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.