In the most obscure and sordid place,
in the most hostile and harshest,
in the most corrupt and nauseating places,
there You do Your work.
That is why Your Son descended into hell,
in order to transform what IS NOT
and to purify that which IS BECOMING.
This is hope!
I remember a church where, several years ago, I observed Palm Sunday mass. It was old, cavernous, and crowded. Pressed against the back pillar by the door, I realized had never stood so far away from a celebrant leading worship. Incense from the altar, short, thin candles lit and placed by small and elderly women kneeling in the aisle, and woodsmoke from Mayan sacrifices on the church’s front steps all swirled around me. I was stunned into wondering what it was that I was seeking from this service, or from the small mountain town called Chichicastenango, or, most of all, from God. At that moment I wished I knew!
What kind of minister was I preparing to be if I could give no reason for my presence on that very expensive and disruptive journey to Guatemala? My preparation for the trip had been admittedly haphazard: the night before my flight, I spent half an hour turning over the 500 square feet of my wife’s and my studio apartment, searching desperately for my Passport. I woke up at four in the morning to finish a paper for a class I would miss while abroad. And the whole flight to Miami International Airport I was certain I’d forgotten to pack extra socks. (The one good thing I will grant the stress of travel is that it maybe unsettles you enough to apprehend something new about God and creation.)
Finally I landed in Guatemala City safely and faced my first lesson: I was in a country that did not speak English, and I did not speak Spanish. How would I even make it through customs! The agent at the Travelex counter lost no time welcoming me when she said, “Good afternoon, sir. How may I help you today? Would you like to exchange … ” So I smiled apologetically and pocketed my Quetzales. I was so embarrassed at my apparent ignorance of another country’s language (and a stranger’s relative mastery of mine).
I had found myself in a place where whistling was a common means of communication, woodsmoke filled the air, and beautifully finished hotels stood next to weathered and gutted storefronts, crammed together on empty streets. Each day I saw wealth among a few lucky landholders and poverty among so many hardworking people scratching out some food from the earth, climbing up hilltops and down to streams, squatting on vacant land in temporary mountainside villages.
One thing that united everyone was their Christian faith. I could not sleep at night because of the loudness of the Holy Week parades, punctuated by the collective howling of roosters well before daybreak. And I could not brush my teeth with tap water in the mornings because it was not potable. In a nation of so many devout Christians, how can God allow the masses to be told by the powers that be that they are not children of God, that they do not deserve to be treated with kindness, that they are not subhuman? How can a place full of faith tolerate so many crimes against humanity?
What was God leading me to discover? After the Palm Sunday mass, I set out to see the rest of town. The market was a flood of colors, woven tapestries, and hand-carved and hand-painted figures. An ocean of faces paid greetings of “Hola” and “Amigo,” often with a view of selling passersby their handiwork. People tending wood fires and tabletop fryers situated themselves among stands of melons and mangoes and freshly slaughtered farm animals. Turkeys, chickens, and roosters by the truckload exchanged hands and were carried over their new owners’ shoulders, resigned and docile, through the crowded streets and into waiting vans leaving for smaller villages nearby.
Do you know much honey is sold in Chichicastenango? Enough to fill a thousand discarded Coke, Johnny Walker Red, and Heinz Ketchup bottles, each salvaged and repurposed to sustain the lives of beekeepers. The bees were jealous of their hard-made honey’s new owners, and as they swarmed about pointlessly, I sat at a table nearby to eat a bowl of vegetable soup, boiled and blended from plants harvested the day before from a field only half-a-day’s drive away. I fell in love with my surroundings and unintentionally butchered this sentiment to my guide: “
Me llamo Guatemala.”
The next morning my group drove to Santiago Atitlan, a city built between two volcanoes around Lake Atitlan. The area boasts the largest concentration of indigenous Mayans in Guatemala, and behind the altar of its church lies buried the heart of Fr. Stan Rother, a Franciscan priest from Oklahoma who, just before dawn on July 28, 1981, was found inside the church grounds, shot to death by military-issued bullets.
The year before his death, Stan received threats and was transported by his Diocese home to Oklahoma for his safety. He appealed to be returned to his flock in Santiago Atitlan, that not only would he be able to continue the community’s agricultural development projects, but also that he would be able to stand next to his congregants as they weathered a decades-long civil war between the government and guerrilla rebels.
In the room of his martyrdom my travel group read aloud the letters he wrote to his family about the struggle he faced with leaving his charge. His judgment was questioned by his loved ones and colleagues, and he wrestled with the pain he would put his family through, as he contemplated the moral imperative to show his parish that they were worthy of complete and total love, love not only from God, but also from the Church, of which he was representative.
To hear about Fr. Stan, I knew immediately, was why I was there, in that town, and why I was in Guatemala at all. In that room I was pulled out of myself, from wandering in my own ideas about religion and the world. Confronted with Stan’s life and death, I examined my own hopes for ministry and felt, not just embarrassment, but shame.
I had come on the trip looking for Guatemalan liturgical stoles and a jade necklace for my wife. I was disgusted at myself, that I had cheapened my calling, my life, to something that failed to mirror the love of neighbor that Christ exemplified and that Stan pursued—even unto death.
Fr. Stan’s church sold the most beautiful stoles I had seen on the trip (modeled after ones worn by Stan, given to him as gifts from a parishioner). I could not bring myself to stand in the store with the rest of my group; I had to wait outside until they were ready to leave. And as I looked out from the portico to the lake and the volcano across it, as I stood under the dark gray cloudy sky, the wind blew harsh and proud across my face. In that moment I felt connected to God, for hearing about Stan’s sacrifice out of love—as if his story were a kind of icon of the divine.
That night I wrote in my journal: “I want to be a pastor, ever-concerned for and identifying with the ‘least of these’ in my community, so that I would know myself as a shepherd who cannot run from his flock at the first sign of danger.” The week following, I finally understood that for the preceding years I had sat in seminary classes considering what I believe, what I think is reasonable, and what I could justify doing with my life—holding these ideas in my mind, keeping them at a distance, rather than grapple daily with the revelation of Christ within them.
But Stan’s story (and more perfectly, the example of Christ) prompts me to seek what kind of life I want to lead, what kind of witness to the love of Christ I want to share, what kind of outlook of God and creation I want to hold. Will I be selfish, scared, and petty, or will I be caring, courageous, and hopeful?
Because there is work to be done – the hard work of delving into life’s problematic areas and bringing about goodness in them. We have the capacity to do the literal work of Christ—healing the sick, raising the orphan, comforting the widow. If we hope to be the Church, we must follow the work of Christ, just as the body necessarily follows the head as it emerges out of a dark room and into the daylight.
May we all enter into the light, with Christ as our Shepherd and Guide. Amen.