautiful, but one slip of the steering wheel away from sudden disaster. Many dislodged boulders, a product of frequent rockslides, slowed our upward progress and served as menacing reminders of the potential peril ahead. As if this were not enough, a thick cloud cover shrouded the road ahead in places, allowing us no more than a few feet of visibility. In some places, the steep angle of the carved out mountainside hovered tunnel-like over our SUV. The usually loquacious Fr. Andres maintained a sober silence as he drove, sliding, braking and jerking forward over the loose stones, puddles and muddy patches of road.
After many hours we reached the fog-shrouded heights upon which the village majestically rested. It was a marvel of natural beauty that caused me to gasp in awe. Like the Prophet Elijah on Horeb and the great lawgiver Moses on Sinai, we had ascended this holy mountain to listen to the voice of God. He spoke to us through the sad lament of a people who had not tasted the sacraments for 20 years, having been abandoned by the Catholic church. Left to their own devices during this time of exile, they pulled together as a community, drawing on whatever spiritual resources they could muster. Now, in the person of the Archbishop, they found a father who would finally lift their weighty penance with his comforting message of love and acceptance.



Processing to the spirited accompaniment of a mariachi band into the humble block sanctuary dedicated to San Markos, we began the program of welcome with a medley of simple, but lively Christian folk songs. Notable among them was the heartfelt offering






Procession to the Church


of the parish catechist, who composed and sang an original piece in honor of the Archbishop's arrival. We were mesmerized by the depth of his passion. In his remarks of welcome he broke down into tears of inexpressible joy. It's hard for those of us who are accustomed to the regular visit of a hierarch to imagine the impact of such a visit on these all-but-forgotten people. There is a saying in Spanish to describe such a rare occurrence, "como la visita del obispo" (like the visit of a bishop), or as we would say in English, "once in a blue moon."
Our mountain climbing adventure, arduous though it was, proved to be an ethereal ascent into the very mystery of Christ, who sent us to find His lost sheep in the village of Toquian. In a sense we had fulfilled the prayer of Jesus to His Father when He 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).



Como la visita del obispo







Father Blasios greets His Eminence






Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Fairy-Tale Existence

The mention of a fairy-tale life conjures up visions of glittering castles and beautiful princesses being swept away to a happily-ever-after by charming princes on white stallions.  In my youth, I dreamed, as many girls do, that such a perfect life might be in my future.  As the years went by, experience taught me that fairy tales are only make believe.  More recently, I was struck by the realization that my life here in Guatemala bears a remarkable similarity to a fairy tale.  Devoid of fancy gowns and royal soirees, my fairy tale is akin to J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan.

Lacking pixie dust, I flew to my Neverland with the aid of an airplane and a pick-up truck.  It is an idyllic, walled enclave, much like an island, in the midst of a rural area. This location is not exactly "second star to the right and straight on till morning," but somewhere nearby and equally as lush and beautiful in flora and fauna.

I am a much older Wendy, but similarly, on a great adventure.  Instead of a younger brother John, I have the wise Fr. John at my side.  Our rambunctious living companions are eighteen "lost boys" (ages 11 - 18) who have been abandoned by their families for various reasons.  Our Peter Pan, the leader of this rag-tag clan by virtue of his strong sense of justice and fearlessness, is Fr. Andres Giron.  Although he may be aging physically, at his core, Fr. Andres is still a boy who won't grow up.  Through the years, he has gathered in many lost boys and, instead of denying them adulthood, has guided them and educated them to a better life.  Some of them remain with him as Orthodox priests.  Others have gone on to careers in agriculture, education, law, and medicine.  Like Peter Pan, Fr. Andres has vanquished pirates and aided Indians.  In other words, during the tragic days of civil conflict, he was able to wrest land from the hands of the powers that had unjustly appropriated it and return it to the native Mayans.  People still seek out Fr. Andres to settle disputes and to advocate for them when they are wronged.

We have two Princess Tiger Lilys in our fairy tale.  They are Maria (age 18) and Hortensia (14) lovely Mayan girls who have also sought refuge here.  This safe haven offers them sustenance and an education.  Now where would Peter Pan be without Tinker Bell?  That spot is filled by nine-year-old Crista, the daughter of our cook.  A precious sprite who flits about and surprises us with her abundant hugs, she brightens our days with her sunny smiles.  Vying for the role of the crocodile, are a great variety of iguanas, scorpions, and mosquitoes.  They do not warn us with a tick-tock, tick-tock, but are ready to take a bite out of us, nonetheless.

Just as Wendy repaired and reattached Peter's shadow with her needle and thread, I am sewing and repairing the black cassocks for the priests here.  I'm also helping to cook and mother the lost boys.  There is one more similarity in my fairy-tale existence.  As much as Wendy enjoyed her adventures in Neverland, she longed to return to her rightful place as a member of the Darling family of Kensington Gardens.  I, too, miss my friends and family back in Pittsburgh and look forward to the day when I fly back to them.  They are, still and all, my happily ever after.

