Wednesday, August 29, 2012


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

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


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

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