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.