I'm thinking happy thoughts....pass the pixie dust!

Monday, August 6, 2012






 

Motorcade to Todos Los Santos





THE GREAT ENTRANCE, GUATEMALAN STYLE
Father John Chakos
    
How important is it for a bishop to visit his flock in Guatemala? I was soon to find out with our visit to the parish of Todos Los Santos (All Saints) in Cuchumatan. In a welcome, not unlike that given to Jesus on Palm Sunday, we were eagerly greeted a few miles from our destination by a couple of hundred villagers in native garb, waiting to escort us in a long motorcade of large and small trucks, cars and vans. The procession of the faithful began slowly, winding its way along the serpentine road through the majestic green mountains. A bright morning sun and it's penetrating rays illumined our way, greeting us at each bend of the road with yet another scene of exquisite natural beauty. Our lead vehicle, a white Toyota pick-up equipped with a loud speaker, heralded the auspicious arrival of Archbishop Athenagoras and his entourage of clergy from North America, Columbia, Brazil and Mexico, to the surprise and amazement of many by-standers. A new era was beginning for the much beleaguered Orthodox Church in Guatemala. It was coming upon the land in the strength and glory of its two-thousand- year apostolic tradition in the person of His Eminence Archbishop Athenagoras of Mexico, riding on the wave of faith that began on the holy day of Pentecost. How appropriate that the early church of martyrs, mystics, missionaries and unmercenaries would come to celebrate its new birth in the village of Todos Los Santos.
      The road to Todos Los Santos is a downward spiral from the cool heights of the Altiplano to a much warmer climate that bottoms out into a valley with the lush mountainside for a stunning backdrop. It was on this idyllic stage that the eager hearts of the people of the tribe of Mam awaited the coming of the successor to the apostolic throne of St. Andrew. The long motorcade wound its way through the village streets to the acclaim of the inhabitants. This was a moment for them to savor. As we approached the church, we saw a multitude of the town folk waiting to greet us. Greetings in the Mayan culture are no ordinary events. A friendly wave of the hand or simple blessing 









will not suffice. We had to walk into the crowd and touch, hug, kiss and warmly greet almost every person there. The Archbishop, himself being a warm, loving person, graciously and eagerly fulfilled the required courtesies of the apostolic visit.
      Because the sanctuary could not accommodate the hundreds gathered, a makeshift, open air stage was pieced together in front of the church. From there, the




     Crosses for the Faithful

Archbishop and his priests warmly greeted the faithful, whose vibrant woven vesture, itself a spectacle to behold, contrasted with the black robes of the clergy. Two distinct and historically unique cultures, that of ancient Byzantium and that of the Mayan People, were facing one another for the first time, each respectful of the other and eager to learn more. Just as Jesus reached out to the Samaritans and Paul to the Gentiles, so the Orthodox Church cannot confine itself to the particularities of any one ethnic group. The message of the Gospel is for all. The incarnate Christ wants to take on the flesh of each one of us, transforming our uniqueness into yet another  manifestation of His glory.

























Byzantium and the Maya stand together as the one church of Christ




Sunday, July 29, 2012

COMING ATTRACTIONS!

Coming soon, to this blogspot near you -- the long awaited, much anticipated chronicle of Fr. John's travels to the highland villages with Metropolitan Athenagoras, complete with dramatic photos. Stay tuned for the premier episode. Coming soon!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Shop Till You Drop.

While staying at the orphanage in Guatemala City, I was able to access a variety of stores to supply the needs of my sewing classes. My shopping buddy was usually Señora Irene, one of the capable ladies who organize things at the orphanage. Whatever I needed, Señora Irene knew where to get it. My trusty cab driver, Jose, took me wherever I wanted to go, waited patiently while I shopped, and managed to stuff my many purchases into his small cab. Shopping in the small, rural town of Nueva Concepcion, is a different experience. Here, my driver is Charley, the jack-of-all-trades who takes care of everything at the Orthodox seminary where we are currently staying. A former police officer, he never leaves home without his trusty sidearm. As in the city, stores are usually guarded at the door by unsmiling men, carrying BIG guns. It is a wonder to me that anyone would attempt a theft, considering such a presence of righteous firepower. And yet, robberies do occur. There was a robbery at one of the gas stations that provides an income for the local church. The attendant was shot and critically wounded. He survived and was able to identify his attackers. The police caught up with the perpetrators and shot them dead on the spot. I guess they don't have a backlog of court cases here. There are many stores in Nueva Concepcion, each carrying a very limited supply of very specific merchandise. Each item on one's shopping list must be carefully sought out in a variety of locations until its serendipitous encounter. This can be exhausting! There is an area that they call the "Old Market," reminiscent of the ancient markets I encountered in Jerusalem's Old City, and the bazaars in Istanbul and Cairo. One day, in search of an ironing board for my sewing classroom, I combed the shops of Nueva Concepcion in vain until I finally came upon a man carrying ironing boards on his back and selling them along the streets. It is times like this that make me appreciate the convenience of Walmart. Because I had a long list of things to buy for my classroom, I was offered a ride to Paiz, a large supermarket, affiliated with Walmart. I eagerly accepted. This shopping trip launched us on a more than 3-hour drive over rocky, unpaved roads, past fields of sugar cane and corn, and along groves of banana and rubber trees. Horses, cows, and pigs grazed serenely along the roadside, while cloud-shrouded volcanic peaks ringed the horizon. This scenic drive would have been reward enough for the day. In addition to this joy, the Paiz store offered shopping carts, satisfied all items on my shopping list, and had a quick and easy check-out. What more could a shopper ask for?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Spicy Contrasts

