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.