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


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.

Mission Journey - Part One

Mission Journey to Huehuetenago, Ixcan and Mexico  (May 25-29)
On May 25, 2012, we left  Nueva Concepción at 4 a.m., to begin a long missionary journey.   Our first stop was the Centro Apostólico of the Guatemalan Orthodox Church in Huehuetenago. We exchanged the tropical heat of the Pacific Coast for the cooler  climes of this forested mountain region closer to the border with Mexico. Arriving around 10:30 a.m., we were greeted by the many catechists who traveled from great distances to be a part of these bi-monthly catechetical sessions, the most recent one having taken place at the end of March. This meeting had, as its primary purpose, the teaching of church history up to and including the seven Ecumenical Councils. Shortly after we began, however, a troubling diversion was presented to us by Fr. Evangelos, a Guatemalan priest charged with the oversight of this far-flung region of 80 Orthodox villages. With great emotion, he informed us that written on one of the bathroom walls of the center  was the following inscription: "Movimiento carismático si, la iglesia Ortodoxa no" (Charismatic Movement yes, the Orthodox Christian Church no). This led to a heated tirade by Fr. Evangelos, the coordinator of the gathering, who reiterated the point that the Charismatic Movement is not a church but a movement, whereas Orthodox Christianity is the original Church of Christ. From the ensuing discussions it was easy to see that this struggle between  the  charismatic and institutional elements of the christian experience was in a sense the underlying theme running through, not only our seminar, but a fast-growing church that was trying to establish an Orthodox identity based on Holy Tradition. Fr. Andres even called the inscription on the bathroom wall prophetic, seeing in it the hand of God determining the course of our morning discussion.
    During the lunch break, I had a chance to interact with many of the catechists, who are a class of dedicated people unto themselves. The Guatemalan Orthodox Church has about 500 of these lay preachers and teachers, who are the real backbone of this church. When there is no priest present, which is most often the case, these men and a few women, well-versed in Scripture, are the appointed leaders of both the worship and religious education in their communities.  The role of the Thetokos in the Orthodox Church became the topic of conversation while I spent some time with the clergy. I explained to the priests that a church without the Theotokos cannot call itself Orthodox. It is through her intercessions that we can approach her Son with boldness, or as we say in the prayer of preparation before the Liturgy, "Open unto us the door of your compassion, O blessed Theotokos. As we set our hope on you, may we not be confounded; through you may we be delivered from all adversities, for you are the salvation of the Christian people" (Kairon service).
  Having made these few points about the Theotokos, I excused myself for a little rest.  Later, as I  gingerly made my way down the steep hill toward the large meeting hall, I could hear, in the distance, the incredibly loud and passionate voice of Fr. Andres.  He was hammering home the points of our earlier discussion about the Theotokos to all the catechists. The other issue that dominated our seminar that afternoon was the role of the priesthood in the worship of the church.   The priest is an extension of the priestly ministry of Christ, so beautifully described in the Book of Hebrews. Here again, the sects take issue with the traditional church, eschewing the role of the priest. Fr. Andres, drawing on a personal experience, drove home his point about the blatant refusal of such misinformed people to see, in the person of the priest, the image of Christ. In one of his visits to a parish, he was addressed as "hermano pastor" (brother pastor), which for him was a great insult. As far as he was concerned, the only pastor, or shepherd, in the church is Christ ("The Lord is my Shepherd"). As we attempted to return to our original theme, a torrential rainstorm violently battered the metal roof of the meeting hall, drowning any hope we had of listening to the speakers. Provisions were made to serve dinner indoors, as the muddied ground restricted our movements to and from the kitchen area. Unable to continue any further, we made arrangements for bedding down for the night. The catechists, who carried their sleeping bags with them from great distances, would sleep on the cement floor as this was the only covered area for most. Visiting a bathroom required walking out into the rainy night to another building and waiting your turn to use one of only two toilets and a sink in a small brick building. Difficult, if not impossible, though such inconveniences would be for most Americans, the Guatemalans themselves live in much more primitive surroundings. Having access to a toilet in the villages from which they came would be a luxury.
   The rain having stopped on the next day, Saturday, May 26, we continued the seminar beginning at 8 a.m. after an early breakfast.  Fr. Evangelos and the women who slapped and shaped a steady flow of hot tortillas were a model of efficiency in serving a typical breakfast of rice, beans, eggs, and a hot drink made from a mixture of rice and milk. Two of the younger women servers had nursing infants bound to their backs, but were in no way slowed in their culinary service to over a hundred catechists and five priests. Another controversial moment arose when Fr. Andres was questioned about a group calling itself Orthodox, while being led by a self-ordained bishop of questionable character. Fr. Andres vehemently pointed out that any such competing groups claiming to be Orthodox, but not having apostolic succession, were to be avoided at all costs, no matter how great their numbers and widespread their presence. It should be noted that heated competition in the many villages throughout Guatemala and even among those claiming affiliation to the early church of the apostles is not uncommon. Thus, it becomes increasingly important to establish a truly Orthodox identity that stands out both in terms of loving service and authentic worship amidst all this chaos.
  On May 29, we concluded the seminar with a late morning liturgy, which for many of the catechists was a novel experience.  Many had never received Holy Communion from a spoon because they were new converts. This service was to be a prelude to the day of Pentecost, observed on the Western calendar on the next day. As the Liturgy proceeded, I stopped at various points to explain the significance of what was happening. The catechists eagerly took to the teaching and with great zeal and faith approached the altar. Even after receiving, they remained kneeling before the makeshift altar to pray, singing the hymns that they knew with great fervor. There was no suppressing their fervor. I watched in awe, amazed by the way these people worshipped Christ and adored His holy mother. The difficulty in reaching out to these people is not their lack of faith, but our lack of support for that which they most desire - a living relationship with Christ, firmly rooted in the ground of the Orthodox Christian faith. 
                                  In photo:  Fr. John and Fr. Andres Giron with Catechists