As mentioned in my previous post, Fr. John, Angel, and I made the 3-hour trek from the noisy congestion of Guatemala City to the peaceful, rural environs of Nueva Concepcion. We would be staying at a beautiful compound with a group of 15 older boys from the orphanage and a few Orthodox monks and priests. It is here that Fr. John has been training the newly ordained priests in Liturgics.

It was this change in location that made me realize how a country that is small in territory (the size of Ohio) can encompass great contrasts. The first difference that struck me was the climate. In Guatemala City, situated one mile above sea level, temperatures range from comfortably pleasant to chilly. There were nights when I slept with 2 blankets on my bed. Here in Nueva Concepcion, the temperature also ranges between two points: very hot and insufferable. The additional high humidity and the lack of a breeze provide a constant source of the health benefits of a steam bath. In the city, we were surrounded by brick walls, concrete, and acrid odors. Here, in the country, there are walls of lush, green vegetation with brilliant flowers springing from every nook, perfuming the air. The incessant honking of city traffic and wailing sirens have been replaced by 6 honking geese that waddle about, patrolling their domain and the crowing of a proud rooster, commanding his harem of hens. Life is slower and simpler here. During church services at the orphanage, our souls were lifted to heavenly heights by the cherubic voices of the children, young ladies, and nuns. I was not prepared for the explosion of robust, manly voices that chant the hymns in the Nueva Concepcion chapel. The boys who live at this school are powerful prayer warriors, akin to the archangels.

If, as the old adage says, variety is the spice of life, our lives are being seasoned to perfection here in Guatemala.

OCMC Team

I apologize, dear Readers, that my blog has been neglected for many days. Sporadic Internet connections, coupled with my limited technical skills, have interfered with my blogging. There are photos and information that will be posted as soon as I get some help.

Until recently, I had been working in Guatemala City, teaching sewing at the Hogar Rafael Ayau orphanage. My husband, Fr. John, had been sweating it out (and I mean that literally) in Nueva Concepcion, a 3-hour's drive from the city. In anticipation of the arrival of a 9-person team sent by the OCMC, Fr. John joined me at the Hogar for 2 weeks.

The OCMC team consisted of:
Lia Prodromitis, along with her son, Angel, and daughter, Madai, who are native Guatemalans
Anne Randall, with her son, Carlos, also a native Guatemalan
Georgia Flamporis
Olivia Stevens
Demetria Panopoulos
Katie Berg

What a joy it was to meet and interact with such a wonderful group of dedicated Christians! The team did vacation church school activities and crafts with the children, took them on excursions, and did landscape work on the campus of the orphanage. Angel was so moved by his experience at the Hogar, that he extended his stay to give more service to his countrymen. After the departure of the OCMC team, Fr. John, Angel, and I made the 3-hour trek to Nueva Concepcion to begin a new phase of our work.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Going Buggy

This entry in my blog will not be inspirational.  It is written, instead, as an advisory to any aspiring missionaries in my readership.  My advice is this: when venturing into a new environment, be prepared to give nurture and sustenance, not only to the people in the mission field, but also to the insect population. 

I, personally, have been giving prodigious aid to the blood-thirsty vermin of Guatemala.  My body has become a veritable pincushion for their hungry proboscises.  They stealthily scout my bedroom as I cower beneath my bedcovers, waiting for the opportunity to pierce my face, eyelids, and fingers.  They lurk insidiously in my shower stall, which affords them the purview to attack where no insect has gone before.  Grassy areas outdoors are also their battlefields, where even a copious application of insect repellent does not dissuade them.

I have concluded that God requires my magnanimity as a part of the Guatemalan food chain.  I am a primary food source for the mosquitoes, which, in turn, provide alimentation to the birds.  The birds do their part in fertilizing the earth with their droppings and enhancing the world with their beauty and music.  In fact, it is the gentle cooing of doves and the twittering and chirping of myriad other birds that create a daily symphony which lifts my spirits and brings joy to my heart.  Keeping the birds´ food supply viable is the least I can do to repay them.

In addition to the insects of a sanguinary nature, there are those creepy, crawly ones, too.  One night, I discovered an extremely large cockroach in my bedroom.  Not having any insecticide, I sprayed it with insect repellent and it scurried away.  The repellent did not kill the critter, but most likely, it created an existential crisis within him.  I can imagine the anguished arthropod visiting a cockroach psychiatrist and complaining, "I don´t know what it is, Doc, but lately, I just hate myself." 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Field Trip

These are two of my lovely students, Eulalia and Romelia, who traveled 2 days to reach Guatemala City from the remote mountain village of Avocate.
The girls have been working hard in the sewing room, learning to make cassocks for their priest.

