Guatemala Reflection #3 – “We Are Your Neighbors”

GUATEMALA REFLECTION #3: We Are Your Neighbors

A few years ago, as I was in the midst of my final year at St. Tikhon’s Seminary, I remember Metropolitan Jonah (the OCA Archbishop of Washington, Metropolitan of All America and Canada) made a surprise visit to our choir practice. He unassumingly entered the room, our backs turned to him and towards the choir director. We would not have known he was there, except the choir director turned our attention to, well, the guy that kind of is the national head of our Church, who was standing behind us.
“No, please, continue,” he insisted, “I enjoy watching orthorobics!” (He was referring to the stretches and voice warm-ups we did at the beginning of practice, which can look comical to the passerby.)

After a very brief practice, he spoke to us. I remember he looked around the room, at the faces of all these guys, some of which, like me, were in their last year. There’s always anxiety the last year of seminary. As much as you say the right things, and sometimes, really mean them, things like, “well, I’m not worried about where I go, I’m just trusting in God’s will,” or “Glory to God in all things!” (the common Orthodox phrase, which is traditionally ascribed to 4th century Saint John Chrysostom. Tradition tells us that he said this as he was being led into exile, where he would eventually die), the reality is, most of us were worried about what comes next. The Metropolitan sensed this, and decided to tell us some very interesting news. I remember so clearly, he got a smile on his face and said, “How many of you guys want to learn Spanish?” He continued, telling us that in Central America, the Orthodox Church was about to experience a massive explosion of converts, in the ballpark of 500,000! “I’m not talking about individuals here and there, but whole communities,” he explained, “the need is great and is about to become a lot greater.”

Fast forward to August of 2011. I’m enjoying our post-liturgy festal meal at the Hogar in Guatemala. A gentleman named Andrew asked if he could speak with me. I poured another cup of coffee and invited him to sit down with us at our table. Andrew had a fascinating story, born in Palestine, traveled much with his work and was relocated to El Salvador. It was in El Salvador that he and a group of people who desired to be Orthodox Christians began meeting in homes, doing reader services, and occasionally being visited by a priest, who made his rounds, as he was able, to many communities in the area. Andrew’s last name is Greek. Someone in the group noticed this and asked, “That’s a Greek name, are you in the Greek Archdiocese?” Andrew responded by humbly but firmly shaking his head. Upon hearing that he was born in Palestine, the question of whether he was in the Antiochian Archdiocese was asked. He shook his head again, this time speaking, with tears welling up in his eyes, “We are Orthodox, brothers, just Orthodox.”

The situation in the Central American Church is complicated. A Google search for “Orthodox Church Central America” yields websites for the Ecumenical Patriarch (based in Constantinople), Antiochian, Serbian, and Greek Archdioceses, all of which claim some number of parishes in the area. Also on the first page of results is an interview with Metropolitan Jonah, explaining that there are communities that wish to join the OCA Mexico Exarchate. No doubt behind Andrew’s words and tears lies some frustration with the administrative situation in Central America. These people just want to be in the Church, they just want to have the sacraments, they just want a bishop, and a priest, why is this so difficult?

Its easy to fall into frustration and blame the hierarchy of the Church. But blaming breeds inaction. Not that the current dysfunction between jurisdictions, which shows itself clearly in a situation like that in Central America, isn’t part of the problem, it most certainly is. But blaming the “powers that be” provides a convenient excuse for lack of action at the non-bishop clergy and lay level. Andrew certainly was not blaming anyone. Andrew was certain in his faith that God had blessed his community and the communities around him. He didn’t ask for political action from me. He didn’t ask for money. He didn’t ask for me, an American, to try to “pull some strings” (which is good, because I’m just a newbie priest in Indiana, not all that influential, if you know what I mean). No, he wasn’t interested in bashing Church politics, he simply asked for prayer.
“Father, just pray for us, remember us at the Liturgy, and ask your brother priests, and the people in the Church in the US to remember us in their prayers,” he urged, “we are your neighbors, Father, pray for us, that God will raise up shepherds for the people here in Central America.” I sat stunned, humbled, feeling very unworthy of being in the presence of such a man of faith as Andrew explained that it would be prayer that would bring this to fruition. Prayer.

So, even as I admit my own inadequacy and pathetic infrequency in prayer, I ask you, who are reading this, to pray. Please pray for our neighbors in Central America. I have asked Andrew and his community to pray for us as well, in the United States. Sadly, I’m afraid that all too often what we have in this country: ease of worshipping Our Lord freely and locally with the fullness of sacramental life, not to mention the ease of life we experience in the States compared to nations being torn apart by an increased presence of drug cartels and corrupt governments, along with widespread poverty and malnutrition, all that we have in the US is eclipsed by our lack of hunger for righteousness, our lack of faith. Forgive me, I should speak only for myself, my lack of hunger for righteousness, my lack of faith. I was asked if I worried about my daughter possibly wanting to be a missionary someday because of the experiences she is gaining on short term missions work. Am I worried about my daughter or son wanting to go to a mission field in a politically unstable or dangerous environment? I am honestly more worried about my children being seduced by the lie that is the opiate of American consumerism and material boredom than I am of them wanting someday to do missions work in a war zone. Because the latter only holds the danger of physical harm or death, while the former holds the danger of spiritual harm or death, which is eternal.

I remain in contact with Andrew and his community in El Salvador. I will try to post some of the encouraging words that he has sent our way. I told my wife the other day, “its amazing where God takes you in your life.” The meeting and correspondence with Andrew and the people in Guatemala teem with the sense of the Holy Spirit bursting out at the seams of a community. There is a Holy zeal and faith that reads like a letter from St. Paul. Andrew told me that reading the scriptures in their communities is like reading a personal letter of instruction to them. May we remember that these letters are for us as well, all of us who call ourselves followers of Christ! As we pray for our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, may we be infected by some of that fire that drives them to meet together, even in uncertainty, even in great struggle.

And by the way, learn Spanish. I think I will. You never know when you’re going to need it.

For more info on the community that mi amigo Andrew is involved with check out: http://iglesiaortodoxaelsalvador.org/ Don’t worry, your browser should be able to translate it into English, in case you haven’t learned Spanish yet 🙂

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