We were also joined by Presvytera Reina Elisabet (whose name translates to Queen Elizabeth) from the town of Nueva Concepcion, a 3-hour distance from Guatemala City .This is Maria Cielo, a resident of the orphanage, who is in charge of caring for the sewing room.  A very bright and creative young lady, she has been a wonderful help to me.  In addition to the 3 women from out of town, there are 5 girls from the orphanage who participate in the sewing class.

On Saturday, I needed to buy more sewing supplies.  I decided to make this a class field trip and took along the 3 newcomers so they could experience the city.  We went to El Mundo de las Telas (The World of Fabrics).  This store has 2 floors of every kind of fabric imaginable.  In the photo below, Presvytera Reina who, like me, is fascinated by textiles, is enjoying her surroundings.  Eulalia and Romelia were also dazzled by the great variety.

We still needed to purchase a few more items.  To add to the excitement of the day, I also took them to Walmart so they could experience a U.S. style mega-store.  My friends were completely overwhelmed by the vast accumulation of food, clothing, and household products.  The store was crowded with Saturday shoppers.  The Guatemalan Walmart is rather upscale, peopled by well-groomed employees and well-heeled customers.  In this photo, we are taking a break from the sensory overload.  After this, we all headed back to the orphanage for a nap.  One might think that it was cruel to expose these women to a lifestyle that is not accessible to them.  On the contrary, they realized the error of excess and appreciated their simple, less confusing lifestyle where shopping is handled on an individual and personal level.

Visit to Telpepan

 As mentioned in a previous post, Archbishop Athenagoras of Mexico arrived for his first visit to Guatemala on June 15.  He came to personally acquaint himself with the large group of faithful he had accepted into the Orthodox Church.  Along with my husband, Fr. John Chakos, Fr. Andres Giron, and several other clergy, the Archbishop traveled to many villages in the rural mountain regions of Guatemala.  In each village that they visited, they were greeted with great warmth and enthusiasm.  Below are some photos and an account of one of those visits, sent to me by Fr. John:
Today (6.23.12) we traveled to Telpepan and were greeted entusiastically by hundreds of faithful of the Ascension parish.  I photographed a historic moment in which Fr. Andres addresses Archbishop Athenagoras, presenting him with the church.  This was a very emotional moment that brought tears to the eyes of all who witnessed it.  The two embraced warmly and the people began singing songs of praise to God.  The joy we felt cannot be expressed in words.  We began dancing, singing, and clapping to the lively melodies of the Guatemalan Orthodox Church.  The people lingered long after the event finished to get a blessing, a photo, and a hug from all the clergy present. 


The people of Telpepan express their joy with singing and dancing.


Archbishop Athenagoras blesses his flock.

Fr. Andres presents his church to the Archbishop



Friday, June 22, 2012

Charity

As I packed my bags to travel to Guatemala in the month of June, I anticipated very warm weather.  Guatemala is in the northern hemisphere.  It´s summer there, I thought, no need to pack a jacket.  Well, it´s actually the rainy season.  On sunny days it is quite balmy, but when the rain clouds roll in, it gets COLD.  Ericka, the assistant director of the orphanage, noticed how I was shivering in my layers of mismatched summer blouses.  She rummaged through the bins of clothing donations and came up with a cozy fleece pullover and a sweatshirt for me.  How embarrassing was this?  I´m the one who shops all year and packs 20 - 24 suitcases of clothing, shoes, etc. to bring to the kids of the orphanage every December with our mission team.  I´m the one who gives the charity, not the one who receives it! 
 
Many years ago, as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Brazil, I taught sewing in a vocational school established by a bank with a humanitarian ethic.  If that sounds paradoxical, ponder this: their motto was, ¨You´re never too poor to give and never too rich to receive.¨  Say what?  On the surface, that might sound self-serving, but just the opposite is true.  The concept is that no one is so worthless that he has nothing to offer and no one is so well off that he cannot benefit, in some way, from being helped by another.  The Banco de Providencia in Brazil provided free vocational training to people in desperate poverty and offered them loans to set up businesses.  The loans could be repaid with goods and services or money, whichever was easier.  This system not only raised the living standards of the poor, but also gave them dignity.  The bank profited, too.  I was proud to be a part of this program.

Is someone never too poor to give?  One might ask about the demented nursing home residents, the severely disabled, or the hopeless derelict in the street.  What can these, the least of our society offer us?  They offer us the most priceless gift of all -- the road to our salvation.  Didn´t Christ, Himself, tell us that when we reach out to minister to the least of our brethren, we have actually touched HIM?  When the weak and needy stir our compassion and inspire our charity, we are actually the ones on the receiving end.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

More Arrivals and Departures

Arrivals can be fraught with surprises, as I have learned through personal experience.  My own arrival in Guatemala, for example, took an unexpected detour through El Salvador.  The next arrivals were a bit of a scheduling surprise to Mother Ivonne, the director of the orphanage.  The day after my arrival, we were pleased to welcome a wonderful team of 3 University of Indiana dental students, Neil Smith, Ewelina Ciula, and Evan Robbins, led by their teacher, Dr. Odette Aguirre-Zero.  Dr. Odette is a native Guatemalan who resides in Indiana and brings a team of students every year to treat the children of the orphanage.  This team was meticulous in their care of, not only the children, but all the staff and the nuns, as well.  I was so sorry to see them leave on Friday evening.

Friday saw a big event at the Guatemala City airport -- the arrival of Metropolitan Athenagoras of Mexico on his first visit here.  It was covered by all the local news media.  Met. Athenagoras is the heirarch who accepted Fr. Andres Giron and his many followers into the Orthodox Church.  Fr. John and Fr. Andres wisked him away to Nueva Concepcion where he is being treated like visiting royalty.  I, unfortunately, am not involved in any of the festivities because of the distance and my responsibilities here.  Tomorrow, Sunday, they will be ordaining more new priests at the monastery church by Lake Amatitlan.  I hope to receive some photos, which I will post.

I was originally told to expect 4 out-of-town students to arrive on Monday.  Three of them would be 18-year-old girls from the remote mountain village of Avocate.  These girls had never left home and had never seen a modern city.  The fourth would be a priest´s wife from Nueva Concepcion.  Yesterday (Friday) we suddenly received a call saying that they were arriving today and were already enroute.  The trip from Avocate takes 2 days by bus.  This sent Mother Ivonne into a tizzy because she needs to organize accommodations for all visitors while still maintaining order with the orphanage schedule.  It also surprised me because I have been working feverishly to get all my patterns and teaching materials ready for Monday.  Information has a way of getting skewed here.  We were given the name of the wrong bus station where the girls would arrive.  By the time Mother Ivonne tracked them down, the frightened girls had been cowering timidly in the station for 2 hours and were hungry, too.  The other surprise was that there were only 2 of them.  I was worried that the other 2 were lost somewhere.  We were not able to contact Fr. John until late this evening, only to be told that the other 2 women would probably not be coming.

My two new charges are petite, classic Mayan beauties with dark eyes and jet black hair.  They came dressed in their traditional floor-length black skirts, colorful blouses, and  black jackets.  The only luggage that each carried was a small plastic bag.  Their lack of  possessions was not a result of poverty, but a reflection of the world that they inhabit.  Avocate is lost, not only to geography, but also to time.  It is a place where life is simple and needs are few.  A body can wear only one set of clothes at a time.  Who needs more?  I hope we don´t corrupt these beautiful, innocent creatures.

The other surprise arrival came early this morning.  Up before dawn to work on my patterns, I heard a strange fluttering and flapping in the bathroom directly behind my work table.  Peering in, I discovered a bewildered bat which had likely flown through the window vent in pursuit of the mosquito which was in pursuit of my blood.  I flipped on the light and closed the door.  The bat would think it was daytime, find a place to hang, and be easy to catch.  I worked for a while and then decided it was time to act.  With the immortal words of Lewis Carroll´s Mad Hatter running through my mind, ¨"Twinkle, twinkle little bat, how I wonder where you´re at," and armed with a waste basket, I went in after my prey.  The bat, hanging off the edge of a shower shelf, had quicker reflexes than I did and refused to be caught.  My catch and release plan thwarted, I closed the bathroom door again.  My winged visitor eventually found his own way back out through the window vent.

Tomorrow is Sunday.  Who knows what surprises might arrive?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Departure and Arrival

I arrived safely in Guatemala on June 11, but getting here was a bit of a challenge.  My 6.15 am flight time necessitated leaving home at 4 am.  Sleep was not an option.  By the time I got to the airport and entered a long line of expectant passengers, I had been awake for 24 hours.  My palpitating heart and weary bones complained as I commanded them to wrestle with two heavy suitcases and a 43 pound sewing machine that I chose to take as a carry on bag.  Being a seasoned traveler, I had learned to keep my own possessions to a minimum.  That way, I could pack my bags to the 50 pound limit with gifts for the children of the orphanage and supplies for my sewing classes.

Having successfully negotiated another long line snaking through the security checkpoint, I eased myself into the airplane seat and fell into a deep and blissful sleep.  I discovered myself dozing again during my 3 and a half hour layover at the Miami airport, with my head thrown back and mouth agape.  My need for sleep overtook me on the second flight and I didn´t even notice the turbulence.  A heavy rainstorm over Guatemala City prevented the pilot from landing the plane and he diverted to El Salvador.  What a beautiful country!  From my limited perspective through the airplane window, I could see lush agricultural vegetation surrounded by neat rows of trees, a pristine sandy coastline, and rolling blue waves beyond that.  After 2 hours of sitting on the tarmac, the view put me to sleep. 

We finally arrived in Guatemala, where I was met by Ericka, the assistant director of Hogar Rafael Ayau, who wisked me off to the orphanage.  Having visited this place so often over the last 13 years, I have come to consider it a second home.  Surrounded by familiar smiles and warmed by the children´s embraces, I am made to realize that I am not a stranger in this foreign land.         

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Then and Now

A blast from the past - I had sent this around a while ago, but am posting it here to give you a chuckle:

Some things change and some things stay the same.  In the 60's, during our Peace Corps service, Fr. John taught in a University in the city of Rio de Janeiro.  I taught sewing and pattern drafting in two vocational schools.  Forty-six years later, in Guatemala, Fr. John will still be involved in higher education, but this time in a seminary, training future priests.  I will still be teaching sewing, but this time it will be the sewing of vestments and other ecclesiastical necessities.  

What has remained constant is our love for you and our gratitude for your love and support of us during these many years.  Without the prayers and nurture of our family and friends, we would be unable to accomplish anything in life.  We humbly ask that you continue to keep us in your thoughts and prayers so that we may meet the challenge that God has laid before us.  As long as God gives us strength, we will continue to answer His call to service.  

Hello Everyone!   I apologize that this blog will not be very high-tech nor fancy.  I hope that it will be informative and perhaps inspiring.  The first three entries, which can be accessed by clicking on the links at right, were written by my husband, Fr. John Chakos, about his travels to several remote village churches in the mountains of Guatemala.

I would like to give a little background on the amazing developments in the Guatemalan church.  Although Guatemala is a small country, only the size of the state of Ohio, it underwent a brutal 36-year civil war (1960 - 1996) where 200,000 people, the majority of them Mayan, were slaughtered by military forces.  The issue at hand was land reform.  Since the days of the conquistadores who came from Spain and subjugated the native Mayan people, most of the land in Guatemala was owned by a few wealthy families of European descent.  Fr. Andres Giron, a Catholic priest, empathized with the plight of the Mayan people and sought justice for them.  Using the non-violent demonstration methods he learned by studying Gandhi and Martin Luther King, he became a revolutionary, fighting for the rights of the people and for land reform.  This did not sit well with the Catholic church, which aligned itself with the wealthy class, nor with the dictatorship in power.  Three attempts were made on Fr. Andres' life.  Once, he was shot while serving a Mass, but survived.  Another time, his car was blown up, but he was not in it.  And in another attempt, his body guard was killed, but Fr. Andres escaped.  He became well known in all of Guatemala as a champion of the people and was eventually elected to the senate.  There, he achieved land reform and was able to give portions of land back to the people.  He established 44 agrarian villages and organized additional businesses and schools for the people.  
  
Fr. Andres left the Catholic church and formed his own independent church with himself at the head.  Through his studies, Fr. Andres discovered the Orthodox church and patterned his own church along those lines, calling it the Guatemalan Orthodox Church.  The church group prospered and grew to over 100,000 faithful. Fr. Andres is adored by all his followers.   Because of his failing health, Fr. Andres began to worry about leaving his flock without proper leadership.  He wanted to bring his people under the auspices of the official Orthodox Church and approached the Orthodox nuns who run the orphanage in Guatemala City.  They put Fr. Andres in touch with Fr. John and other church leaders.  Fr. John was in dialogue with Fr. Andres for at least 2 years before his church group was accepted into the Ecumenical Patriarchate by Metropolitan Athenagoras of Mexico.  So now, Fr. John is in Guatemala training all the new priests in Liturgics.  It will be a slow and gentle process to bring all these people to a full understanding of Orthodoxy.  It will probably take a few generations.  We are astounded by the tremendous piety of the people and their thirst for the faith.  They will travel for hours to attend a Liturgy and approach the chalice on their knees with tears in their eyes.  We might teach them a few things, but we have much to learn from them, too.   

My job in Guatemala will be to teach a group of women to sew cassocks and vestments for the priests, altar boy robes, chalice covers and other ecclesiastical needs.  Fr. John and I both feel so blessed to be a part of this historic growth in the church.  It is a daunting task.  With God's help and your prayerful support, it will be accomplished.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Mission Journey - Part Three


 Part Three-Missionary Journey to Huehuetenango, Ixcan and Mexico

   Accustomed to traveling on the super highways of the United States, I was not prepared for the amount of adventure provided by this third and final leg of our journey. There were no road signs, gas stations, convenience stores or sanitary facilities to be found. In a sense, we were traveling back in time to a simpler way of life, one that is all but lost in this day of high speed travel. I seriously doubt that this road we traveled on, and the little village we were heading to, could be found on a map. After leaving the good people of Mayaland on Sunday night, and an overnight stay in a hotel of a nearby town, we arose early the next morning to go to Los Angeles. Other than the famous name, there are no similarities between this town and the one in California.  No two places in the world could be further apart in terms of development. I was told that until a few years ago, the only way to enter the region of Ixcan was by plane or helicopter.  On this day, I understood why.  There was nothing but a  red dirt road, barely wide enough for one car, twisting its way through a dense green jungle.   Some sections had been burned to create pasture land. Other than foot travelers, we had the road to ourselves in our orange pick-up truck all the way to the Church of the Angels.  If my emphasis on the remoteness and obscurity of such places seems overdone, it is only to remind us that the Orthodox Church is not always about its great cathedrals.  It is also about the simple, faithful, and beautiful souls found in thousands of obscure villages throughout the world. Is this not the mission field to which Christ calls us?

    Once again, we were greeted with the traditional warmth and genuine kindness of the humble folk. A large banner of welcome, emblazoned with large blue letters, framed the entrance to the muddy path that led to the little Orthodox church on the hill.  Knowing that we had traveled a considerable distance, the congregants ushered us into the kitchen of a small block house with a dirt floor as its only carpet. A stack of hot tortillas and steamy fish soup containing generous pieces of freshly caught fish from the river, a real delicacy in these parts, was offered to the honored guests.

     At this point, mention must be made of the unique role of Fr. Andres Giron as founding father of this church movement. Because of his unwavering espousal of the rights of the indigenous people of Guatemala and his passionate demand for agrarian reform, both as a deputy in the government and as an outspoken cleric of the church, he leads with a moral authority earned with his blood and sweat. He has made the love of neighbor more than a teaching in the Bible.   It is the unique cause and purpose of his priestly ministry, defended at great risk to himself.
     To enter the church we had to climb a steep, uneven and muddy pathway. Assistance was offered to those of us who could not negotiate the short but slippery slope. As with the church in Mayaland, the humble structure of wooden slats, metal roof and dirt floor emanated the inviting scent of pine needles and wild flowers. In the corner next to the altar was the traditional marimba instrument with other accompanying pieces, a common fixture in Guatemalan churches, although uncommon, if not unheard of, in most Orthodox churches. This was not the time to make a value judgment on the culture of these people.  I was here to learn first and then advise.
We followed a similar format to that of the previous day, including 15 heartfelt confessions before the Liturgy in preparation for chrismations,  two infant baptisms, and a wedding.  Since our only phosphora had gotten wet on the trip, we had to use simple buns for the proskomidi and antidoron. There was no going to the freezer and nuking a frozen offering in the microwave as I had done in my parish ministry. At least we had something resembling a censor. It was a Mayan urn with a wire attached to it for swinging purposes. The experience of worship with these people, if clumsy at times, was also inspiring. They openly express their emotions and eagerly seek more than a vicarious experience in the Liturgy. Sometimes the intensity of their feeling is so great, especially in singing the hymns with which they are most familiar, that one has the sense that they are praying from the bottom of their souls. Religion in these parts is not a tepid footnote in an otherwise busy secular life. It forms the core of who they are and everything that they do. As I watched them lining up to deposit their meager offering in a basket before the altar, I realized that the little they gave from their poverty was far  greater in proportion to anything than most of us give from our riches.
          
       Although the long day was "far spent," to quote St. Luke, it was far from over for us. We departed in the late afternoon for Mexico, traveling into the night on a dirt road that would take us across the border.  There would be no border checkpoint nor stamping of passports for us. We simply got onto a paved road that straddled the border with Guatemala and  traveled for many hours up into the mountains to our next stop. Arriving at midnight at a small resort near many picturesque lakes, we were warmly greeted, amply fed and escorted to our sleeping quarters by our generous hosts. They were part of the local Orthodox community, one of the fifty scattered throughout southern Mexico and ministered to by the clergy of the Guatemalan Orthodox Church. The church growth in this area was a by-product of the Guatemalan civil war, as many Guatemalan refugees fled their country to begin a new life in Mexico. Although no longer residing in their country of origin, their proximity to the border and close family ties make them an integral part of this undivided church movement.
  
    One last incident in Mexico, prior to our 10 hour return trip to Nueva Concepción, tells the sad story of life for so many people in this region of the world.  They are so close, and yet so far away, from the benefits of the modern world. After awakening to the glory of the bright Mexican sun and a hearty breakfast, we were informed by our host that a 50 year-old woman, who lived a few houses away, was suffering from hepatitis. Without any hesitation, Fr. Andres and the rest of our party followed the lead of our host to this humble abode. Upon arriving, we were greeted by the cries and tears of all the family members who were sensing that the end was near for Angela. The distraught daughter explained to us that they had taken her mother to a hospital but the doctor, seeing that her condition was hopeless, sent her home to die. This is the common fate of most people who are gravely ill in the places where we traveled. Not being able to afford proper medical care, their death is the inevitable outcome. We began to pray for her and, within moments of our arrival, her jaundiced body let out one last heave of blood from the mouth and she died. The extended family, in a powerful wave of emotion that pulsated throughout the house, began to mourn her loss. The appropriate memorial prayers were read and condolences were extended to the family.  Fr. Evangelos would bury her the next morning exactly 24 hours from the time of her death.  Such is the way of life for so many.  Treatment for illnesses and medicines that can extend life are beyond their means.
      

     With this final story as a sad reminder to me of the many challenges that the Orthodox Church faces in Guatemala and Southern Mexico, I can only hope that those of us who have the means to help will step forward and offer a tangible expression of love to these noble and long-suffering people. Truly, this is a mission field, living in the shadows of the United States, that cries out for our support. In the name of Christ, many of our brothers and sisters await our loving response.  

Mission Journey - Part Two


Part Two- Missionary Journey to Huehuetenango, Ixcan and México
Having completed the first phase of our journey with the catechists, we departed for Ixcan on Saturday afternoon, May 26, stopping on the way, at the vibrant Orthodox community of Avocate for an overnight stay. As we entered the large church building dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, an animated prayer vigil was in progress as a preparation for the day of Pentecost. It was filled to capacity. Women and girls with long white head coverings sat to the right and the men and boys to the left. The vigil, unlike those that we are familiar with in the Orthodox Church, consisted of fervent prayer, preaching from the catechists, and spirited singing accompanied by a loud band, which is a regular fixture in many Guatemalan churches. The lack of silence was deafening, so much so that I asked myself how this would fly in the more traditional world of Orthodoxy. I sensed a real clash of cultures to come once our quieter, more sober spirituality became better known to the locals. The vigil lasted until 1 a.m., hence we slept very little as our sleeping quarters were attached to the sanctuary.
   
After an early morning coffee and piece of cake, we began our seven-hour trek, slowly  winding our way through a breathtakingly beautiful  mountainous region along the border with Mexico. The magnificent vistas of cloud-covered mountain peaks were out of a post card, but the narrow and unpaved bumpy roads were from hell.  Descending from the cooler mountain heights, the road gradually leveled off into the steamier air of the tropical region of Ixcan. This area had once been one of the battlegrounds of the brutal Guatemalan civil war which ended in 1996. Fr. Andres, himself once part of the guerilla movement, spoke to us of the heroic work of Willie Woods, a Maryknoll priest who gave his life for the rights of the indigenous people. The humble church that we were soon to enter has his framed picture prominently displayed near the altar.   As we approached the church of San Jose in Mayaland, we were surrounded by many parishioners reaching through the truck windows to shake our hands. The visit of Fr. Andres is always a memorable occasion for the many parishes he shepherds. In front of us were more people, shooting off fire crackers, carrying banners of welcome, and festooning us with the beautiful flowers of the jungle, this being the greater part of what they could give.
      
      After a journey of seven hours, I stepped out of a cool vehicle into a fiery furnace of a church structure. I turned down a bottle of water at my own peril, not wanting to break the fast. What I saw was both touching and humbling, a beautiful scene of poverty mingled with love. The church had a red dirt floor, but it was strewn with fragrant pine needles. The walls were made of wooden slats, slightly spaced apart from each other for better circulation of air. The rusty metal sheets of the roof shielded us from the hot sun, but gave us little light. From the cross beams overhead hung blue streamers, the only real ornamentation in the church. The altar was raised a couple of feet above ground level, but it too was made of earth.
            

     To do a Liturgy in such a setting is always a challenge. There was no prothesis or place to prepare the Eucharistic bread. We scrambled to come up with a makeshift censor, which ultimately was a little metal pot from one of the nearby homes. The Holy Altar was not conveniently arranged for the three priests to celebrate facing east, so we had to move it, even though the parishioners would mainly see our backs.We had no way to heat the zeon or water in preparation for Holy Communion. Even the distribution of The Holy Eucharist would prove to be a novelty, since the parishioners had only recently been chrismated. I laughed to myself when the priest explained that there was nothing to fear from the chalice and spoon, because as it was, they shared everything else without any thought of contamination. Since the parishioners themselves were not familiar with the Liturgy, we also had to be the choir, the chanter and altar boy. In addition to all this Fr. Evangelos who served the parish, informed me that we would have 16 adult chrismations, all of whom needed to confess before the Liturgy began, plus an adult baptism at the end of the Liturgy.  This is something he had never done before, according to the Orthodox ritual. Also, after the Gospel reading and sermon, the sick were invited to come forward and pray with Fr. Andres, which at first seemed strange to me, until I remembered that none of these people had access to hospitals and doctors. The heavy emotions, gut-wrenching prayers and copious tears that flowed were something that I had never seen before in the context of the Liturgy. As the service came to an end, the heat became unbearable. Our vestments were soaked through and through. Fr. Andres, wearing heavier vestments than mine, had to leave before the baptism as he was feeling faint. The few hours of sleep, the long journey through the mountains,  and the afternoon heat had taken their toll. Despite all of this, the faithful villagers remained seated on their plain wooden benches for hours, having no other place that they would rather be than this humble house of God. Finally, after many photos with each of the newly illuminated Orthodox Christians and their godparents, we left the church at 4 in the afternoon on what proved to be a memorable day for me. I was finally able to take that drink of water with a much greater appreciation of the many sacrifices the priests and their far-flung flocks have to make to keep the light of Christ burning in this beautiful land of the Mayas.